the real fa cup

A Healthy Day Out

Your opinion on the current health of English football depends entirely on who you are.

Those of you whose name is Richard Scudamore, for instance, are probably seeing a rosy-cheeked patient that is just about ready to go home after many years of successful convalescence under the benevolent and selfless stewardship of you and your (coincidentally) extremely rich friends. But to some of us, it looks like the patient is struggling. If you look at the most prominent features, everything seems to be working just fine. But get your stethoscope out, pin up that X-ray and there are some serious health issues that need some attention. Luckily, there is a highly qualified practitioner on hand to administer an annual dose of medicine which is very effective.

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The crowds flood in

Tortuous metaphor aside, there can be no doubting the hugely positive influence that Non League Day is having on the grass roots of The Nations’ Favourite Sport. This year, it has been bigger than ever as media coverage and awareness of the event has grown to incorporate mentions on the BBC, TalkSport and even the paymasters themselves over at Sky.

This year, I found the decision of which game to attend relatively easy once I’d seen that my local side, Dulwich Hamlet, were away at Maidstone United, a club which has been through some tough times but for whom things are most certainly looking up now that they have returned home to play in the town which bears their name.

The original Maidstone United was forced to resign from the Football League on the eve of the first season of the Premier League, having had financial problems for some years. A new club was formed a year later and began it’s journey up the pyramid, playing on the old club’s training pitch next to the old ground in London Road. When the club was promoted in 2001, they were forced to ground share with other clubs in order to comply with the ground regulations of the Kent League and they spent the next 11 years sharing with, at various times, Sittingbourne and Ashford Town before finally being granted planning permission to build a new stadium in the town in 2004. However, many years passed and many obstacles were overcome before the Gallagher Stadium was built, opening in July.

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The Main stand is full

As a result of the years of problems with the building of the stadium, the club have hung around long enough, however, to be allowed to install a 3G artificial pitch which everyone seems very pleased with. As well as allowing the club to hire out the pitch, bringing in vital funds, it will also mean fewer match postponements, one fan telling me that the only reason that the weather can prevent a game would be fog.

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Home and away fans mingle behind the goal

It’s clear that the locals are very happy with the place. As I wandered around the town centre before the game, I popped in to a few local bookies to see if they’d offer me a price on the game. None did but they all said that they would be offering betting on Maidstone games soon and that I was going to like the stadium as it was exceptional. They were right. But it was also very, very busy.

Not since the Ryman playoffs last season have I seen a queue like it at a game at this level. It stretched from the two turnstiles, across the car park, round the corner and back up the road towards the town. Within minutes, however, I was inside and rarely has a sight such as this confronted me in the Ryman South. Hoards of people, sipping beer in the sun at the near end, a main stand which had apparently sold out ages ago and was full to bursting and plenty of fans all around the other sides of the ground. As it turned out, this stadium, which it’s claimed has a capacity of 2226, was to receive no fewer than 1989 paying customers for a league game against Dulwich Hamlet. The queues outside caused the kickoff to be delayed by 10 minutes. There was much excitement and anticipation.

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Children craning their necks to get a view

Not least from the Hamlet faithful. Having bumped into a few well-known Champion Hill regulars and paid The Real FA Cup’s money for the season’s sponsorship of Ellis Green, it was clear that the buzz around pint-sized wonder Erhun Öztümer was still very much in effect. With Frankie Sawyer on his way back from injury within weeks, those in pink and blue were optimistic for a decent result. I had to agree with them. Öztümer has looked a cut above everyone he has faced this season so far and surely this pitch would help their slick passing game?

The teams emerged. No Erhun. Sad face.

Within 8 minutes of the kickoff, the misery had trebled. Two early goals for the home side after defensive mistakes had the bulk of the crowd in raptures. The atmosphere was genuinely noisy and boisterous and I even overheard a boy near me ask his father “Are we gonna win 5-0, like England?”. Of course not. Kids eh!

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Good save

During half time, the weather tried to dampen the locals’ spirits – maybe it was trying, in vain, to ruin the new pitch – it failed. On both counts. I stayed in the bar for a minute or two beyond the kick off of the 2nd half. By the time I emerged into the rain, it was 4-0. Game over. 41 minutes to go. Maidstone were rampant. Mid way through the 2nd half, they added a 5th goal and the jubilant home fans were chanting “Easy, easy”. It really was. Dulwich huffed and puffed but in truth, were never in the game. They had their chances, particularly in the first half when Kadi had a penalty saved, but it was never going to happen.

We never saw Erhun either. On a pitch which surely would have suited the little man’s style down to the ground, Gavin Rose chose to leave him on the bench for the entire game. After the game, it became clear that Rose had given fans further cause for concern when they discovered that popular midfielder Dean Carpenter had been released from the club after a tweet earlier in the week in which he openly criticised assistant manager Junior Kadi for playing himself ahead of Carpenter during the week at Corinthian Casuals.

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So Maidstone took the 3 points but they went home with a lot more than that. They entertained nearly 2000 people, they will have earned a few quid from ticket, beer and burger sales and they gave us cynics in the operating theatre some hope.

Thanks to efforts like Non League Day, the patient is getting better.

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