Dave Sadler, Chris Smalling, George Elokobi… Maidstone United has been home to some top talent over the years, some at the tail of their careers, some who’s journeys were just getting started.
In 2007, Chris Smalling pulled on a Maidstone shirt to make his senior debut at 17, not knowing that he was on a path taking him right to the very top of English football.
Since then, Smalling has won over 30 caps for England and lifted the Premier League trophy twice, representing one of the most prestigious clubs in the world: Manchester United. He’s also taken his career abroad too, playing under Jose Mourinho at Roma.
On 30th April 2022, former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cameroon defender George Elokobi played his last ever game at the Gallagher Stadium. He did it after captaining his side back into the top flight of non-league football, winning the National League South.
Elokobi was a firm fan-favourite during his tenure at the Stones, but now he has turned his hand to management.
Elokobi took over a club that was up to its neck in relegation quicksand, and therefore has had one eye on next season already, giving some younger players game time.
“He (Elokobi) is an idol to me,” explains 17-year-old Nathan Jeche, the latest breakout talent from their youth academy.
“Regardless of what position he played, to come from non-league to the best league in the world in the Premier League, it just proves that there is a pathway and that you can do it.”
George Elokobi handed Nathan Jeche his senior debut at such a tender age against Halifax Town, after he has impressed at U18, U23 and Academy level for the Stones.
“I feel over the moon (to break into the first team),” Jeche smiled, “I can’t put into words or express how I’m feeling, I just want to thank everyone really.
“Of course (being subbed on) is a nervous part of the game.
“I think the moment you step on that pitch though, it’s just like any other game. You block out the noise and soak up all the fans afterwards,
“He (Elokobi) told me before the game that I was making my debut,
“He just said to me, ‘Be ready, I want you to settle your nerves now.’ I won’t forget that.
“From then I was just waiting for the minutes to tick down.”
Jeche’s performance earned him another cameo appearance against Notts County, where the Stones scored two goals in as many minutes after the youngster’s introduction changed the game.
“George just told me to run in behind (against Notts County), rat around, cause havoc, and I think I did that,
“He told me that they wouldn’t be able to handle me.”
Nathan Jeche also starred on BT Sport after making his third appearance in a row against Chesterfield on the final day of the season.
Jeche spoke about training, and the importance to staying grounded, stating: “He (Elokobi) is on me a lot. He’s always making sure I’m running and working the hardest,
“I need that as a player, because without it I can be lazy sometimes,
“But he does it in a nice way and it pushes me further,
“He told me to be undeniable. He said that to me and it’s always stuck.
“Don’t let people have a second opinion or overthink about you playing. You want them to think: ‘He’s playing well, he’s working hard, we have to play him.’”
Last year, the Gallagher Stadium was the centrepiece behind a poetic season for Maidstone, and it was a special place that never failed to inspire – creating lifelong memories and proving that dreams can come true.
This season, the Gallagher Stadium has been home to a club that has been caught in the jaws of relegation.
Jeche is one shining light during this miserable season for the Stones, and George Elokobi might’ve unearthed a very valuable gem to spearhead his rebuild next season.
After stellar performances that include single-handedly knocking Edgeware and Kingsbury out of the FA Youth Cup with a sensational hat-trick, Jeche was a weapon in Elokobi’s artillery that couldn’t be overlooked.
Despite the uncertainty and performance of the club, Jeche remains confident that he will fight for his place in the National League South and reignite memories of last year: “The plan is obviously to stay here (at Maidstone United). I love this club and I’ve been here for pretty much all my life.
“Of course, if anything else comes up, I owe it to myself to look at it, but with George and Craig, this is the best place for my development, I try to soak everything up from them like a sponge.”