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Maidstone United’s historic FA Cup run: “I believed in each and every one of them.”

Photo credits to Helen Cooper, @acerhelen on Instagram!


Gritty, resilient, inspirational. Not fazed when faced with adversity. Maidstone United emerged as the latest FA Cup underdog tale this year, with their run encapsulating not just the narrative of the club, but the individual stories woven within.


Bill Williams celebrated his 81st birthday last year. He played for QPR, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth, but he has seen it all at Maidstone United.

 

He has been a player, chairman, chief executive, general manager and now director of football at the Stones.

 

He has played against Brian Clough, George Best and Jimmy Greaves, with his managerial career taking him abroad to South Africa and America. He managed the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League – which had Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer playing in at the time.

 

A well-travelled encyclopaedia of football – Bill Williams experienced it all – but his heart always led him back to the Stones.

 

Knocking out high-flying League Two, League 1 and Championship outfits contributed to Kent sides most historic cup campaign in their history, but it seemed small feat to Bill Williams and a lot of the 4,800 who travelled to the CBA Arena on that Monday night, as they have seen their club overcome overwhelming odds before.


4,800 fans travelled to the CBA Arena (Coventry) on Monday 26th February. All photo credits to Helen Cooper, @acerhelen on Instagram!

Maidstone United fell short to Coventry on Monday 26th February in the fifth round, but it was a run to be immensely proud of.

 

In 1992, the old Maidstone United, then in Division 4 (equivalent to League 2) went into liquidation due to financial problems and resigned from the football league.

 

Reforming as Maidstone Invicta, and reclaiming the ‘United’ to their name in 1995, it was a long road back from tier 10, and it was only in 2012 when Maidstone properly came home – having stayed in multiple stadiums outside of the town centre in the meantime. Four years after that, in 2016, they returned to the top-tier of non-league.

 

Even last season, the Stones suffered relegation to the National League South, winless in their last 25 fixtures of the season prior. Enter George Elokobi, who, in his first managerial role, had a monumental challenge on his hands to rejuvenate Maidstone’s prospects at the Gallagher Stadium.

 

A National League South play-off semi-final, a Kent Cup trophy and club-best in the FA Cup, it’s safe to say George Elokobi inspired indomitable spirit within his camaraderie.



 “I believed in every one of them,” smiled George Elokobi: “Hard work and togetherness, the fans can see what I’m trying to do here.

 

“The football we’re playing, how competitive we’ve been. The players give their all game in game out, and when the players do that, it feeds back to the fans.

 

“They (the fans) know how hard we’re working.”

 

The first big upset came in Round 2 of the FA Cup on at the Gallagher Stadium against Barrow AFC, who are leagues above the Stones embarking on an impressive 11-game unbeaten streak.

 

The full-time emotions poured out of home sides manager: “It was an emotional day for me because I was carrying the emotion of my players,

 

“When you work so hard as a group and see how happy everyone was. Not just our players, our fans (as well),

 

“I’ve got our kit lady, Rose, running to me crying. Kids running on the pitch. The fans in the Genco (stand).

 

“If you’re a footballing person, you have to feel that emotion.”


“This is history, it binds us together forever.”

 

Elokobi then went on to talk about his upbringing: “For my community in Cameroon, my hometown Kumba, St Joseph’s College Sasse, where this footballing journey started.

 

“To give hope to the community in Africa, to say, if I can do this, you can do this as well. The world is your oyster.”

 

Elokobi (the youngest of 13 children) moved from to England from Cameroon at age sixteen, to re-unite with his mother who sent money back to Cameroon. His dad died when he was just eleven, and Elokobi’s childhood became survival.



Speaking to The Times, Elokobi revealed how he swallowed his saliva whilst watching wealthier friends eat. One meal a day, eating wild berries, climbing trees for coconuts, catching fish in dirty rivers and killing venomous snakes to boil and eat became reality.

 

Moving to England allowed Elokobi to play football, signing for Dulwich Hamlet, as his mother told him not to play in Cameroon as injury would result in medical bills. Little did he know he would be called up for his country later down the line, after scoring in the Premier League at Old Trafford.



That emotional first ‘cupset’ was broadcasted in Maidstone, Kent, Cameroon…and Kathmandu. The goalscorer, Bivesh Gurung, is the son of a Nepalese parents and his father is a Gurkha.

 

It was poetic that it was the local lad who kick-started the county towns FA Cup run into action, here’s what Bivesh had to say about it:

 


The other scorer in the game was Sam Corne, the clubs longest serving player. The midfielder netted the winning goals against Stevenage in the third round and Ipswich in the fourth round.

 

Sam Corne has openly spoken about how the games behind closed doors during the coronavirus pandemic came as a relief to him, after his performances suffered in the early stages of his Maidstone career.

 

In the 2023/24 campaign, ‘Corney’ has hit new levels and evolved into a cult hero in his sixth season in black and amber, taking the captains armband and scoring some of the most important goals in the clubs history.



Sam Cornes partner in the middle of the pitch is Sam Bone. Starting out at the Charlton academy, ‘Boney’ had dreams of playing in the Premier League and making a name for himself.

 

His footballing dreams were put in jeopardy when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer: “I felt like the world had collapsed on me,” said Bone to Kent Online’s Craig Tucker.

 

After beating cancer, it was a match made in heaven for Sam Bone to return to his hometown club: “It would have been very easy for me to feel sorry for myself, but I rolled my sleeves up and here I am now, playing for Maidstone United.”

 

Woven with courage, Bone’s view on football aligns perfectly with what manager George Elokobi teaches: “I literally go out on the pitch with a smile on my face and embrace these occasions because it could have been taken away from me.”


At 27 years of age, he might never reach the heights of the Premier League, but he has certainly made a name for himself at his hometown club.

His grandad travelled all the way from Cyprus to surprise him before the game against Ipswich, a full-circle moment before one of the best days in his footballing journey so far.

  

Maidstone were hoping of a repeat of 2012 when Stevenage were drawn in round three. They took the Boro to a replay after a goalless draw away from home and knocked them out 2-1 on home turf.

 

Sam Corne re-wrote the script in 2024, scoring the only goal in a tense 1-0 victory.

 

After League 2 and League 1 conquered, the Stones drew Ipswich away. The Tractor Boys were 98 places higher in the footballing pyramid than the Stones.

 

Elokobi’s attention to detail was immense, hiring out grass pitches to train on (so that the players could feel the weight of the grass on their feet), marking out Ipswich’s pitch, and simulating relentless attacks and rare counter attacks.

 

The game played out just like Elokobi had predicted. The Suffolk side had 38 efforts on goal, struck the woodwork on three occasions, and had 78% possession at Portman Road: Maidstone had two shots and scored twice.



The nation watched the magic of the FA Cup in full force on BBC One, as Maidstone became the first side from step 2 of non-league to reach the 5th round of the FA Cup in 46 years.

 

Some of the most unlikely of superstars came out of the woodwork to support the Stones, such as musician James Arthur.

 

He posted on his Instagram story: “I’m backing you (Maidstone) on Saturday against Ipswich. Mainly because we want to stick it to Ed Sheeran.

 

“He has had too much success in his career and I want to bring him down a peg or two. I’ve played at your stadium a couple of times. Even scored a backheeled penalty. If you need me, I’m about. Good luck!” 


The Football Debate enquired for Ipswich fan Ed Sheeren to comment, but he hasn’t responded yet…


This run has brought plenty of fame and finance to the National League South outfit, but perhaps more importantly, has unearthed the remarkable stories from a club that has gone from bankruptcy to history-makers.

 

It is easy to understand why this club is the one which has gone against overwhelming odds to re-write history. Whether it’s the club returning from bankruptcy, George Elokobi moving to England at 16 after losing his father or Sam Bone beating cancer – there is an abundance of undeniable spirit throughout the dressing room at the Stones.

 

Seasoned with the heart, ability, youth and experience across the squad, and guided by a true professional, there was always a strong foundation for FA Cup greatness in the county town of Kent.


 


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