Gritty, resilient and inspirational might be a few words used to describe Maidstone United’s win against Championship high-flyers Ipswich Town in their clash on Saturday 27th January.
The Tractor Boys are 98 places higher in the footballing pyramid than the Stones, had 36 more efforts on goal, struck the woodwork on three occasions, and had 78% possession at Portman Road.
However, 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.
The performance encapsulated Maidstone United’s history, from bankruptcy to history-makers, as George Elokobi inspired indomitable spirit amongst his team to overcome overwhelming odds.
This run has brought plenty of fame and finance to the National League South outfit, but perhaps more importantly, has unearthed the remarkable stories of their coaches, backroom staff, players and fans.
There are so many places to start, but BBC viewers on social media had admiration for one player in particular – ‘Mad Cov’.
The Brazilian shot-stopper Lucas Covolan made a remarkable 12 saves, single-handedly keeping the Stones in reach of history at times.
Oozing with confidence, the goalkeeper adds touches of Brazilian flair to his game, like when he balanced the ball on his foot in the closing stages against Tonbridge Angels (clip below).
The 31-year-old is no stranger to big games, as he scored a last-minute equalizer for Torquay in the National League play-off final at Wembley in 2021. He is no stranger to big players, either, sharing a dressing room with Philipe Coutinho playing for Vasco da Gama in Brazil.
Lamar Reynolds shared man of the match with Lucus Covolan after scoring a sumptuous chip over Christian Walton and assisting Sam Corne’s winning goal. He moved to England from Jamaica at just eight years old and joined Barking’s academy at age sixteen.
He came to the Stones with a wealth of experience in non-league but hadn’t scored a goal for the Stones before Ipswich.
You wouldn’t have thought it.
Bivesh Gurung is another player who doesn’t regularly make the scoresheet as a defensive midfielder. He was awarded ‘Goal of the Round’ for his screamer against Barrow AFC back in the second round.
Speaking to TFD, Bivesh shared: “I was involved in the youth teams here, I went to school here, I did everything here,” he then smiled, “Maidstone United is a club very close to my heart and to provide a moment like that, it’s surreal.”
He dedicated the goal to his mother, who encourages him to shoot more often in games. He isn’t the only lad at the club who is young, trusted by George Elokobi, and Maidstone through and through.
Perri Iandolo (21) and Riley Court (17) made substitute performances against the Tractor Boys, providing relentless running and wearing their hearts on their sleeves to hold onto the historic score line.
Iandolo isn’t the first in his family to pull on a Stones shirt, following in the footsteps of his older brother Ellis.
Riley Court was on the books at Chelsea before representing his hometown club – and George Elokobi couldn’t be prouder of the 17-year-old: “I’m exceptionally proud of young Riley. It’s all about learning, being ready so when you’re called upon you can showcase yourself.”
Sam Bone was the final local lad to feature against Ipswich, and the 25-year-old has experienced so much in his early career already.
The midfielder started at the Charlton academy but at just 18 years old, 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.”
His grandad travelled all the way from Cyprus to surprise him before the game, a full-circle moment before one of the best days in his footballing journey so far.
Partnering Sam Bone in midfield, Sam Corne has evolved into a cult hero, gaining admiration across the club and the nation for netting goals in three consecutive rounds. He scored the equaliser against League 2 Barrow AFC, the winner against League 1 Stevenage, and the winner against Championship Ipswich.
‘Corney’ focuses on football coaching, working with younger kids, educating, inspiring and teaching them about the game. Some parents have told him he’s ‘like Ronaldo’ after witnessing how the kids look up to him both at training and in the limelight on TV.
Corne is the Stones joint-longest serving player and is a true fans favourite, with his game completely evolving from the first time he walked out at the Gallagher to walking out at Portman Road last Saturday.
Club captain Gavin Hoyte – ‘Mr Reliable’ – joined the club at the same time as Sam Corne. At the tail end of his career, Hoyte told TFD, “You don’t know how often opportunities like this come about.”
The right-back has seen a lot over his career, pulling on an Arsenal shirt and representing England at youth level over 15 times, and also Trinidad and Tobago. Fun fact: his brother – Justin – is the defender in the famous Cristiano Ronaldo video below.
Centre-backs George Fowler and Reiss Greenidge both played for Ipswich Town at youth level, however neither managed to feature in the first team. They left the Tractor Boys questioning their decisions at full-time last Saturday.
Every player in the team has played a part:
- Liam Sole assisted Lamar Reynolds at Portman Road.
- Sol Wanjau-Smith missed out against Ipswich through injury but put three past Steyning in 2nd round qualifying. He also provided darts entertainment the night before the game.
- Jacob Berkeley-Agyepong won the penalty against Stevenage.
- Kyprianou sung with Maidstone fans in the Spitfire Lounge after Stevenage.
- Duku wasn’t even a Maidstone player a week before the Ipswich fixture, signing a deal and being thrown straight into the deep end.
The boys were even inspired by music artist James Arthur, who told KMFM, “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…
Behind the team is a family atmosphere and a wonderful backroom team. Ask anyone who works at the Stones about Ian Tucker – and they’ll say, “This club wouldn’t run without Tucks.” If you have a question or query, they’ll reply, “Go and see Tucks.”
John Gooch runs Stones TV – and anything media for that matter – like clockwork. Ben Austen runs the social media feeds and the post-match interviews, every week, home or away. He still pays for his match tickets, working purely for his love of the club. You might recognise Ben from somewhere, he has a TikTok page (ben_gk1) with over 120,000 followers.
Helen Cooper is the club photographer who captures everything, training, youth games, the good days and the bad days. She isn't just talented, but always greets fans with a smile and takes photos of the stands too. Whenever the Stones win, her importance is showcased by George and the lads, who get involve her in the celebrations.
From Trevor on duty as the fan liaison officer, Ruth on the match reports, Rose in the dressing room, Helen in the club shop or David selling the matchday pies, Maidstone is a family. Optimising the feel-good factor around the Gallagher is one man: George Elokobi.
Before mentioning Elokobi himself, he would want to mention his coaching staff - Ben, Zach and assistant manager Craig Fagan – who have all played a gigantic part in the preparations for this season. Craig Fagan represented Birmingham City, Derby County and Hull City during his playing days, earning 69 Premier League caps.
Now, back to George.
Growing up in Mamfe, Cameroon, Elokobi was just ten years old when he lost his father. He mother lived in London to study, and he moved to England when he was 16. He signed for Dulwich Hamlet.
He first moved into the football league when he signed for Colchester United after impressing on trial. A fan favourite everywhere he goes, George Elokobi was gaining traction for how strong and powerful he is. As a player, his motto was ‘CHOP’.
In 2008, the left-back signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers where he became a fan favourite as the club got promoted to the Premier League.
He played under Mick McCarthy’s management and never lost touch, with his former coach encouraging him to take his coaching badges, offering advice and coming to the Gallagher Stadium to support Elokobi in the third round against Stevenage.
Elokobi played in the Premier League, Championship, League 1, League 2, National League and the National League South – retiring at the Stones and scoring in his final game, as club captain, throughout their promotion back to the topflight of non-league.
George had a special relationship with the Stones, but more importantly, football. He threw himself straight into management as the academy manager in Kent, finding a new motto as a coach, ‘BELIEVE’.
Elokobi took an interim managerial role after the sacking of Hakan Hayrettin and become manager before the start of the 2023/24 campaign.
The rest is history.
Wearing his heart on his sleeve, George explained why he was emotional after the Barrow AFC fixture to the BBC: “It was to see the boy who lost his dad when he was ten years of age doing something great again. It’s not just for me, but for the boys back in Cameroon, to say, you can do what I’m doing if you work hard and make sacrifices, it can happen.”
“It’s history, it binds us together, forever.”
This FA Cup campaign has got people across the nation talking about Maidstone United, but it is so much more than a football club.
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.