Published: 12:00, 26 June 2020
| Updated: 13:06, 26 June 2020
Jay Saunders guided Maidstone United to three promotions in four years - but nothing beats winning a title.
Sandwiched inbetween a couple of promotion play-off successes was the 2014-15 season where the Stones batted away all-comers, including Kent rivals Margate, to land the Isthmian League, Premier Division crown. It was a golden era for the club as they rose back through the leagues and as part of our Decade of Champions series, Saunders recalls the year they claimed a title and had a bit of fun in the FA Cup too.
Background to the season;
Saunders had led the Stones to Ryman League South play-off success in 2013, followed by a season of consolidation in the Premier Division. After a seventh placed finish and just missing out on another play-off campaign, the manager set about making improvements.
“I felt I knew where we needed to improve and made some good signings,” said the manager, who looked to offer goalkeeper Lee Worgan a big more protection.
Long-serving Tonbridge Angels defender Sonny Miles signed as did Jamie Coyle - a league winner at Dartford under Tony Burman.
Craig Stone would come in later on in the season on loan from Dover as cover for Shane Huke, another defensive mid-season addition.
“We had such a good defensive record that year,” Saunders recalled.
“Sonny came in and was excellent, especially first part of the season, alongside Steve Watt, the pair of them were a solid base. We also had Jamie Coyle and he had a really good run in the side as well. With Worgs behind them we just had a solid spine to us.
“The season before I felt we threw away too many games, we were a little bit too easy to beat, I felt we needed to get a side to us so we could go to tough places on a Tuesday night and get results.
"Whatever centre-back pairing we had we were solid. Infront of that we had the likes of James Rogers and Jack Parkinson and again they did their jobs and it allowed all the other boys, the forwards and the wingers to go and enjoy themselves because we had that solid core.
The start of the season;
Five straight wins was the perfect start for the Stones and despite then slipping to a 1-0 defeat against Tonbridge Angels they roared back with another six wins on the spin, while starting their FA Cup journey with a 10-0 thrashing of Littlehampton Town.
Saunders said: “We had the mentality where if we did lose a game, or we got a result that wasn’t quite right, we would always back it up with another good result. That was what we had. The dressing room was unbelievable.
“I was fortunate to be in some good dressing rooms as a player but in that dressing room I had a group of lads who I had total trust in. They all enjoyed playing for the club, training was excellent and their attitude was first class.
“It was a lively changing room but I knew that even if they were having a laugh five minutes before kick off they would go out and turn teams over. We had some real good blokes and fantastic players too, it was a perfect combination.”
Steve Watt started a professional career at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho and went onto make appearances for Barnsley, Swansea and Grimsby Town, along with a spell back in his native Scotland.
He first came to the Stones midway through the 2012/13 season, having previously been at Dover. He was made captain for the following campaign.
Saunders said: “He had that experience and if we are honest about it, if he hadn’t had the injuries he had he wouldn't have played at that level, I would never have had him at the club.
“He was just a leader for us, you knew what you would get every game, he helped Sonny along in the early part of the season. Watty was excellent for us as captain, he was a leader and a voice for me out on the pitch.”
In his first full season at the club, Jay May excelled. Then 29, he scored 24 goals in 44 appearances, half of those coming during the final three months of the season.
He joined in the summer from Bromley, having also previously been at Tonbridge Angels, Ramsgate, Dartford and Billericay, where he had already tasted promotion success..
Saunders said: “I think a lot of people and supporters didn’t see what he did, but when you played with him or when you manage him, and I am sure Tommy Warrilow will say it now about him at Ashford, you just knew what you were going to get out of him every game.
“He was horrible to play against and he could score goals. I knew what he would offer us. He was a classic no.9. Everything stuck and centre-halves hated playing against him. I always felt if we could give him the service we could score goals. He was excellent for us.”
May had played alongside Frannie Collin before and the two hit if off that season.
“Frannie played just off him and the pair were a real threat,” said Saunders.
“Frannie would drop into little pockets and cause problems and could always score goals. In wide areas we had Matt Bodkin and Alex Flisher and if he hadn’t got injured that season, I think he would have got a move into the football league.”
Flisher picked up a knee injury during a December match against Bognor Regis Town, stretchered off soon after scoring Maidstone's second-half winner.
One of his admirers was Peter Taylor, then managing at Gillingham, and he wasn’t the only one to see Flisher’s potential.
Saunders remembers the interest. He said: “Peter rang me a few times and I had a lot of clubs ringing me at the time saying, ‘we are watching him’. Nobody put in a concrete bid but everyone was saying they were watching him. We had talks with Gillingham, they had enquired about training with them, but then he got injured. I am sure he had 12 goals by Christmas or more from left wing, which was impressive.
“I remember the tackle, to be fair the lad won the ball, but just took Flish and it was unfortunate for him. That season he would have been a star man, he was outstanding, 100% he would have got a Football League move.”
There were unsung heroes too, we had people like Tom Mills, who was the best left-back in the league, if not the league above. He just went about his business. He was another to have come through the youth team.
It was great for them being back at their home ground playing infront of 2,000 plus people, being homegrown lads. It was just unfortunate for Flish to get that injury."
The FA Cup;
The Stones made it through to the first round of the FA Cup with wins over Littlehampton, Brentwood, Biggleswade and Welling United.
A late headed goal from Frannie Collin won them the match. He got both of their goals that night.
It was that spirit in the dressing room that Saunders remembers about it most.
He said: “When they turned up we had the dressing room door open, the music was blaring out, it was some horrendous song, Club Tropicana or something like that. They tried to shut the door but the boys opened it back up.
“After the game the boys were celebrating with the door open. Graham Westley (the Stevenage manager) came up to me afterwards and said, ‘that was the difference between the sides.’ He said what we had in that changing room he didn’t. That summed our boys up, they never knew when they were beaten.
“I think the cup run showed that everything was right. Sometimes it can derail you. After that replay we went to Met Police (just two days later) and we lost.
“I thought, ‘ah, is this going to hinder us?’ But then straight away we were back on it. It summed up the group. I could trust them and I knew they would be right the next game. The cup run just added to us, there was a buzz around the club. We hadn’t been back in the town for long, we were winning games, at the top of the league and we rode with it. The boys kept turning up and doing the business.”
Maidstone’s run in the cup was ended with a trip to Wrexham in round two while their league form ticked over nicely.
It was Maidstone’s third season at the Gallagher and there were big crowds in for every match,which brought its own challenges.
“It was fantastic,” said Saunders. “It would be quiet at times and you would be losing a game and the crowd would be on your back. You’re thinking, ‘hang on, we are top of the league and on a good cup run’, but that is the expectancy.
“I loved it and I think the players loved it. We made sure the players mixed with the supporters after a game and made sure there was a real togetherness, the whole club, that was great.
“Credit to the boys. I sign the players and pick the team but they have to carry out the business and nine times out of 10 they did it. We did have some players in the past who struggled with it and you did have to look at characters.
“I looked at players and thought ‘can they handle what we have got here?’ More often than not we got it right. There was such a buzz around the club and everyone wanted to be a part of it.”
Margate, Dulwich and Hendon all had their moments but it was Hendon who they just couldn’t shake off.
“If it hadn’t been for them we would have won the league a long time before,” Saunders said.
“Gary McCann had a side that just knew their jobs and he had some good players. We couldn’t lose them. Every time we came in with a really good result, we would know they had a tough game, but would see them scoring 89th minute winners. That was really tough.
“It is credit to the players to keep going. Some could have felt the pressure but we never did.”
A 2-1 home win over Margate was a key moment in the season. Zac Attwood had put the visitors ahead but Alex Brown scored a super goal to level it up before the break and Billy Bricknell got the winner.
“That was the big turning point for me,” Saunders said.
“We were 1-0 down and Margate were all over us. They had a lot of money, they had a good side, but Alex Brown came up with a brilliant goal just before half-time and it turned the game on its head.
“When we were 1-0 down I thought ‘maybe we haven’t got quite enough’ but the lads dug deep and Alex and Billy came up with big goals and I went away thinking ‘this is going to be our year.’ After that game I thought we were going to win the league.
It’s not over yet!
Maidstone still had six to play, including away to Hendon. The Stones lost the game 2-1 and it left Hendon five points behind with two games in hand.
The Stones had started the game well and went a goal up through Jay May but Hendon fought back to take the points.
Saunders said: “We went into the changing room, we had a row, I blamed the defence. I had a pop at Watty and Sonny if I remember right, even though they had been solid all season. It was so unusual for them to make mistakes.
“Hendon were just behind us still but I had confidence in the lads. We played Peachaven the next game and beat them 2-0. We backed it up straight away and that’s what the team was all about.”
Hendon blew their advantage with a draw at Margate and took only a point from their next two after that.
Scenes at Dulwich;
There was a season-best league crowd at Dulwich Hamlet's Champion Hill and the pitch was full of Maidstone fans at the final whistle as a goalless draw all-but sealed them the league title.
Hendon’s game against Grays also ended goalless, leaving them only able to match Stones’ points total but with a vastly inferior goal difference.
“I don’t think I have ever been so nervous in my life,” said Saunders, remembering that penultimate game of the season.
“Dulwich needed a point to get into the play-offs and I remember it being the most defensive game. There was probably one shot all game, we got one off the line, that was about the only attack either side had.
“The final whistle went and we got the news that Hendon had drawn 0-0. People were running on the pitch but I found it a bit surreal because although you have pretty much done it, the job wasn’t done.
“We went in and the players were celebrating and I was a bit more reserved. We had our last game at home against East Thurrock and I said, ‘whatever happens, I want to go out with a win.’ I didn’t want to win it on goal difference.”
The Stones got their win and the title was wrapped up, beating East Thurrock 3-2. They eventually finished the season three points clear of Hendon.
“We wanted to win it clearly and we did,” Saunders said.
“I don't think many of those players that year would have been around a side like that. We had some good players going forward as well, it wasn’t just about us being solid defensively, players like Ben Greenhalgh, Matt Bodkin, Flisher, George Porter for a bit, we had boys who were a threat going forward.
“We had a side who could do their jobs, knew what they were good at and we rolled some teams over but we could grind it out if we needed to.
“It was nice that we had that last game at home, we really did celebrate it, when you finally get that trophy. As a manager winning the league is what you set out to do at the start of the season and to have a cup run as well with it made it a perfect season.”
More from our 'Decade of Champions' series;
More by this authorLuke Cawdell
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