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Maidstone United boss George Elokobi and assistant Craig Fagan lift the lid on the double act that’s led them to the FA Cup fifth round and a trip to Coventry City

“I remember the first session - George came in and he kicked me up in the air.”

And that was it - the start of a great friendship between Maidstone boss George Elokobi and his No.2 Craig Fagan which these days can involve 2am phone calls.

Craig Fagan and George Elokobi make quite the double act at Maidstone. Picture: Helen Cooper
Craig Fagan and George Elokobi make quite the double act at Maidstone. Picture: Helen Cooper

That first meeting came on the training ground at Colchester, shortly after Elokobi arrived from non-league Dulwich.

Twenty years later they’ve masterminded United’s run to the FA Cup fifth round.

Fagan recalled the incident as the pair sat down with KentOnline in Elokobi’s office at the Gallagher Stadium.

He said: “I wasn’t happy at the time but after I was like, yeah, that’s a bit of me. I liked everything George was about.

“There was a difference in terms of backgrounds.

“George never had a lot living in Africa and I always understood that he’s had to fight for everything he’s got.

“I was similar in that I was never given anything.

“I was never given my place. I had to work hard through all the age groups at Birmingham to get my first pro contract.”

It’s that mutual work ethic that makes the Elokobi-Fagan relationship so effective.

They put everything they’ve got into bringing success to Maidstone.

“Even now we’re both hard-working, so that’s where the appreciation and understanding of each other is,” said Fagan.

“We’re in a job, we’re lucky to have a job, but we work hard at it. We’ve not got our feet up on the table.

“We don’t have a lot of staff, we muck in and get involved in everything and I think it marries well that we’re both like that.

“We bounce off each other and we want to improve, and we want to improve players.

George Elokobi and Craig Fagan celebrate a job well done at Ipswich. Picture: Helen Cooper
George Elokobi and Craig Fagan celebrate a job well done at Ipswich. Picture: Helen Cooper

“We see how people were with us when we were players in terms of coaches/mentors and we try and pass that on to the lads and be good around the place.”

Elokobi turned to his old Colchester team-mate after Gifton Noel-Williams, his initial right-hand man while still caretaker boss at Maidstone, accepted a job in India.

They knew they had a big rebuilding job on their hands following National League relegation.

But they’ve embraced the challenge and everything that comes with it.

“It’s about having the right management team and the right diversity within your backroom staff and Craig has been incredible,” said Elokobi.

“We’ve been working together a year now and how time has flown by.

“We’ve been through the rollercoaster.

“We’ve come in last season and couldn’t do the unthinkable and keep Maidstone up but we knew we had to try and bring our knowledge and expertise to help this football club, to put an environment and a structure in place.

“We have disagreements. You have to listen as a manager. You have to listen to opinions and come to a solution.

“We both want one thing for this football club - success.

“In every organisation you need to have some form of diversity of opinions, and we have that environment here, not just in the office but during games.

“Sometimes our opinion of what we see might differ and in that split-second we try and fix it.

“We speak so many times. It doesn’t matter the time of the day. That’s how we work so well together.

“If something pops up in my head, it doesn’t matter what time it is.

“If it’s 2am in the morning and I need to speak to Craig, or he needs to speak to me, that phone line is always open.

“At the end of the day it’s to benefit the environment we’re in and to benefit the players we’re looking after but also to benefit everyone that’s connected to Maidstone United.

Craig Fagan, George Elokobi and head of recruitment Zach Foster-Crouch. Picture: Helen Cooper
Craig Fagan, George Elokobi and head of recruitment Zach Foster-Crouch. Picture: Helen Cooper

“We understand it’s football but for us it’s bigger than football and Craig touched on it - we don’t take any day for granted here.

“We work at this football club, here at the Gallagher Stadium, and more so away from this environment just to make sure we’re giving our players and the football club the best possible chance for success.”

The last thing Elokobi needed was a yes-man and Fagan was never going to be one.

“George wouldn’t be happy if I was in every day and I was just saying, yeah, that’s good, that session looks good, that was brilliant,” said Fagan.

“Even at the top end of the game, the Premier League, there’s always someone that’s in to question what’s done and evaluate a session.

“Was this done well? Did we plan that well?

“That’s what we try and do and it’s about getting better, and the only way we do that is if we question each other, question the team, question decisions.

“I have a clear understanding that George is in charge but I’ll always throw a little curveball in there just to make George think is that definitely the right decision?

“Ultimately it falls on the manager. All I can try and do is help and throw as many curveballs in as I can.

“It’s like you’re looking down from a drone, a bird’s eye view.

“You need someone who takes themselves away so they can see the bigger picture as well.”

Both men reached the Premier League during their playing careers, Elokobi via a Championship title with Wolves while Fagan won play-off finals with Derby and Hull.

Their experience on the big stage has been vital during Maidstone’s FA Cup run, none more so than at Ipswich, where the non-league side triumphed 2-1 in front of a 28,000 crowd at Portman Road.

Their calm heads on the big occasion will be needed again at Coventry on Monday night.

“I think we’re pretty lucky that George and myself have played at a good level,” said Fagan.

“So going to Ipswich and playing Stevenage and playing Barrow, it’s helped the team that we can bring a bit of calmness to the situation in terms of making decisions.

“Being on the sidelines at an Ipswich, we weren’t overawed.

“We’re not taking it for granted but we’re not overawed by it. Once the whistle blows we’re level and we’re used to being in a stadium like that, so I think that helps.

“What we’ve achieved as a club with the players, to get to this round of the FA Cup, is out of this world.

George Elokobi and Craig Fagan address the audience at a Kent FA diversity event. Picture: Ian Scammell
George Elokobi and Craig Fagan address the audience at a Kent FA diversity event. Picture: Ian Scammell

“We always come in and say you’re history-makers to the players and talk about leaving your legacy.

“I think this will go on for years. I can’t see many teams doing this again, unless we do it next season.”

“That’s if we’re here!” Elokobi jumps in, laughing.

“You never know. You were talking about curveballs.

“It might be the you-didn’t-get-us-into-the-sixth-round curveball or the you-didn’t-win the-league-outright curveball.”

More seriously, the management know they could face a fight to keep certain players at the club, assuming they haven’t moved on to bigger things themselves.

There’s been so much focus on Maidstone’s FA Cup story that interest in the squad seems inevitable.

“We’ve said this at the start, we want to develop players who are here and then to move on somewhere else,” said Fagan.

“When we signed for Colchester we knew we were going to do our best for Colchester but ultimately if you’re doing well people are going to be interested. That’s how football works.

“It’s the same as Coventry. If they’ve got players scoring goals, they’re going to have suitors somewhere else.

“We’ll have people interested in our players but that means we’re doing well as a football club.

“Let’s be honest, there wouldn’t be too many people interested last season because of the performances and the league table.

“Flip that over, 12 months down the line, if people are interested in our players, that shows they’re doing well, the football club’s doing well and we must be doing something right.”

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