There’d be a certain irony if tomorrow’s game were to be postponed – this is, after all, Maidstone’s first game due to be played on grass since the Conference’s decision to vote against allowing 3G pitches. But *if* the game’s on – and despite Kingsmeadow’s fantastic drainage, the severity of the weather expected to arrive suggests that’s a big if – then it promises to be another mouthwatering clash between two of the best sides in the Ryman League. So here’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly sides of the two teams.
The Good: K’s are a contender largely because we’re the side with the best defensive record, having conceded just 25 goals in 27 games. This is no accident: Rob Tolfrey is the division’s best goalkeeper, dominant, agile and consistent; Matt Page and Matt Drage are both dependable, strong centre halves, but an even better partnership; and Josh Casey is an impeccable further shield to the K’s goal sitting just in front of the back four. Other teams will have to continue to work hard to score against Kingstonian. Another strength for K’s is the front pairing of Andre McCollin and Ryan Moss, who must be giving opposition managers headaches every week – as they’re both strong, quick and goalscorers, how on earth do you manage to mark them both out of the game? The simple answer is that you don’t: they’ve scored 40 goals between them in all competitions so far.
The Bad: But apart from Moss and McCollin, goals have been hard to come by – and as a result K’s are the lowest scorers of the leading pack. Alan Dowson would have expected a better return from players such as Charlie Knight and Dan Sweeney, both capable of shooting with venom. Perhaps Dan Sweeney’s late strike against Dulwich is the first sign of improvement in this area? The only glaring weakness in K’s first eleven is at right-midfield. Dee Okojie has tried hard, but not offered a consistent end product, and has tended to disappear from big games; Charles Ofusu-hene offers power and direct running, but has failed to track back once too often, and never manages to get to the by-line; and meanwhile the mercurial Matt Pattison – probably the most talented player in the whole squad – has struggled to such an extent this term that he’s been farmed out on loan. And it’s the loan market Alan Dowson has turned to in a quest for a solution, by signing Iffy Allen from Barnet for an initial month – but it’s early days for the young winger. If K’s can threaten more often down the right flank, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
The Ugly: Referee Chris Thomas’ display against Met Police knocked the stuffing out of K’s, and helped to lead to a 2-1 home defeat in K’s last game. When that match was played, K’s would have gone four points clear at the top of the table with a win, and would have grabbed hold of the Ryman League by the scruff of its neck. Instead, by losing that game, and with all K’s competitors winning since, K’s are very much back in the pack. A great opportunity missed.
The Good: Maidstone are consistent – they’ve lost only 4 of their 28 games so far this season – and that’s a quality very few Ryman League teams possess. In particular, the Stones as solid as their pitch when they’re playing at home, being unbeaten there this season. Although some of the locals – probably not the ones who went to Sittingbourne and Ashford, I’d imagine – have been complaining that there have been too many draws and not enough wins, last week’s 7-2 destruction of the Beavers should have broken that particular dam. As far as players go, Frannie Collin has 17 league goals so far, meaning there’ll be 3 outstanding strikers on show on Saturday.
The Bad: All four losses suffered by the Stones this season have come on the green, green grass (well, okay, the brown, brown mud in most cases) away from their Gallagher Stadium home. In particular, a recent 4-1 defeat at Thamesmead was a remarkably poor return. Let’s face it, Thamesmead are dire. But even their ‘bad’ away record isn’t that bad when it’s inspected more closely: they’ve won 8 out of 12, including a win at Bognor, and 2 of those 4 defeats were at fortresses Wealdstone and Dulwich.
The Ugly: The Conference’s vote to not allow 3G pitches, for next season at any rate, means that as it stands Maidstone United would be refused promotion to the Conference South if they win the title or the playoffs. How will the squad react to the knowledge that no matter how they do this year, if they stay at Maidstone they won’t be Conference South players next season? I strongly suspect that the players won’t care – they’re already being paid better than most of their peers in the higher league – but what is the next step for the club? Certainly, it seems only a matter of time until the authorities come to their senses and allow 3G at all levels of non-league, but until that happens will Maidstone continue to push to win the title when the money spent on wages could, perhaps, be better spent on increasing their new ground’s 2200 capacity in preparation for eventual life in the Conference?
Unless something unusual happens – an early sending off, one player having the game of his life – then this should be a very close match between two very good teams. K’s caused Maidstone enough problems in August, despite the 2-0 loss, to suggest that the Stones won’t have it all their own way, but Maidstone will be cock-a-hoop after their seven goals last week. I’ll chicken out and predict a 2-2 draw.