Those who consider 3G pitches unacceptable at the highest level should have been at the Gallagher Stadium, the home of Maidstone United, for the top-of-the-table clash against Dulwich Hamlet. What a game! Seven goals, a big crowd, plenty of excitement. And not once did anyone comment that the pitch had made much difference.
There’s no shortage of luddites in the football world, but 3G is definitely the way ahead. Admittedly, these were two teams at the top of the Isthmian League table, but the quality was far higher than anything I have seen in non-league circles this season.
Maidstone United was formed in 1992, filling the gap left by the club that played in the Football League between 1987 and 1992. Originally called Maidstone Invicta, the club played in Maidstone (London Road), Sittingbourne and Ashford before the Gallagher Stadium was opened in 2012. Kin their first season at their new home, crowds averaged almost 1,700, and that was in the Isthmian Division One South. This year, the average is almost 1,800 and it’s been another barnstorming campaign.
But there’s a cloud hanging over Maidstone as no matter what happens, the Stones cannot go up this season – unless something changes soon. They have already been prevented from playing in the Conference South because of their artificial pitch. This has, obviously caused a lot of controversy and it’s an argument that will rage on until the end of the season. It’s also a ridiculous situation, because the 3G pitch that Maidstone have installed at the Gallagher Stadium is excellent and really does encourage good football.
The cynics might suggest that Maidstone have an advantage over their rivals because of the pitch and it’s true that they are unbeaten at home this season. But look closely and they have actually drawn nine of their 20 league games, which is a very high ratio. If Maidstone have an advantage it is that they have almost 2,000 people turning up and paying £ 10 a time for admission. Compared to 19 of their stable-mates, who average under 400, that is a substantial bonus when you trying to lure talent to your club.
For a while this season, it looked as though Maidstone would win the Isthmian title, but Wealdstone have come from behind, thanks to games in hand, to snatch the impetus. Maidstone’s form has stuttered in recent weeks – they were on a three-game losing streak prior to meeting Dulwich – perhaps distracted by the off-pitch debate?
Dulwich, too, had hit a rough patch and they have worries of their own surrounding the future of their ground. But with both now occupying play-off berths – Maidstone unable to fulfil their place – one would have thought that the game lacked the appeal of a few weeks earlier. Nobody got that message, because Maidstone had to delay kick-off for 15 minutes to let the crowd in. There were 2,296 people in the ground for what proved to be a cracking contest involving two teams who wanted to play football on the immaculate surface.
All eyes were on Dulwich Hamlet’s young Turkish playmaker Erhun Oztumer. Wearing the “sexy” number 10 shirt, here was a player who has clearly been brought up watching Spanish football’s tika-taka style. As the game went on, he got stronger and stronger. Burnley, apparently, are interested in him, which tells you how highly he is rated, but at 5ft 3in, he has a battle on his hands. Whatever happens, Oztumer is a player to watch out for, and as Alan Ball used to say, “If you’re good enough, you’re tall enough”, and he knew all about that, he won a World Cup medal being “diminutive”.
Dulwich looked the better side in the opening stages and it was no surprise when they took the lead in the 26th minute, Nyren Clunis breaking free, working his way to the edge of the area and curling a shot wide of Lee Worgan. Eleven minutes later, Maidstone levelled, Alex Flisher, who looks rather ungainly in his approach, forcing his way through, despite tripping over his own feet at times, and rolling the ball tamely into the net.
Dulwich regained the lead in the 51st minute, a superb cross by Ahmed Deen being met by the impressive and unmarked Tommy Whitnell on the volley from close range. Questions have to be asked why Whitnell, a recent signing from Thamesmead, was given so much space.
Maidstone came again and Luke Rooney – who was also outstanding throughout the 90 minutes – sent in a shot that Dulwich keeper Tim Brown could only parry to Jack Harris who sent the ball back into the net. 2-2 and there was still 25 minutes to go.
For the first time, Maidstone took the lead six minutes later, Harris tapping in at the far post after Rooney passed across the face of goal. The Dulwich defence just seemed to stand and watch!
But Oztumer wasn’t going to be denied his moment. In the 67th minute, Whitnell knocked the ball on, Oztumer controlled it and flicked it past Worgan with the faintest of touches – brilliant!
He had another chance a few minutes later, a header that Worgan stopped but dropped invitingly for the onrushing Clunis, who was injured in the process. The wide-man recovered to hit the post in the 89th minute, receiving the ball from Oztumer and seeing his shot tipped onto the post by Worgan’s foot.
It was a telling moment, for in added time, Maidstone scored the winner after the ball ricocheted around the area and eventually went in off Dan Parkinson. A cruel, cruel, blow for Dulwich, who deserved at least a draw. But what a contest, one of the best non-league games I have ever witnessed.
The crowd loved it, too, everyone filed out into James Whatman Way beaming, especially those supporters with yellow and black colours. The tragedy of it is that Maidstone, until someone sees sense, are being stymied. Somebody needs to go and watch a few games at the Gallagher Stadium and see for themselves.