|Opposition Preview - Maidstone United
Written by ad_wilkin on Friday, 26th Jan 2024 14:58
The magic of the cup will be present at Portman Road in a lunchtime kick-off this Saturday as National League South side Maidstone make the journey from Kent.
They have been in the National League South since 2015 and were promoted to the National League in 2016. They stayed there for three years and then were promoted again in the 2021/22 season when they won the National League South title. They were relegated the next season and come into this campaign bidding to bounce back.
They currently sit fourth in the league occupying one of the two higher play-off spots (only one team gets automatic promotion in the National League South with six other teams competing in a three-round play-off. Fourth-seventh play a preliminary round to decide who takes on second and third in the semi-finals and then the final).
Unlike Town, who have only needed to play one game to make it this far, Maidstone already have six wins to their name in the competition having beaten Steyning Town (Southern Combination Premier League), Winchester City FC (Southern Football League Division One South), Torquay (National League South), Chesham United (Southern Premier Division South), Barrow, who infamously dumped Town out of this competition in December 2021, (League Two) and Stevenage (League One)
The one-time Arsenal man made four appearances for the Gunners -and was linked with a loan move to Town during Joe Royle's time at the club - and spent time at Watford, Brighton, Lincoln and AFC Wimbledon on loan before finally being released.
He found a contract at Dagenham & Redbridge and has since spent his time in the lower leagues with Gillingham, Barnet and Eastleigh, all on free transfers, before a return to the Daggers and then finally landing at Maidstone in 2019.
He has since gone on to make 108 appearances for the club and provides experience to what is a fairly young backline.
The man who scored the winning penalty against Stevenage. The versatile midfielder can also play at centre-back has made 24 appearances so far this year scoring four goals, two of which have come in this competition.
The Brazilian goalkeeper has 10 clean sheets in 32 games for the Stones and has previously played for Torquay and Chesterfield in the National League as well as a spell at Port Vale in League Two. He comes with plenty of experience at the lower levels and will be looking to keep Town out for as long as possible.
A former Town academy prospect who only made one appearance for the Super Blues. More on that below. A centre-back by trade but can also cover right-back Fowler's made 98 appearances for Maidstone following his move from Aldershot and is now an experienced operator at this level.
View From the Opposition
Now there’s not a lot of data when you get below league football so I had to do my scouting for this one the old-fashioned way.
Obviously my first port of call was Shaun Williamson (Barry from Eastenders), which was purely because I thought he’d be my best bet and definitely not because I'm now just celeb chasing for these pieces.
Unfortunately for me I found out that despite being very fond of Maidstone FC and delighted by their progress in the cup he is not much of a football fan and therefore would not be of much use to me. His management's words not mine.
I did, however, get redirected to his brother-in-law and member of the MUFC media team as a match commentator Nigel to get the inside scoop and an incredibly detailed insight on what to expect from this Maidstone team.
AW: So Nigel, you commentate on Stones TV. How did that all come about?
NS: It was through lockdown, they’re always looking for commentators. Every year they put it out there and I go to home and away games anyway so they knew I was going to be reliable.
It was just a way to watch football over lockdown really. It kind of did the trick, but that season was ended early and then the season after ended early but once it started up again I just carried it on and I really love it.
AW: I know the National League is televised on BT Sport now, what’s it like the level below for televised games, I watched some of the highlights on Stones TV which are pretty comprehensive but are there live televised games as well?
NS: We’ve got someone at our place who’s been doing highlights since back in 2010 and putting highlights packages out. That was around the time that Stones Live [Maidstone's official radio station] started too and not a lot of clubs were doing that then, especially not at the level we were playing at at the time.
We built that up layer by layer and then during lockdown we started broadcasting live games so that people with season tickets could watch.
Then last year they brought in National League TV, which was mainly driven by Wrexham and Notts County being in that league that season and because of that they sent out equipment so that each home team can do their streaming and Stones Live links into that.
Now, this year, we got relegated from the National League last year, but they brought it in for level six so that’s where our product comes from and then we just overlay our commentary onto the highlights package and then they put that out as a roughly ten minutes highlight package.
AW: Moving on from that, obviously you’ve just mentioned the relegation from the National League last year having been up in the National League in 2016 for a few years as well. What were the expectations going into this league season. When I checked the table you were sat third but there’s been a couple more games since then and you're now fourth.
NS: Yeah we’ve dropped a little bit but we’re still in the play-offs. We came down with Yeovil and Torquay, who are big clubs anyway.
Yeovil have just had a takeover. Torquay have had Gary Johnson there for years. I think the expectations were to be in and around the play-offs and be competing with those teams.
We had such a bad season last year. We were relegated with 24 points and were down about February time, not mathematically but realistically.
George Elokobi was in as caretaker-manager and we weren’t winning many league games but it allowed the staff and the scouting team to go out and watch games live and identify players that they wanted.
You can obviously go watch them in pre-season friendlies but being able to go and watch them when something was on the line you get a better sense and that gave them a heads up and find targets for the next season.
I think the target was to be in and around the play-offs. He’s quite a motivational character, our manager Elokobi ,and he’s played at the highest level, so I think it was about him stamping his mark on the team and it’s just proved, the cup run especially that that’s been really good
AW: So onto the cup run, unlike it being Town’s second game this is Maidstone's seventh match in the cup run?
NS: Yeah, we came in in the second qualifying round, so we had three qualifying rounds and then first round, second round and third round, so we’ve won six games to get to this point.
AW: And slowly stepped it up in opposition as well
NS: I think we were lucky that the later round games against Stevenage and Barrow were at home as well. We do play on a 3G pitch and it is coming to the end of its life, a little bit patchy in places, it's not the best
AW: So it can provide a bit of an advantage there?
NS: It’s a leveller really, isn’t it? I know Barrow do train on a 3G pitch but training on it and playing on it are two different things and they all play differently.
Some teams water theirs but we don’t water ours and it depends on the amount of crumb you put on it. We’ve played at some before where you go to a 3G pitch and it’s got so much of that rubber crumb on it that it’s like playing on tarmac but they do it to their advantage
AW: Every single team will have a home pitch that suits how they want to play
NS: That’s the same with grass pitches too isn’t it, you can keep the grass long or keep it short depending on how you want to play
AW: Yeah, you’ve got teams with long throw specialists who move the boards back as far as you can.
Now obviously the cup run will be great financially and I'm guessing it’s mainly seen as a good thing because when you get to this stage you then have to balance the cup and the league. Do you think it’s been a bit of a hindrance on the league? I was looking at the fixtures and you have a game on Saturday and then a game on Tuesday before visiting Portman Road
NS: It’s a difficult one. We’re not behind in our games. Sometimes when you have a cup run they can build up and you get a lot of fixture congestion but that's not happened. I think thanks to the 3G pitch as we’ve managed to fit most of them in.
We’re not part-time where you just play games, so we train three days a week so you can get that fitness in there.
I think it’s probably just a mental thing with the team. Obviously if you’ve got a player coming up to a suspension like George Elokobi himself, he’s one game away from his second suspension of the season, which would mean he’d miss two games, and there’s a couple of other players on yellows who are treading the tightrope.
Then if you’re 50/50, especially midfielders, you’re not going to go into those tackles and so it is human nature to play on the back of your mind isn’t it and George would never come out and say that. He’d just say we’ll take each game as it comes and we’ll focus on Ipswich after we’ve played Braintree next Tuesday.
There’s so much media stuff and tickets going on sale around the club that it’s difficult to switch off from it completely and not focus on it.
AW: Yeah definitely. We had a similar period over Christmas with a busy schedule and injuries stack up, you get the mental fatigue and Sam Morsy was on nine yellow cards, he eventually got his 10th and he’s missed Sunderland and Leicester on Monday, so things like that can hit you. It’s one of those things you have to deal with.
So next I'm hoping you can give me an insight into what sort of style of play we can expect. Obviously, it might be a different set-up for a big cup game against a higher opposition but from what I've seen it’s mainly five at the back although there was one game that it changed to a 4-3-3
NS: Talking to them, when they went into the season they wanted to play a 4-3-3 which is what we’ve played for the last couple of years but through injuries and suspensions they went to a three at the back with wing-backs and we started winning games so we’ve stuck with a winning team.
It’s difficult because we’ve played so many games in the cup now we’re getting players like Matt Rush and we’ve got a young lad on loan from Leyton Orient [Jephte Tanga] but they’re both cup-tied so you’re playing between two systems to suit the players.
We’ve got the wingers in but because they’re cup-tied we can’t play that system in the cup because they can’t play. And then we’ve got Levi Amantchi, who scored about 20 goals at the beginning of the season but Bromley have come in and signed him so we’re very low on strikers at the moment. The one striker we’ve got who can play I think it’s about 50/50 whether he’ll be back and able to play.
They’re looking at getting Amantchi back but I'm not sure that’s common knowledge and they’re also looking at other targets to try and replace the goals that have been lost, but a lot of those players who they’re looking to get in are cup-tied as well.
It’s getting that balance right. Do you just do it for one game and potentially lose a player who can help you in your promotion push? So even with transfers it is like you were saying, do you focus on the league or focus on the cup?
AW: And in terms of style of play, it looks like George gets the players to play out from the back a bit. There’s a lot of passing and with the wing-backs it looks like there’s a lot of threat generated down the wings.
NS: I think he’s always said it’s a team in transition and sometimes you can see that. Sometimes they have a really good game defensively and sometimes we’ve gone to teams like Hampton and Richmond and conceded five goals so it’s all about getting that balance again.
I think he tries to play a high tempo, high-press sort of game. That worked against Worthing early in the season, we beat them 4-0 at our place but when we went away we lost 5-1 so again.
When it works it really works but I think we struggle if we go behind. If we concede one we tend to concede two and then you’re chasing the game.
Because he’s trying to implement that style, it’s not really a style that’s made for chasing. It’s largely possession-based so when you’re chasing the game and you’ve got to make runs forward and try and go long we’ve got Rush who’s quick and likes the ball on the floor but he’s not a target man, he’s not going to hold the ball up for you.
Whereas Amantchi was tall so he could do that and you could throw balls up to him and he’d win headers and bring others into play, Matt Rush isn’t that sort of player so again it’s changing that style.
AW: It takes a lot of pressure off as well, having that big striker that you can get the ball out to and he can hold it up and let the team get back up the pitch as well.
NS: With the strikers as well, Matt Rush has come in, he started the season at Aveley and he only scored two goals but he’s come in and since Levi [Amantchi] has gone he’s got eight goals in the league.
Coaching-wise, they’ve got Craig Fagan as George’s assistant. He was a striker himself for Hull and Derby among others and I think he does a lot of work.
Someone like Levi you can see the difference in him when they’ve worked with him. In pre-season he looked like bambi on ice, he was running down blind alleys and falling over all the time but as the season went on you could see the work they’d done with him with that ability to be in the right place at the right time with that strikers instinct and that’s promising that they do a lot of work with them and it’s having an impact.
AW: In terms of other players to look out for, George Fowler has very strong Town links, he played the full 90 minutes of a Carabao Cup game in his one appearance for Ipswich. He’s since played a lot at National League level and quite a few games in the sixth tier. I’ve got him down as a centre-half but every time I watched him on the highlights he was drifting out on the right and delivering crosses from out there.
NS: He is a right-sided centre-half but then last season because we had quite a long term injury to Gavin Hoyte he did play right-back. When they play a four he does tend to be that right-sided player deputising for Gavin Hoyte. He does get forward but I think his better position is the right side of a three or a two in the centre
AW: Hoyte’s another one. He’s Arsenal youth, must bring a lot of experience to that backline and settle everything down.
NS: We had such a big squad last year of about 30-odd players but you couldn’t really pick anyone who was a standout player. The policy this year has definitely been quality over quantity. They’ve gone for a smaller squad but added quality in that squad.
Players like Sam Bone, he can play in central defence but also the holding midfield role. He’s local but he’s actually played a lot of his football in the Republic of Ireland. He was at Dundalk before he came to us. I think the Republic of Ireland play in the summer for their main league which finishes around October, November time.
He was one, who because his family is from Maidstone he was training with us towards the end of the previous year and signed with us this time last year and he’s been with us ever since.
He’s one of those influential midfielders, he’s very vocal and he’s the heartbeat of the dressing room. He’s not the captain, that’s Sam Corne, but he’s very much an influence in the dressing room.
AW: Sam Corne is obviously the one that most people will know because he scored the winning penalty in the last game and again from watching the highlights he seems to be a bit of a set-piece threat. He scored another excellent penalty the game before the cup game, right into the top corner and is he on free-kicks as well?
NS: Yeah, that penalty he scored against Tonbridge was actually his first one, we’ve missed a few penalties this year, so [Liam] Sole who started off on penalties he missed a couple early season, then Levi took one and missed one.
Then Devonte Aransibia was on penalties but he’s since gone on loan to Tonbridge so Sam Corne’s on them now. He’s scored two in two so I'd guess he’s going to continue taking them.
He is a box-to-box midfielder. I think because we’re playing with the three he’s more of a holding player at the moment because we haven’t got the numbers to be doing that. I think he’s our longest serving player now, he came in 2020 so he’s been with us four seasons now and he’s a local as well.
AW: Now the other names i recognised, mainly through playing Football Manager. [Harry] Kyprianou, left centre half/wing-back.
NS: He’s one of those that has played in all sorts of positions. I think his best position is that left-sided wing-back or left-back role, but he has played in central defence, he’s played in midfield and he’s covered the right wing-back role.
He’s one of those players that just seems to be able to slot in anywhere really. We did sign a player at the beginning of the season who was quite highly-touted from Welling, Chi Ezennoling, and I think he was earmarked as the left wing-back but I think he struggled with the daytime training because he always seems to be injured. He comes back for a game, half a game and then picks up another injury, so then they got Kyprianou in.
He was at Weymouth last year, but I think he’s someone that Craig Fagan knows because he came through the Southend set-up when Craig was the U23s manager.
Matt Rush also came through there as well. He’s obviously someone that they’ve come across before and they know, and he brings that versatility. I think left-back is his favoured position and he does seem to put a good cross in.
AW: I did notice that his delivery was good. The other two I was aware of were Lamar Reynolds and Timmy Abraham who’s Tammy’s brother I believe?
NS: He is, we got him on loan from Boreham Wood. He’s another one that’s frustrating. He’s one of these forwards that’s not scored a goal. He gets into the positions but then he can’t seem to put the ball in the net. He played against us last year for Oldham and he could easily have had a hat-trick.
I commentated on that one and he just doesn’t seem to do it. I think since we’ve sold Levi, Matt Rush is playing through the middle so Abraham tends to be out on the right.
We said it about Levi, he doesn’t look like a footballer because of his height. There were sometimes you saw Levi running and his first touch was poor but you look at Timmy and he’s got a good first touch, he’s got pace, he’s got strength and he gets himself into good positions but when the goals there he seems to find a way off missing.
Lamar’s another one. He’s not scored for us either, he had a lot of time out around September, October time due to a bereavement so he’s only just come back into the side and I think he’s playing a lot now because he’s one of the only forwards we’ve got.
He’s another one who’s played in different positions. He’s come of the bench and played as a left wing-back or a right wing-back. I think with both Abraham and Reyonlds, they’re the sort of players that once they get one goal you can see them hitting a purple patch but it’s getting that one goal that’s the problem.
He played in the Stevenage FA Cup game Lamar and he got into some good positions. He was on the back post and the ball came in and it’s one of those where it was easier to use your foot but he stooped down and tried to head it in. I suppose it just comes with confidence but that’s the same with all strikers really.
AW: Yeah definitely, confidence is a big part of it. Even if it comes off your chest or your knee or whatever.
NS: That’s it, you just need a goal to go in and then one leads to two and you can carry on
AW: And that Stevenage game, were there any tactical changes. Did George set them up any differently because it looked like Maidstone created plenty of chances early on and got a well deserved lead, but then I guess as is natural for a game that size it was very much Stevenage for the last 20 minutes or so.
NS: We were very direct in our running, there was a lot of forward play in the first half. We’ve just got a player in Jacob Berkley Agyepong; he’s played with Reece Greenidge who’s another good player who plays at the back.
He’s a centre-back but they play together for Guyana, and he was running at the defence, but he got injured in the penalty incident and had to come off, so we did lose that threat and then it ended up backs to the wall. They should have scored a few. Steve Evans said in his press conference that they should have at least had three and they probably should have done.
AW: Couple of poor finishes and I think they hit the post and the bar at one point
NS: They hit the bar and hit the post and then one fell to Reid who’s got like 16 goals in League One this year and he just spooned it. He didn’t get it on target. It was one of those if it’s your day it’s your day situations.
AW: Still a good win in the end though. Even if it was a bit backs to the wall.
NS: Steve Evans used to be the manager of Gillingham, up the road, so he’s well known by the local press, especially the BBC Kent commentators and they were all looking forward to what his post-match press conference would be like.
He tends to be one of those managers that blames everyone else, but he was quite amicable, saying things along the line of, good luck to Maidstone, they deserved it, we didn’t take our chances.
The longer the game went on without them scoring the more confident the Maidstone players got, and it was comfortable in the end.
There was not real expectation on us, getting through to the third round can be your cup final really at that point. I remember us commentating on the Barrow game and the last ten minutes feels like half an hour because you so want to get into that third round when all of the big teams came in.
AW: Did I hear from one of you commentary pieces that was the first time Maidstone had been in the third round?
NS: No, it’s the first time we’ve been in the fourth round and it’s the first time we’d been in the third round in our current form but they were a league club back in the 80s and 90s.
During the 80s I think they got there two or three times. I think they played Sheffield United in the third round in 1987 and then Watford under Graham Taylor when they had Luther Blissett and John Barnes and all of those sort of players.
All of those were away from home so we’d never actually played a third round game at home so that was the first time in our history that that had happened.
I think we had a replay once with Charlton back in the early 80s. But yeah it’s the first time we’re in the fourth round in the club's history, so it’s definitely a feat
AW: There’s been a lot of talk about whether Ipswich are considered a good draw or not. Obviously everyone in the hat wants your Man Uniteds, your Arsenals, your City’s, your Chelsea’s but it’s another step up. A lot of tickets are being made available to Maidstone fans.
NS: 4,800 I think it is, they’ve started selling them today, they’ve put on five coaches. I personally think it’s a great draw. The chances are if you went to Liverpool or Man United, they wouldn’t fill it to capacity, I don’t think.
Newcastle might do because they’d go to a game if it was on the moon but for teams like that playing Maidstone United isn’t going to be the highlight of their season is it.
Ipswich though is quite local to us. It’s only around two hours from us, 30,000 seater stadium and I think they’ve done the prices right as well.
Like I say five coaches to go up there which we don’t normally do. When you think that the Gallagher Stadium only holds 4,200 and we’ve got 4500 tickets, everybody who’d want a ticket should get a ticket and Ipswich have won a European trophy in the past so a lot of the older fans will remember all of that and they’re quite happy about it really.
AW: And Ipswich are a side playing good football and the moment, second in the Championship. Have a chance of being a Premier League team next year, who knows
NS: Our old assistant [Darren Oxbrow], he’s actually an Ipswich fan. He used to play, I think he won the FA Trophy in the 90s with Canvey Island. Everyone was like he’s going to love it because he goes to Ipswich games. He’s actually got an England flag with both the Ipswich badge and the Maidstone badge on it. Everyone’s been asking him which end he’s going to go in.
There are a fair few Ipswich fans in Kent and South Essex so it’s not some far away club like Man United, although I suppose all of their fans live in London don’t they?
AW: It’s priced really well. I think our tickets went on sale to season ticket holders today and there were a bunch of people in the online queue, I'm not sure how many we’ve sold but it should be close to selling out on the Ipswich side as well so it should be a really good game and a good atmosphere and I think Maidstone will have a large chunk of the Cobbold Stand so that should be good.
NS: And obviously it’s on TV as well so more coverage there. I don’t think if it had been Ipswich v Stevenage that would have got the same coverage so that’s good for both clubs because of the Maidstone story as they are the only non-league team left in the cup now.
AW: Because Eastleigh lost their replay last night, didn’t they? So onto the last bit, the prediction. I guess it’s one of those where all the neutrals will be hoping for the upset. Based on the last round Ipswich played quite a strong side so it’s not like a bunch of youngsters are going to play. But then with events like this you never know do you. If Maidstone grab an early goal anything could happen.
NS: That’s the key isn’t it, whoever gets that early goal, like I said to you before we’re not very good at chasing the game, especially if we’ve not got any recognised strikers either on the bench or starting.
I think it’s going to be an attritional game. I think goalkeeper Covolan is a big player for us and does seem to play well in the big games so if he can make a couple of early saves and give the back three or four some confidence then the deeper it goes the more chance you’ve got but I think most fans are thinking it’s more for the day out and avoiding embarrassment really
AW: Yeah, enjoy the atmosphere, try and get a goal
NS: Exactly, there’s a few of our ex-players playing for Aldershot and the last round they went to West Brom in the third round and lost 4-1. They were 3-0 down at half-time but they got a goal right and the end, one of their youngsters came off the bench and scored a goal so I think they’re looking at that sort of thing.
Got to try and keep it tight the first 20 minutes and see where it takes us. Some have said try and just get back for a replay
AW: A replay would be massive, more money for Maidstone and I'm sure Town would sell out their away tickets too. But like you said with the Stevenage game, it’s just a case of staying in the game as long as possible and hoping for a moment or a penalty decision or a set piece and trying to get something. I think I'm going to go for a 3-1 Town win.
NS: That’s what I was going to say 3-1
AW: From the Ipswich side I'm not sure who he’ll pick but it should be a strong side. Sam Morsy will be back from his two-game ban so he could start again.
We’ve got a couple of new signings in Lewis Travis and Jeremy Sarmiento, who will be looking for more minutes but again high quality loan players. We’ve not really got that many youngsters coming through at the moment.
Cam Humphreys has been there a few seasons. He played a lot in League One last year so he might get a chance and Gerrard Buabo has come on in a couple of games, but I think he’ll go with a strong second choice line-up.
NS: I was going to say 3-1. But it depends on how long we can stay in the game really. You want to keep it interesting. You don’t want it to be over and be 3-0 down in 20 minutes but if Ipswich come out with that attitude, put the game to bed early and take some of those players you mentioned off once the games won then that’s the advantage to doing that.
The other important thing too is at our level we still only have the five subs on the bench. That’s something we’ve had to adapt to and that only came into play when we got to the first round. So in the qualifying rounds we were still with the five subs and only three coming on.
AW: That’s something that Ipswich definitely utilise in our squad. Especially the forward players, we basically get the forward players to run as hard as they can for 60-70 minutes and then change the whole front four so that can definitely be an advantage.
Cup selections have definitely changed since back when Mick McCarthy was manager when it was like picking a team out of a hat for some games and there was no cohesion and then you’re ripe for an upset and we’ve had a few in the not too distant past.
But recently even the second-choice XI because the training is so detailed and they all know their roles and McKenna drills that into them it’s less likely.
Last round we played Wimbledon, probably weren’t at our best but were still fairly comfortable against them. They had a man sent off which helped but again something like that can also change a game. But it should be a great game all in all.
A tricky one given the amount of options Town now have back fit and available. Christian Walton in goal is a certainty. You’d imagine both Harry Clarke and Leif Davis will be rested and with Dominic Ball having trained mainly as a midfielder again I’m going for a back four of Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Woolfenden, George Edmundson and Cameron Humphreys.
In midfield with Morsy back from suspension he could start to get his match time up. You’d imagine Massimo Luongo will be rested having only just recovered from a knock so that will mean one of Travis or Jack Taylor alongside him. My money would be on Taylor.
In the attacking areas it’s likely that we’ll see the three game-changing substitutes from Monday night start, likely Omari Hutchinson on the right, Sarmiento on the left and Nathan Broadhead as the central striker.
Behind them Sone Aluko could be rotated in but Kieran McKenna does like to keep some first teamers in the side so I’m going for Conor Chaplin.
The Maidstone team is again hard to call. They’ve rotated a lot in recent games with Saturday and Tuesday kick-offs this week.
Covolan will start in goal that much is certain. Hoyte could come in at right-back with Fowler and Greenidge in the middle and Kyprianou at left-back.
That could then allow a midfield of Bone and Corne and maybe Paul Appiah to form a solid three in the middle.
Manny Duku has recently arrived from Gibraltan side Manchester 62 and could lead the line given the lack of other options with Reynolds and Sole either side of him.
Duku had scored six in six for the Gibraltarian side and has had decent goal returns at Raith Rovers and Havant and Waterlooville in the past.
Adam: 3-1 Ipswich
Nigel: 3-1 Ipswich
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