Wealdstone travel to Kent on Saturday to take on Premier Division new boys Maidstone United in an exciting, but very tough opening contest of the new campaign, likely to be played out in front of a 2,000 plus crowd.
United were promoted back to the Ryman League’s summit via the play-offs last season, after a two-year absence, and will be hoping to get off to a solid start against the other ‘Stones’ who are also tipped for another strong finishing position this season.
Jay Saunders’ men have had a gruelling pre-season, having amassed a total of ten friendlies, and the player-manager will be largely pleased with what he has seen in the month-long period. Maidstone have won six, losing just two, against Blue Square Premier side Luton Town and a Charlton Athletic XI.
Despite a positive start after the surprise loss of several established players early on, Wealdstone’s pre-season form has been slightly disappointing, although being arguably less arduous. Last year’s play-off semi-finalists began with back-to-back victories over Hitchin and Slough, before straight defeats at the hands of Hayes & Yeading, Uxbridge and a Chelsea XI.
There is, however, a strong but quieter sense of optimism around The Vale for the season ahead, and after acquiring some more than competent players over the summer break, Gordon Bartlett’s Stones will be hoping to build further on last year’s second successive semi-final play-off achievement, although Bartlett will know that it may take a little longer for the re-shaped squad to fully gel.
Perhaps one of the main talking points in the build-up to Saturday’s match will be Maidstone’s year-old stadium, or rather, it’s playing surface. When United moved into the Gallagher Stadium in July 2012, they became the first English team to build a stadium with third generation artificial turf, commonly known as 3G.
There were many reasons why the Kent outfit opted for 3G ahead of grass, none more so than the greatly reduced risk of a waterlogged or frozen pitch, and judging by the positive reaction to it, few would be surprised if it was the first of many, especially in non league.
Wealdstone could hand league debuts to up to four players on Saturday, including impressive defensive duo Jey Siva and Jerome Okimo. The pair have been stand-out performers during pre-season and will be hoping they can keep their standards high when competitive football resumes. Jack Hutchison and Adam Martin could also feature, however forward Lewis Putman is sadly ruled out through long term injury.
The latest news, however, from the Wealdstone camp is that hugely experienced Glen Little, 37, has signed Ryman forms and will be available to join the travelling squad – provided international clearance can be obtained in time. Little, something of a cult hero at his last club Wrexham has also previously played for Burnley, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Aldershot Town. He has also appeared in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers, Reading and Portsmouth, amassing over 500 professional appearances, scoring 66 goals.
The wait is nearly over and the return of league football is almost upon us. At three o’clock on Saturday pre-season results will bear little relevance, and both sides will be heading out entirely focused on the task at hand. Maidstone will be desperate to re-establish themselves in the Premier Division, and will want a good start against one of the big guns. Meanwhile Wealdstone won’t want to waste any time in getting last season’s disappointment out of their system and start as they mean to go on, as the curtains rises on another exciting campaign.
By Matt Desai