It has been an intense eighteen months for Maidstone United manager Jay Saunders, as his side sealed the Ryman League title, then embarked on a play-off push in the Vanarama National League South.
The Stones currently sit in second place in the league table, six points behind leaders Ebbsfleet United, although Daryl McMahon’s side have a game in hand on them.
Despite their close proximity to the Fleet, Saunders believes that the league title may just be a step too far for his side, as he offered an honest assessment of their current position within non-league’s second tier.
He said “I don’t think we can win it if I am being honest.
At the start of the season I said I wanted to reach the play-offs and deep inside I thought even that would be a big ask. If we make the play-offs I will be delighted, I never wanted to just make the numbers up.
But you never know, with a young side like we have, you don’t know how they will adjust. But we are there on merit, we deserve to be there, but I will the title will be a step too far”
And when asked to suggest a title winner, Saunders suggested that, in his mind, the title is Ebbsfleet United’s “to throw away”, as he paid tribute to the quality Daryl McMahon has within his squad.
“I think they(Ebbsfleet United) will win it, it is their title to throw away. There is Sutton United, who are on a great run, they are an outside bet.
But I look at what Darryl has done there, the squad he has and what he is adding, players like Aaron McLean, that’s the quality they have.
It won’t be easy for them but they have enough to cope with the expectancy and I expect them to win the title”
Even if Saunders and his players are unsuccessful in their title bid, it has been some season for the club.
They, somewhat surprisingly, oversaw a big turnover in players over the summer, with a number of new signings brought in to replace those that had secured promotion just months earlier.
Saunders admitted that the decision to bring in a number of new faces, was a necessary one, as he sought to change his side’s style of play to cope with life at a higher level.
“Last season we were quite a physical side, full of strong players and we needed to be big and strong, hard to beat, if we were to get out of the Ryman League.
We were a big side, we bullied teams but in the National League South you need more legs in the side. I knew that from watching games last season, we needed youth and that is no disrespect to anyone here last season, they were great for us.
We needed more energy and more pace and we have that now”
One aspect of their play that has remained constant is their solid defence.
Stones keeper Lee Worgan, “the best in this league” according to Saunders, and his defensive colleagues have conceded just sixteen league goals this season.
That record is the best in the division and Saunders feels revealed that experiences he had playing alongside strong defences as a player, were something he has taken into management.
“I think if you look at our defensive players and Lee Worgan our goalkeeper, in my opinion he is the best in this league, we have lads who are well organised. If you don’t concede goals it helps to win games, I have always played in defensively strong sides.
I look at my time with Chris Kinnear at Margate for example.
We were always hard to beat and it’s something I have taken into management. We haven’t scored enough goals, I know that, but our defensive record has helped us win games so it is invaluable”
For all of their defensive solidity the Stones have one of the lowest amount of goals scored in the division.
In their twenty five games, the Stones have scored twenty six goals, three fewer than the division’s bottom club Havant and Waterlooville.
The their of goals was something that Saunders felt needed to be dealt with and he made moves in the transfer market to do so.
Striker Vas Karagiannis joined the club from Leatherhead, along with Dulwich Hamlet’s attacking midfielder Dan Sweeney and Saunders is hopeful that their can continue their recent improvement in front of goal.
“We do need to improve our goalscoring record and we are getting better, particularly in the last few weeks.
It has been built up that we are winning games 1-0 and maybe that played on our minds a bit because a lot of people were talking about it.
We were creating chances but we weren’t taking them. We have brought players in to help us and they have given us more pace and creativity so I hope that we can continue to improve in that sense”
Off the pitch the club received a big boost with the news that youngster James O’Halloran had been handed an England Schools call-up.
O’Halloran follows in the footsteps of former Stones star Chris Smalling (pictured above right), now of Manchester United, who also represented England Schools Under 18s side in his time with the club.
Saunders puts that success down to the club’s 3G pitch, with every one of the Stones sides from under 7s up to the senior team now playing and training at their Gallagher Stadium home.
He said “The 3G pitch makes a massive difference to develop players.
When I came here we had a reserve side but we couldn’t play, we had players around who couldn’t play.
Since the 3G came in we have sides from under 7s up to the Senior team all based at the Gallagher Stadium so we feel like a club where everyone is involved.
Young James O’Halloran has been called up to the England Schools squad, which is great for him and the club too.
But we have a lot of good young players coming through and have lost players to Aston Villa and Wolves, so that shows we are doing something right and I think more will follow”
And if more do follow you get the impression that Saunders may well take that extra step towards a league title in the near future.
Interview: Mark Carruthers