England striker: 'Maidstone United have made our whole town proud'

Friday 23 Feb 2024

For the last two summers, the people of Maidstone were cheering on one of their own as Alessia Russo played a crucial role in England Women reaching their first two major finals. Now, it is the area’s football club which has catapulted the town back on to the world stage.

Russo was integral to the Lionesses winning UEFA EURO 2022 and then scored in the group stage, quarter-final and semi-final as England just missed out on a maiden Women’s World Cup.

But Maidstone have continued to occupy the headlines into the 2023-24 season as the town’s football club have done the unthinkable and reached the fifth round proper of the Emirates FA Cup despite plying their trade in the sixth tier of English football.

Maidstone United have become the first team outside the top five divisions to reach the FA Cup fifth round proper since Blythe Spartans in 1978 and on Monday they have the chance to reach the quarter-finals of the world’s oldest club competition by beating Championship side Coventry City.

Their run has captured the imagination of fans across the world and one of those who will be watching from overseas on Monday will be Russo, who is currently in Spain with the England Women’s squad.

It is well-known that Russo and her family are Manchester United fans due to her grandfather’s love of the side but local club Maidstone United are very much their second team.

“I am so excited,” Russo said.

“I have had many sessions, tournaments and games at the Gallagher Stadium, and I used to go down there quite a bit with my family to watch some live football.

“They have always been a team that has competed, so it has been nice to follow their FA Cup run – it has been really cool.

“I remember when they beat Barrow, in my family messaging group my brother just said MAIDSTONE in capital letters and we all went to check the score.

“My brother is friends with a few of the players on the team and when they beat Barrow, they said that was the best day ever and then in each round they have done the same again.

“They are the underdog in every game, but they keep showing up and taking their chances.

“They have been incredible and making everyone in Maidstone proud.”

Maidstone United manager George Elokobi and the players celebrate their win at Ipswich Town

Russo grew up in East Farleigh, Maidstone, and started her footballing journey at West Farleigh before moving on to another local club, Bearsted FC, where she would play for the boys’ and girls’ teams each weekend.

While at East Farleigh Primary School, Russo signed for Charlton Athletic at the age of eight but continued to play for Bearsted and eventually joined Chelsea at under-12 level.

A brief spell with Brighton & Hove Albion was followed by a three-year stint in the USA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before Russo became a household name at Manchester United and England.

Russo, now at Arsenal, revealed she also honed her craft on the old pitch at Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium while attending St Simon Stock Catholic School.

She said: “I played a few school games at the Gallagher Stadium; school cup finals and stuff like that. I also had a Kent Schools FA game in a big County Cup game.

“I remember I had all my family there, which was cool because Kent is quite a big place so for it to be in Maidstone was really nice because all of my friends and family could come.

“I used to go down and train there sometimes with my old boys’ academy called Soccer Elite too, so I have lots of good memories from the Gallagher Stadium.”

Whilst Maidstone United will not have the benefit of home advantage for Monday night’s fifth round proper tie, they are likely to have support from across the world as fans tune in hoping to see if one of the great underdog stories can continue.

One of those will be Russo.

“I will be following along from Spain,” she said. “It is on ITV4 so I’m hoping I will be able to stream it and I will get some of the other girls involved too.

“I can't wait to watch that game and will be backing them all the way.”

By Frank Smith