Thank you Maidstone United for creating such wonderful memories for the whole country

Thursday 29 Feb 2024

From the very outset of my challenge, I knew this round was going to be a test for me.

With the fifth round proper of the Emirates FA Cup now taking place during the week and not over a weekend, it adds an extra logistical challenge for like-minded adventurers. Being based in the South East, I’d decided even before I attended my very first match on this journey that I would endeavour to head to London for this stage of the competition.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you will no doubt be aware that the city of Coventry is not – and indeed to the best of my knowledge – has never been located in the capital.

I followed my adopted hometown club Maidstone United to Ipswich Town in the fourth round and witnessed them write another chapter into FA Cup folklore with a truly remarkable victory at Portman Road, becoming the first side from the sixth tier to reach the last 16 since Blyth Spartans in 1978.

How could I possibly refuse one more magical day with the Stones?

Coventry City v Maidstone United

Emirates FA Cup 2023-24
Fifth round proper
Monday 26 February 2024

The decision to avoid London was almost taken out of my hands anyway with Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea now the sole survivors from the city after their convincing victory in a replay at Aston Villa in round four. It’s hard to imagine a fifth round line-up with such a small representation from the banks of the Thames.

However, my mind was made up. I was sending myself to Coventry.

For most of the time during this adventure, I have travelled solo and been fortunate to make some friends along the way. The journey to the Midlands was a lonely one with only my own thoughts for company. Leaving work as early as I could at 3.40pm, I knew I wouldn’t make kick-off with much time to spare, even if the motorways were kind.

And many of these thoughts were pessimistic and negative in nature. Why are there so many roadworks when I have important FA Cup business to attend to? Why won’t they delay kick-off when I might be a little late? 

Maidstone United manager George Elokobi thanks the club's supporters after the game

I wasted little time in getting out of work and had pre-booked my car park spot so wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Last time I visited Coventry, I had to leave my car a painful 15-minute walk away from the stadium. I didn’t fancy that again!

Thankfully, once I had located a parking spot, the loneliness soon dissipated and I was suddenly amongst friends again – even if I did miss the first couple of minutes.

It has been a real joy to share in the wonderful journey the Stones have been on during this campaign. I’ve made new friends at the club and shared stories of such happiness with the children at the school I work at, who have marvelled at their heroes on this incredible run.

Nobody saw this adventure coming but it will forever live in the memory of all those connected with the Black and Amber Army.

Fans wait for the Maidstone United players after the game

The result was expected, perhaps, but the manner in which it came was particularly sad for Maidstone. Conceding twice so early seemed to slightly dampen the spirits amongst the travelling faithful and it certainly eased any nerves there may have been for those of a Sky Blue dissuasion. 

Ellis Simms struck twice with less than a quarter of an hour on the clock to put the 1987 winners firmly in the driving seat. The Championship side looked comfortable throughout and even the romantic and optimist in me felt this was going to be a bridge too far for their visitors.

Simms completed a first-half hat-trick before the interval to seemingly put the result beyond any real doubt. I decided to make my way to the concourse, all of the driving having left me with no time for dinner and an appetite that needed satisfying.

As I tucked into my chicken balti pie, I caught up with two friends who had made the journey with their families. Despite the score, they were both in good spirits and enjoying the occasion, knowing they may face a long wait for history to repeat itself in a similar way.

And although the goals had initially calmed the party for the travelling faithful, it was clearly only a temporary lull in proceedings. They were not going to go quietly into the night. Maidstone had come to celebrate.

The second period was a much more even affair and, with the final whistle approaching, it appeared the Stones were going to prevent their hosts from further altering the score. However, the lively Fábio Tavares had other ideas, doing his best to equal Simms’ efforts on the night, but ultimately having to settle for a four-minute brace instead.

And so the Sky Blues will face a Midlands derby with Wolves for a place in the semi-finals and the home supporters certainly enjoyed their celebrations. It was a pleasure watching Coventry’s composure on the ball as well as their relentless pressing out of possession.

Mark Robins has them playing well and they can travel to Molineux with confidence.

However, as City’s supporters made their way to the exits, the Stones fans were going nowhere, remaining in place and singing their hearts out, serenading George Elokobi and his troops who themselves stayed out on the pitch long after the final whistle to conduct their choir.

I enjoyed the party for a short time before making my exit. As I mentioned, the Stones have become good friends but this was their moment and not one for me to intrude on. Besides, my bed was calling my name.

My sincere thanks go to all at Maidstone United for opening their arms to me back in round two, embracing my own journey, and for creating such wonderful memories for the whole country to share in. It would be wonderful if they can continue their charge in the National League South.

As for the FA Cup, only two rounds remain before the final itself. More memories to be made.

By Matt Bass