When, in the third round of the FA Cup, Maidstone United beat Stevenage, a club standing 69 places above them in the footballing pyramid, it prompted a significant ingress on to the pitch. Hundreds of fans poured on to the artificial surface at the club’s Gallagher Stadium to celebrate with the players, in an echo of the flood of spectators that greeted Hereford United’s victory over Newcastle back in 1972.
This, however, was not the Invasion of the Parkas. It was the invasion of a banana. For among the delirious and delighted, the television cameras picked out a young man dressed up as a piece of fruit. “He gave me a big hug,” recalls Sam Corne, who scored the match-winning penalty that day. “He’s been coming to our games since he was a little kid, and always brought an inflatable banana. For the Cup run, he’s gone one further and has been dressing up as a banana. No idea why.”
The banana-clad youngster will be among 4,500 supporters making their way from Kent to Suffolk for Saturday lunchtime’s fourth-round tie against Ipswich. Which is more people than can be squeezed into the club’s home ground. For many, including Banana Man, they will be attending their seventh tie of this year’s competition, more than a Championship or Premier League side will play to reach the final.
Their FA Cup began on 16 Sep, with a second-qualifying-round victory over Steyning Town. And according to the club’s manager George Elokobi, it is a run that is indicative of a growing force of nature on the banks of the River Medway. “I tell you there is something special happening at Maidstone United,” he says, as he stands on the pitch close to where Corne took his penalty. “And I love it.”
Elokobi might seem an unexpected presence in the dugout of a National League South team. After all, he played 85 times for Wolverhampton Wanderers, including three seasons in the Premier League. But this is a man with an unabashed affection for non-League football. It is where his career began, when he turned out for Dulwich Hamlet soon after arriving in this country from Cameroon as a 16-year-old.
There, his muscular, whole-hearted defending stood out and he was picked up by Colchester, and within five years was at Wolves. But when his career was winding down, he went back to his roots, and ended up as Maidstone captain. Then, almost exactly a year ago, with the club sliding towards the relegation zone of the National League South, he was appointed manager.
‘Mick McCarthy saw management qualities in me I didn’t see’
“I never thought I could be a manager, it was Mick McCarthy who encouraged me to go for it,” he says, of his former boss at Wolves. “He saw management qualities in me I didn’t see. I still reach out to him, he is my mentor. He is always there to pick up the phone, he doesn’t wait five hours, he rings me back in five minutes.”
Speaking to Telegraph Sport from his home, McCarthy said it was obvious from the moment he met a young Elokobi, this was someone with real leadership potential.
“He was maybe not the best player in the world, but he trained properly, treated people properly, always tried to improve himself,” he says. “He was a leader on the pitch, there was a winning mentality about him. And he’s such a good lad. What’s not to like about that?”
McCarthy clearly knows possibility when he sees it. Because, assisted by his former Colchester team-mate Craig Fagan, Elokobi has transformed Maidstone, invigorating it with his enthusiasm and positivity. His ebullience is clear when he is having his picture taken for the Telegraph. He empties the pockets of his tracksuit top, worried that the bulges from his keys and phone might be mistaken for something else.
“I don’t want anybody to think I’ve put on weight,” he says. Is he still in the gym everyday, then? “Are you kidding me? Look at that,” he shouts.
And he pulls up his sweatshirt to reveal a stomach so toned, the Fast Show’s Arthur Atkinson would immediately mistake it for his missing washboard. He then roars with laughter.
But for all his good humour, Elokobi insists on a stringent work ethic. His players may only be part time, training three mornings a week, but the approach has been rigorous. He has led from the front: since he took over last January he has not had a day off.
“We demand a lot from the players,” he says. “In pre-season, from the moment we started, players were being sick on the sideline they were being pushed so hard. We were telling them it would help them in the later season. And we have seen that.”
Certainly, in the latter stages of the victory over Stevenage, when the League One side pressed relentlessly for an equaliser, the Maidstone players showed admirable reserves of fitness. Ipswich, however, represents an even more formidable challenge. Not least in the dugout, where Elokobi will be up against Kieran McKenna, a coach seemingly destined for the highest level. Not that Elokobi sees it as a personal competition.
‘I am just starting my career’
“No, not at all,” he says. “Kieran is at a completely different level to me. I am just starting my career. It is not about George against Kieran McKenna. It is about Ipswich against Maidstone, it is about our community, it is about our supporters having a fantastic occasion. About our players enjoying it. That is what I tell them: this is not a job, this is a hobby. Have fun.”
As an approach it is paying dividends. Maidstone sit fourth in the National League South; promotion remains the overriding ambition. Not that Elokobi is looking too far ahead. When asked if he has aspirations to follow Chris Wilder and progress from managing in the non-leagues to the Premier League, he scoffs at the very idea.
“The future cannot be predicted, just look to the present. I have to keep improving the structure we have here, keep ensuring we are competitive in every game, make sure we get something out of this season. Sure, maybe if that time comes I will get an opportunity. But for now it’s just Maidstone United FC.”
And he is keen to spread the word. He invited McCarthy to watch the Stevenage game. “He came and spent that day with us,” he recalls. “I think he was quite honoured. When we won, he was so happy. Deep down I think he’s a new fan.”
It is a description at which McCarthy himself scoffs. And indeed it is hard to imagine him in a banana suit. “I think he’s misguided,” McCarthy says of his protege. “If he’s there, I’ll support Maidstone. What I am is a fan of George Elokobi.”
It appears he is not the only one. Because the manager’s FA Cup exploits have become front-page news in his homeland.
“I am the first Cameroonian to manage an English outfit,” he says. “Let alone to be in the fourth round of the FA Cup. So they are right behind us, we have a big fanbase in Cameroon. The messages I’ve been getting on social platforms are incredible. Maidstone is global. All thanks to George Elokobi.”
And he roars with laughter. Again.