Sunday 03rd October 2004
www.yourcounty.co.uk - The Kent Website - Supporting Kentish Football

Margate wait for ground breaking decision

MARGATE manager Chris Kinnear has admitted it has been hell for everybody at the club in the three years it has played away from their Hartsdown Park ground, but he can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, writes Stephen McCartney.

Thanet District Council are meeting on Thursday 14th October and part of their agenda is to discuss the Hartsdown Park Project, which involves redeveloping the football stadium and other commercial activities on the site, including a hotel and other facilities.

It has been a roller coaster ride for the Thanet club after winning the Southern League Premier Division title in season 2000-01 to join the elite of non-league football clubs in the Nationwide Conference.

The first day of the Nationwide Conference season saw the club highlighted as relegation candidates, but Kinnear and his players thought overwise and secured an opening day 1-0 win at Boston United, going on to finish the season in 8th place.

During that first season at Hartsdown Park, Margate's attendances climbed to an average of 1,700 per game.  The highest single crowd was for the Boxing Day visit of local rivals Dover Athletic when just under 4,000 people crammed into Hartsdown Park.

However, their second season in the Nationwide Conference saw the club groundsharing at Dover Athletic, having secured planning permission for the redevelopment of their stadium.

Despite playing all their games away from Margate, the club finished the league in tenth place.

The season also saw the club beat Leyton Orient in the first round of the FA Cup and they went on to draw second division side Cardiff City at home in the second round but eventually lost 3-1 after a brave battle.

In August 2003 the club started another season at Dover due to the delays of the redevelopment project, highlighting the fact that whilst the club had performed on the pitch, delays and problems off the pitch meant the club's goals have not yet been achieved.

However, In June 2004, the club suffered their biggest setback.  After Kinnear steered the team to 16th place in the Nationwide Conference, the club were relegated one division due to the ongoing delays with the redevelopment plans for their new stadium.

Margate, however, are this season playing in the Nationwide South, playing their home games at Ashford Town's Homelands ground, and average gates have plummeted to just over 200.

However, on Saturday Margate progressed into the third qualifying round of the FA Cup, with a 2-1 victory over Southern League Division One East side Waltham Forest, in front of a crowd of just 201 at Homelands.

Manager Kinnear, who has admitted he is more like a supporter having been at the club for eight years, believes the club will take off again once they return back home to Margate.

He said: "We are not firing on all cylinders, the lads have been dragged through the hedge backwards, haven't they?

"I think we are just hanging on until the 14th October really, and hopefully that will kick start us.

"It's been hell really, managers talk about pressure of the team not winning, it's everything - you think are we still going to be here next year, next week even!"

Kinnear, admitted he is staying with the club to see it through and cannot wait to lead his team out in a brand new stadium.

"I haven't got time to think about leaving or going to another club," he said. "I am too worried about keeping this one going.

"I have become a supporter as much as a manager really - I've been here so long!"

Kinnear admitted he has enjoyed every minute as manager of Margate - even though the club are currently going through a testing period.

"I've enjoyed every minute.  I really have!  Even the hard times and that.  I've had a good time and the supporters have - by and large, nearly all the time - been very supportive."

Kinnear was appointed Margate manager in 1996-97 and in November 1997 the club were beaten 2-1 in the first round of the FA Cup by Mohamed Al Fayed's Fulham, who were managed at the time by Kevin Keegan and Ray Wilkins.

By 1999 the club had achieved promotion to the Southern League Premier Division - and Kinnear described it was a challenge winning two promotions to reach the Nationwide Conference.

But their demotion from the top flight hurt the long serving manager, as it wasn't footballing issues that meant the club had to drop one division - and this led to the club losing six of their best players.

"We've lost a lot really, with six very good players leaving at the start of this season, it's going to be hard to replace them.

"Once we get ourselves in the ground and we've got a home, the supporters will start coming and people start to see what a ground we've got, with a decent team, nice pitch, then local people may start to jump on the bandwagon and we will be able to bring in sponsors.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel, the only problem is, there's a fast train coming towards us very quickly!"

Kinnear admitted it has been difficult attracting players to the club, but insists they will be jumping at the chance to wear the blue shirt of Margate once they are playing at their new home.

"We just need to have a home really.  Everyone that groundshares have always struggled,  we are just not the only side.

"I know the last 3 years have been murder but in three years time people will say it was worth going through that pain - and it has been painful for us believe me, not just for me, the directors, the supporters - the players as well!"

Kinnear praised chairman Keith Piper and the club's hard working directors for keeping the club afloat.

"It's been hard for everybody involved.  Luckily Keith Piper has hung on in there.  I don't know how he has and Colin Page - they have been there in the whole eight years.  

"I don't know how they have stuck it out, but it looks like the council are going to rubber stamp it and we can then get up and going then.

"It will be marvelous!  I can't wait!  I am really emotional about it.  It's such great to get this far from what we have come through really.

"We've got players names in mind, but again it's building people's trust to know it's happening.

"Once the ground is there we can attract sponsors, supporters and I would imagine it will be at least next year before people start seeing the benefits.

"It will give us a carrot to attract players.  It's very difficult for players at the moment because they have heard there are financial problems at the club, with no ground and the council not supporting us - but now they are and we appreciate it!"