This week I caught up with Maidstone United captain Lee Worgan, as we discussed his career and the second chances given by Non-League football.
The world of Non-League football provides many with a second chance. Be it fans fed up with being priced out of attending higher level clubs, players looking to rebuild their career, or clubs looking to fight their way back to where they once belonged. For Lee Worgan and Maidstone United this couldn’t be more relevant.
The story of Maidstone isn’t that well known, but even less so is that of their goalkeeper and captain Worgan. As the nation filled with anticipation at the prospect of the Premier League era back in 1992, the Stones were staring into the abyss. They were a league club riddled with debt, and in the August of that year they were unable to field enough players to fulfil a fixture against Scunthorpe. They went bust, out of business, leaving a town distraught at seeing their team disappear. Out of the ashes rose Maidstone Invicta, a youth side who later took on the name of United, taking their place in the lower reaches of Non-League, grabbing at their second chance. Through hard work and determination, matched with incredible belief and support, the club now find themselves in the National League, a step away from a miraculous return to League football.
In 2012 the Stones opened their new £2.6 million Gallagher Stadium, and with it came a plan to reach that top tier of the Non-League pyramid. The following year they signed Lee Worgan, and so began an incredible rise for both player and club.
I met Lee at the Gallagher Stadium. It was my second visit in under a week, having been to the 2-0 defeat against Bromley. That night I was struck by the ferocious support of the home fans. There was a real sense of community and belonging in the atmosphere. As I walked through the gates this time, there were a number of youth teams, all ranging in ages, training on the pitch. This hit a cord with me; this is what Non-League clubs are all about. Ok, the pitch is artificial so it doesn’t matter how many times it’s used, but the fact that the gates were wide open with people were walking around as they cheered on their loved ones, seemed to show what a community spirit this club has.
As we started to talk, kids were freely walking about the Spitfire Lounge and other than the odd hello they paid little attention to their captain sitting there. At first this felt strange to me, until Lee said that as part of the code of conduct, the players have to socialise with fans at the end of a game. They all know each other, “We’re not untouchable, it’s a good community club in that sense.” Another example that this is a club that are strongly bonded together.
Worgan started out at Wimbledon. He undertook his scholarship with the Crazy Gang with the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker. “It was an excellent club to be at, with a lot of character building”. Spending your formative years at the Dons, in the environment they were famed for, strengthened Worgan’s resolve; and that was something that he would need to draw on later in his career.
When the owners of Wimbledon moved the club to Milton Keynes, Worgan followed. He made his debut at the National Hockey Stadium but it didn’t work out for him, and so began his search for a permanent place to settle. He moved to Rushden & Diamonds next, “I was no.2, which was really good, travelling with the squad and being on the bench”. Things looked like they were progressing well; he then made the jump to Cardiff, a Championship side. Under Dave Jones, Lee made the bench a few times and featured in the Wales U21 squads. For the young Welsh keeper it looked like he would make it, but when contract renewal time came, Jones decided he wanted to focus on other areas. Lee was out.
“I had a strange pro career; the talent was there but I wasn’t mentally prepared to play a lot of first team football. At the time I didn’t see it, but now I understand why I never made the transition”. They say youth is wasted on the young, and you get that sense with how Worgan perceives his early years in the game. “I think my problem was, when I went out on a match day, when I was put out in a first team at pro level, I never really got the confidence across that I’ve got now. If I could step into it now, I’d be fine and it would be completely different.” Worgan needed to be given that chance. “I needed to go out and play 300-400 games. I probably needed a manger to stick by me”.
Without being given the chance at pro-level, he found himself not playing for a few months. The resolved he’d developed under the tutorage of the ruthless Crazy Gang changing room was called upon. “I’d lost a little bit of love for it. From 10 years old to 21, I only had one path and it wasn’t materialising, so I was probably throwing my toys out of the pram a little bit.” An offer came in from Hastings, and in his own words he “bit the bullet” and made the move down to the coast. His second chance had arrived.
“I loved it down there. I was playing every week, I felt a bit of confidence from the team, the manager and the supporters – it really helped me and I learned a lot”. After getting promoted in his first season he moved to Tonbridge Angels, where his career really took off. He experienced the highs of promotion once more and was really appreciated at the club, winning a number of awards. But after a few years it was time to move on again, “I felt myself going a bit stale. We weren’t really progressing; we weren’t going backwards but it was just moving along. I wanted something that was really going to push on. I have a lot of good memories from being there but I needed a fresh challenge. I felt my own game was going through the motions.”
The big move was next, Lee signed for Maidstone, “It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made”. It seemed the perfect match. For Lee, Non-League football was giving him second chance at the career he knew it could have, for Maidstone it had provided them with the launch pad to start again.
“When I moved here they made it clear they wanted to be in the top tier of Non-League football and I wanted to be part of that. I’d be lying if I said I don’t move to places to win things; I’ve got personal ambitions. I like playing in front of big crowds, I like feeling like a pro again; this club enables you to do that”.
In his second season at the club, Maidstone gained promotion into the National League South. Then last season, they had back to back promotions after beating Ebbsfleet United in the playoff final on penalties. It wasn’t an expected promotion for many apart from Worgan, “Around Christmas I was speaking to a few lads, I kinda said things were going our way, it seemed destined, it was all going under the radar – I said we might have a chance here. If we could get into the playoffs I knew we’d get to the final”. They did just that. Ebbsfleet threw away a commanding lead on top spot, allowing Sutton United to take automatic promotion. This paved the way for a Kent Derby final, between Ebbsfleet and Maidstone. It was held at Stonebridge Road, the home of the Fleet.
“The spirit last year was so vibrant, were we didn’t have any pressure it did help.” No one was expecting United to walk away from the final as winners, all eyes were on Ebbsfleet. With only a few minutes to go, Fleet lead 2-1, “I wasn’t 100% sure we might get back in it, but fair play to the boys they kept going. As soon as we scored I knew we’d go on to win”.
It came down to the drama of a penalty shoot-out to decide who would be going up. “After the game, before the pens, one of the lads came up to me and said, ‘you’re going to be a hero’. I was a bit numb to it. I just thought this could be a moment where I could help the boys out.” He did help them out; he saved the penalty to help them win. “I’ve always wanted to get back to the level I feel I should be playing at, which is the National League, maybe one more, but in that game it was the culmination of everything I had worked for up to that point and it came to fruition – it was a great moment to be in.”
Lee is back where he feels he belongs and so is the club. But the history of the Stones isn’t far from Worgan’s mind, nor that of the other players. “You’re always made aware of where this club has come from and how quickly the club has come to here. The fans are so happy that we are here and doing well, rather than the dark places they have been. Those dark places will be in their minds for some time and that’s probably why they are so vocal – because they’ve got a club to be proud of again. They are league support, and they deserve league performances”.
After an eventual few years both for the club and for Lee, you can see how people involved with the Stones might be feeling exhausted. But Worgan isn’t resting on past accomplishments. “The ambition in this place is relentless – I’m ambitious, I don’t wanna wait around to do things, I wanna go and do it. I wanna do as much as I can as quickly as I can.” This is a feeling that resonates around the club. All the waiting is over; Worgan now has the career he knew he could have whilst the club are back as a force again.
Lee Worgan had to wait for the chance to prove himself to the footballing world, just like Maidstone United has had to be patient before returning to the National League. Non-League gave them their second chance, and they’ve grabbed it with both hands. All the dark times are forgotten as together their focus is only forward, finally arriving where, as Worgan says, “we deserve to be”.