FA Cup second round: Maidstone United looking to join Premier League clubs in third round
|FA Cup second round|
|Date: 29 November-2 December Coverage: Highlights and goals from all ties will be shown on the BBC Sport website and app. Click here for more details.|
"They won a corner and I suddenly found myself standing next to him. It was the only time I got anywhere near him."
Former Arsenal defender Gavin Hoyte is talking about his brief encounter with Lionel Messi in front of 40,000 Argentina fans in Buenos Aires in 2014.
Five years on from his substitute appearance in Trinidad & Tobago's 3-0 friendly defeat in South America, Hoyte is set to turn out in the FA Cup second round for non-league Maidstone United at Blackpool on Sunday.
Hoyte was 18 when he made his senior Gunners debut alongside Aaron Ramsey in a League Cup tie in 2008.
While Ramsey has since moved to Juventus, Hoyte combines playing in the sixth tier of English football with working as a learning support assistant in special needs schools in Essex - and says he "could not be happier".
"I get a sense of achievement going into schools and doing that," said Hoyte, who has been in non-league since leaving Barnet, then in League Two, in December 2016.
This is his first season in National League South after being released by Dagenham & Redbridge in the summer and Hoyte, who joined Arsenal as a nine-year-old before leaving in 2012 after four senior appearances, says he is still adjusting.
"At Arsenal you play on a carpet and you have to shout to the other person in the changing room because it is so big," he added.
"At this level some opposition grounds are terrible. Some don't even have hot water. It's very windy, there might be 500 watching, it's really hard to get up for.
"But it's the real world and I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Obviously I do look back and think 'what if I had played more games at Arsenal?' but you've got to be positive. I've got six or seven assists this season and I couldn't be happier."
Changing lives for the better
Maidstone - nicknamed the Stones - finished bottom of the National League last season but their summer signings reflect a club determined to make a quick return to non-league's top flight.
As well as bringing in Hoyte, who also appeared in the Championship for Watford, they signed George Elokobi, veteran of 58 Premier League appearances in Wolves' defence between 2009-12.
Wolves fans fondly remember Elokobi for his powerful headed goal in a 2-1 win over Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in 2011 - and the celebration which followed where he took out his delight by kicking the corner flag.
"I went through a lot with Wolves in terms of they took me in as one of their children and it was a love relationship from the beginning," said the Cameroon-born player.
"There may be players who I played with in my three seasons in the Premier League who said to themselves 'I'm not going to drop down to non-league'.
"But people forget I started my career in non-league with Dulwich Hamlet.
"I worked my way up through sweat and blood and I'm humble enough to play at any level - even if it's parks football."
Stones captain Elokobi has played in all four cup wins against Cheshunt, Hitchin Town, Kings Langley and Torquay United to help the Kent club pocket £72,750 in prize money so far.
Away from Maidstone's 3G pitch, the 33-year-old runs his own business as a life coach and motivational speaker, inspiring clients to change their lives around and achieve their potential.
As a child growing up in Cameroon, Elokobi had to come to terms with the death of his father, grandad and uncle all in the space of a few months.
He moved to England at the age of 16 to start a new life and lived with his mother in Brixton.
"I did not get in trouble, I did not get mixed up in gangs when there was peer pressure to do so," added Elokobi. "I chose to lead myself but not in an arrogant way."
'I'll know when it's time to retire'
Maidstone, who train three mornings a week, went through two different managers last season - Jay Saunders and Harry Wheeler - before appointing John Still as head of football in January.
It is the 69-year-old's second stint at the club having steered the original Maidstone United to the Football League in 1989 before standing down because he wanted to stay part-time to continue running a company selling industrial clothing.
Still's managerial career, which started in 1976, includes spells at Peterborough, Luton, Dagenham & Redbridge as well as Barnet.
He is responsible for helping to develop forwards Dwight Gayle, now at Newcastle, and Andre Gray, who also plays in the Premier League for Watford.
Still stood down as Barnet boss last December to spend more time with his wife, Barbara, who was seriously ill. He is enjoying being back at Maidstone - three points off a National League South play-off spot - working alongside head coach Hakan Hayrettin.
Five months away from his 70th birthday, Still is not thinking of retirement any time soon.
"My body will tell me when I'm ready to pack it in," he said. "I'll know when the time is right. When I no longer enjoy it or when no one wants me - whichever comes first."
'1,000-a-week use pitch'
Maidstone hire out their 3G pitch to increase income, with around 1,000 people each week using the club's £5m facilities on the banks of the River Medway.
The Stones played their first match back in their home town following an absence of 24 years in 2012 after the completion of the 4,200-capacity Gallagher Stadium.
Two years earlier the club had been laden with around £350,000 of debt and almost went out of business.
"There was no money," co-owner Oliver Ash, a chartered surveyor and economics graduate, recalled.
"The club was within one or two weeks of going under."
Businessman Terry Casey, a lifelong fan, came on board with Ash and the joint-owners have since stabilised Maidstone's finances - although the club is seeking new investment.
"We have lots of community teams, an award-winning disability section, a thriving women's section and 2,000 fans coming to home games," added Ash, who lives in France and is a shareholder and director at French Top 14 rugby union side Brive.
"We also have 50 students in a full-time academy based at the club."
Many Stones supporters remember Chris Smalling turning out for the club in 2007-08 at the start of a career which would take him to Manchester United and Roma.
On Sunday, those same fans hope Hoyte and Elokobi will be able to inspire the non-league side to a famous win at the home of 1953 winners Blackpool.