|Dates: 1-4 December
|Coverage: Watch York City v Wigan Athletic on Friday on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website & app (kick-off: 19:45 GMT) and Alfreton Town v Walsall on Saturday on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website & app (12:30)
Down in the sixth tier of English football, money is tight and every penny counts.
Sponsorship deals are essential to a club’s survival but Maidstone United, whose average gate is 1,883 in National League South, have decided to take a stand against gambling advertising by signing up for the Big Step campaign.
The Stones have joined a number of other clubs – including Premier League Luton – in supporting the campaign, which is calling for an end to gambling and betting-related sponsorship in football.
“One of our players was suffering from anxiety due to drinking, drugs and gambling. That is what started the whole thing off,” Maidstone’s director of football Bill Williams said of the club’s decision to sign up.
“I can remember a time when the tobacco industry dominated sports advertising and sponsorship.
“For the reasons that was banned for the impact on physical health, I can foresee the same happening here for the impact it can have on a person’s mental health.”
This weekend the Kent non-league club hope to hit the FA Cup jackpot by defeating Barrow from two levels above, and drawing a Premier League club in the third round.
“A club of Maidstone’s size backing our cause is just as important as Luton in the Premier League,” James Grimes, founder of Big Step, told BBC Sport.
“One of the arguments that the gambling industry use is that their advertising and sponsorship keep smaller clubs afloat.
“By having smaller clubs on board, people point to that and say, that evidently is not true. There are multiple clubs surviving and thriving without promoting gambling in front of their young fans.”
‘Proud of Maidstone’s support’
Big Step is part of Gambling with Lives, a community of families bereaved by gambling-related suicide.
Some 300,000 UK adults are problem gamblers, a recent review found, and their addiction affects another 3.8 million people, including children.
Men are more likely to gamble than women, the review says, especially online, where 15% of men but only 4% of women gamble.
Football’s relationship with gambling advertising has come under fresh scrutiny after Brentford forward Ivan Toney and Newcastle midfielder Sandro Tonali received lengthy bans for breaching betting regulations.
At Maidstone, players have got behind the club’s attempts to take a stand against gambling advertising in football.
“Educating our players about the dangers [of gambling addiction] is part of the culture of the club,” manager George Elokobi, the former Wolves defender, told BBC Sport.
“I’m on board with it. We have a structure in place where people come into the club and talk to our academy players on subjects like this.
“The club is open for more people to come in and talk on this, not only to our academy players, but first-team players too.”
Grimes added: “We’re proud of the level of support we receive from clubs like Maidstone.
“The difficulty is sometimes these clubs play in leagues that have, or have had, official betting partners and have to have at least one advert in their grounds.
“That’s a bit frustrating but that’s not the fault of the clubs.”
‘I steered clear of gangs’
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 that followed, when he took out his delight by kicking the corner flag.
“Wolves took me in as one of their children and it was a love relationship from the beginning,” Elokobi, 37, says of his six years at Molineux.
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.”
Elokobi finished his playing career with Maidstone, having captained them to promotion to the National League in 2021-22.
He took temporary charge of the Stones in January 2023 and has since been handed the role permanently.
On Saturday, Elokobi will attempt to steer Maidstone – second in National League South – into the third round of the FA Cup at a packed Gallagher Stadium.
They have already pocketed £59,375 in FA prize money by seeing off Steyning Town, Winchester City, Torquay United and Chesham United to reach this stage.
The Stones will receive a further £67,000 if they defeat League Two’s form team Barrow.
As a 20-year-old, Elokobi was part of the Colchester squad that played at Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2006.
He was an unused substitute in the 3-1 defeat but still managed to leave Stamford Bridge with Frank Lampard’s shirt.
“Occasions like this don’t come around too often for clubs like Maidstone,” added Elokobi.
“Barrow are a fantastic team and this is a chance for us to test ourselves against Football League opposition.
“The magic of the FA Cup has got a way of surprising everyone.”