Under 18's
Kent Youth League Sun 19 May The Belmont Ground
Folkestone Invicta

Congratulations to our Folkestone Invicta Youth Under 18 side who were crowned Kent Youth League U18 Premier Division Champions on a dramatic final day of the season.

Invicta made the trip to Whitstable Town, beginning the day a point behind leaders and knowing only a win would give them a chance of lifting the title should Bromley fail to win at home to Erith Town in a match being held at Cray Wanderers new Flamingo Park facility (with Bromley’s Hayes Lane 3G pitch already being torn up and replaced ahead of their debut season in the EFL).

Any thoughts of lifting the league title were a long way off back in October as Invicta sat 9th from 12 sides with just 1 win from the opening 4 games and having been knocked out of the Kent Youth League U18 Cup, but a run of 13 wins from 15 games had the boys breathing down the necks of a Bromley side that had topped the table since September.

The first of only 2 defeats for Invicta in that run came when the sides had met in December, with Bromley putting a 9 point gap between them thanks to a 2-1 win at Hayes Lane as Invicta were denied a late goal due to a controversial offside flag.

Come mid-January as the league restarted after the Christmas break, Bromley were now 15 points clear, although Invicta had played 4 games fewer. Invicta hosted Whitstable Town on the first weekend of February, a side Paul Stanton has pegged as his bogey team, and so it proved to be as his side were beaten 2-1.

That defeat would be the last time Invicta dropped points all season, a run of 9 wins in a row that included a 3-2 win over Bromley at the Alcaine Stadium, left the sides level on points in early May with Bromley heading to Cray Valley to play their game in hand. A 1-1 draw in South London gave Bromley a single point advantage that, with both sides winning away from home on the penultimate weekend, took us into the final day of the season with the scenario very clear: Invicta would need to break that Whitstable Town hoodoo and hope that Bromley, who had not dropped a point at home all season, failed to beat Erith Town.

With Invicta kicking off at 10am (or just a few minutes before as was the case), 30 minutes ahead of the game at Flamingo Park, there was a chance to lay down an early marker and it was Ashton Mitford who did just that as he struck within 5 minutes, beating a defender to fire in off the underside of the crossbar from a tight angle.

It wasn’t to be plain sailing however, nobody in the away dugout or watching from the terraces expected it to be so, and it wasn’t until the 36th minute that Invicta gave themselves breathing space as Sam Smith cut inside from the right in the middle of the pitch and picked a perfect pass through the Whitstable defence for forward Ryley Pritchard who ran onto it and finished well to double the lead at half time.

I cannot possibly say that I have ever been to watching an U18 game and been asked questions about a game taking place elsewhere, but with the players in the dressing rooms news had come through from Bromley, where former U18 goalkeeper George Surgeon had travelled to watch that game, that Erith Town had taken an early lead.

Paul Stanton and Robb Knott on the Invicta bench had made it clear they did not want to know the score elsewhere and the players were told the same as they asked questions while waiting for the restart. It was far too early to let them get excited, especially when aΒ second update came in from Flamingo Park that Bromley has equalised before half time but that result would still hand Invicta the title should they hold on.

Then, just before the hour mark, Invicta took firm control of proceedings at The Belmont Stadium. On 56 minutes a long diagonal ball from Ralph Bray was controlled well by Sam Smith who cut inside and drilled a low effort under the goalkeeper from distance.

A 4th came just 4 minutes later with a second for Ryley Pritchard, a goal that I must admit to missing as I loaded up a bacon roll with brown sauce.

If Paul Stanton wasn’t convinced he was about to get a rare win over Whitstable, finally the nerves were settled with 7 minutes to go as Ryley Pritchard fed a ball through to Ashton Mitford who beat defender and goalkeeper to the ball to roll it under the latter first time for his second and Invicta’s 5th. As the players celebrated news was broken to them that Erith Town were doing them a favour as things stood but there was a long way still to go.

The referee brought proceedings to a close at The Belmont at 11:45am and the waiting game began. Players headed back to the dressing rooms to change but before they were back out news had broken that Erith Town had retaken the lead against Bromley early in the second half. The tension was too much to sit and wait for updates, the lads crowded round a phone to watch the final minutes unfold via FaceTime.

The players huddle around their live stream from Bromley’s match

“Penalty to Bromley” came from the huddle, only for it to turn out to be just a free kick on the edge of the box. That was followed by a drinks break just to delay the drama even further.

I had departed and was on a train with signal dropping in an out, waiting for the news to be passed on with a “Champions” graphic ready to celebrate the achievement as finally an update came through: 3-2. To who? Erith Town. Bromley had equalised but Erith had taken the lead for a 3rd time and with 10 minutes to go it would need 2 late Bromley goals to change the destination of the title.

Finally, at 12:40pm, the phone buzzed. It was all over at Flamingo Park and Invicta’s lads were celebrating at Whitstable. Paul Stanton’s side were champions for the first time since the all-conquering, treble-winning side of 2018-19.

What an incredible achievement from a fantastic group of youngsters who have been superb to watch this season and even though nobody was expecting it right up until the final day, nobody can begrudge them the rewards for all their hard work this season.