By Colin Allan
‘Before joining Rugby League’s central administration, I spent some very happy years teaching in Kent. It is a great county! Its folk are very proud of their heritage and they love their sport. I have no doubt that Kent Invicta Rugby League Football Club will carry the county crest with great credit and provide a thrilling and attractive new dimension to the county’s sporting life.”
So wrote David Oxley, secretary-general of the Rugby Football League in Kent Invicta’s first home match programme for Sunday, 21 August, 1983.
Thirty years ago, Kent Invicta embarked on a bold sporting venture which brought professional rugby league to Maidstone United Football Club’s London Road ground. It was the brainchild of young businessman, Paul Faires, who had been smitten by the sport while watching games at Fulham and who would be, by some years, the youngest chairman in the Rugby League. However, he was backed in the enterprise by Jim Thompson, the football club’s chairman, and he was also astute enough to employ an experienced ex-player as coach – Bill Goodwin.
That first glossy programme was full of optimism, sure that the tough, but fast and exciting, sport would take root in Kent. The cover picture showed Faires and Thompson in jubilant mood on Wednesday, 6 April, 1983, when they had just received the backing of the Rugby League Council in Leeds to enter Division 2. Luckily for Faires, the game’s administrators were keen to expand the game beyond its traditional northern fastnesses.
Much work had been done before the start of Invicta’s first season. Jim Fox was appointed club secretary, a supporters’ club had been formed, and a lease arranged on Maidstone United’s ground. However, the main task was that of finding a team!
When the players lined up for their pre-season photo shot (neatly kitted out in black shirts with an amber chevron and black shorts) they were a mixture of southerners and northern “imports”. One or two players from “Down Under” added an exotic element to the squad.
Indeed, on paper, it appeared a strong outfit. To give a flavour of the team’s diverse nature, it’s worth picking out a few players from each area of the field. For instance, the forward pack included Adrian Alexander, a rugby union player signed from Oldham, and Seamus McCallion who had just returned from touring New Zealand with Great Britain Under 19s.
Captain Bob Mordell was a well-respected attacking forward, and playing alongside him in the second row was Tony Cooper. He had moved down south at an early age and played for Wasps rugby union team for several seasons. Hooker was Neil Bishop, who was born in the rugby league hotspot of St Helens but had spent 13 years in Australia, where he played for Cronulla. Although only 5ft 6in tall and weighing 10 stone, he was a first-rate tackler. His renowned round-the-leg tackles brought down many a heavier opponent. In the backs was Wayne Millington, originally from Hull but now a London resident who had turned out for the Peckham Amateur Rugby League Club. The potential star of the show was New Zealand winger Mark Elia. He had a great try scoring record in his native Auckland.
So hopes were high when Maidstone first welcomed rugby league on Sunday, 21 August, 1983. Faires had rashly predicted a crowd of 8,000, but in the event, attendance was 1815 which, nevertheless, represented a promising start. Cardiff City, themselves relative newcomers to rugby league, having been formed for the 1981-82 season, ran out 31-12 victors. However, Kent’s Lynn Hopkins showed his potential by kicking four goals.
Unfortunately, attendance for Invicta’s second home match against Doncaster slumped to 511, and only two other games that season topped four figures at the turnstiles. One was when Kent drew an attractive home draw in the first round of the knock-out John Player Trophy, paired against the mighty St Helens, one of the country’s top Division 1 teams. The tie, on 6th November, attracted a crowd of 2107 to London Road, no doubt swelled by some Saints’ supporters visiting for the novelty factor! As expected, St Helens enjoyed an easy 40-7 victory.
The other big game of the season, on 11 February, 1984, was when Castleford visited Maidstone for the first round of the Challenge Cup. The match was televised for BBC’s Grandstand and a crowd of 1643 attended. Kent’s ‘flying winger’ Frank Feighan stole the show with two excellent tries, his second one even voted BBC’s ‘Try of the Season’. There are a few clips of the match on YouTube but, unfortunately, only Castleford’s tries are shown. Thankfully for the national television audience, Kent put up a good show before going down 20-42, having tired in the latter stages. Mark Elia scored Kent’s other try.
However, throughout all this time, Kent Invicta had been distracted by financial problems. Not being able to attract large crowds for ordinary league games, they had found themselves in debt to several clubs. In mid-October, Dewsbury had threatened not to fulfil a fixture unless Kent paid the outstanding sum on a player’s transfer fee. Workington Town was also owed money for the transfer of Lynn Hopkins. Other creditors, such as Hull Kingston Rovers, Oldham and Swinton, demanded payment. In fact, by November, 1983, the Kent Invicta club was bankrupt and was taken over by Jim Thompson.
Another concern was the state of the pitch. The televised game against Castleford had shown muddy quagmires in certain corners of the ground. Indeed, a game against Rochdale should have been played on 25 March, 1984, but had to be postponed because of the waterlogged pitch.
Despite these woes, however, the side competed well throughout the season, and they won their final game on 12 May, 1984, against Rochdale Hornets, 32-12. The final Division 2 table shows them with an equal number of wins and losses (17 each), aptly enough placing them ninth out of 18 teams. Their highest score of the season was in a 35-20 victory over Huyton, and top try scorer was Mark Elias with 19 in 35 appearances. Lynn Hopkins finished the season with 51 goals, and full back Colin Penola was judged Kent Invicta’s first player of the year. Despite their traumatic start to the season, Kent’s consistent record surprised many of the doubters and the club seemed well placed as a Division 2 side, ready for the next season.
Unfortunately, that next season never materialised. Sharing the ground with Maidstone Football Club had proved a source of friction. The aforementioned problems with the pitch forced Kent Invicta to leave the ground and for the 1984/5 season the club relocated to Roots Hall Ground, home of Southend United Football Club. The club was now called Southend Invicta and their first match was on 9th September 1984 against Bramley. The attendance was 371, including a few who had travelled from Maidstone. It was a defeat followed by many others, and their final home game was on 26th April 1985, attracting a mere 85 spectators. For the record, they lost 16-24 to Huddersfield Barricudas. But Kent Invicta’s one season in professional rugby league was not in vain. Today, there are several amateur rugby league clubs in Kent, and perhaps, one day, another professional team can be established to once again provide the people of Kent with the opportunity of watching this highly skilled sport.