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INVICTA SEASON A SUCCESS UNDER PRESSURE

By Mick Cork

Over-achieving has always been something of an art-form at Folkestone Invicta, and that was again a key
ingredient of the season just ended.

It all came to a spectacular finish as Neil Cugley’s side reached the play-off semis for the second year running –
this time playing in front of a crowd of 2,200 at Maidstone United’s functionally modern, inevitably fairly
characterless Gallagher Stadium on April 30.

Twelve months ago Folkestone were beaten at the same stage by Dulwich Hamlet – most people’s idea of the
best team in our division for the last two seasons, and deservedly promoted as champions to the Ryman
Premier this time.

Cugley continues to work wonders at Invicta on a budget that would make the vast majority of others turn
around and walk straight out of the door.

Folkestone’s financial problems will not go away. They are some way through the creditors agreement that
saved them from going out of business a couple of years back, but, in these hard times, contributions from
several well-wishers have fallen away – a situation that the club needs to address as a matter of some urgency.
Sadly it appears that the estimated £7,000 from their play-off semi is already spoken for and it’s hard to
escape the feeling that Invicta do live from hand to mouth far too often.

The team made a fine start to this last season, winning their first four games and shooting straight to the top of
the table. They drew the next game, but, after a Kent Senior Cup defeat against Gillingham, suffered a truly traumatic FA
Cup nightmare as they saw a two goal half-time advantage wiped out by lower league Bad shot Lea and the
Kent club’s fortunes on and off the pitch had taken a decided turn for the worse.

There followed just one win in the next 13 games with worse to come when a £12,000 VAT demand landed on
the mat – a huge blow for chairman Mark Jenner and the only remaining director, long-serving board-member
Brian Merryman.

Invicta had been relying far too heavily for their goals on prolific striker Stuart King, Invicta’s only obviously
saleable asset. King had always looked destined for a higher level at some point but a few day before a cut price
£5,000 sale to Maidstone he signed off with a hat-trick in the 3-1 home win over Ryman League newcomers Three Bridges.

That victory at least stopped the rot while the transfer cash went some way to help keep the Taxman-Wolf from
the door, for a while.

Supporters had hoped mid-season cutbacks were a thing of the past, but King was followed out of the door by
three more first-choice players – midfielder Darren Marsden, experienced defender Lee Gledhill and local
legend James ‘Ratty’ Everitt – who opted to move to arch local rivals Hythe Town, of all places!!
This was a traumatic period for Neil Cugley who has to surmount more problems in a season than most
managers face in a lifetime.

He described this season as “One hell of a hard one – the hardest season I’ve ever had.” But King’s departure surprisingly proved a turning point despite putting so much more responsibility on those left behind.

Postponements through rain, snow and everything else that BBC weathergirls Rachel Mackley and Lizzie Rizzi
threw at us meant Invicta only played three times more in 2012. They took four points from the first two as the admirable Richard Atkins reveled in the increased workload while the team started playing the more attractive passing style of football their manager had been looking for all season.

Boxing Day’s derby at Hythe attracted a four-figure crowd who watched Invicta take a totally deserved first-half
lead before they were overpowered by the home side’s physically direct football after the interval. Almost
inevitably the aforementioned Everitt snatched the winner in a 2-1 victory that even the most partisan home fans
hardly had the cheek to claim was anything like warranted.

Those disappointments would have left lesser sides shell-shocked, but this new-look squad have since shown
a magnificent combination of character and team-spirit with experienced campaigners Darren Smith,
particularly, and Roland Edge leading the way and captain Liam Friend and the excellent Frankie Chappell – as
good a pair of defenders as you will find at this level – not far behind them and the others playing their full part.
Former youth stars Nat Blanks and Phil Stevenson had rejoined the club late in 2012 while forward Justin
Luchford signed from Whitstable over the new year.

Two of that trio, Stevenson and Luchford, were among six players who never earned a penny for their splendid
efforts – not an ideal situation, but needs must…

In 17 games following that derby loss at Hythe, Folkestone lost just twice with nine wins and six draws to roar
back up the table. Those drawn games included excellent home and away 2-2 draws with Maidstone with teenager Johan Ter Horst scoring two terrific goals in the home clash.

Every side can be allowed one ‘blip’, though the Easter Saturday 2-1 defeat at Whitstable was as bad a league
performance as the fans had seen all season.

The team had the chance to bounce back immediately two days later, but a horrendous Bank Holiday gale
spoiled any chance of decent football in the return Shepway derby with Hythe, and a highly contentious freekick
gifted the visitors a barely deserved late equaliser.

But again skipper Friend’s men picked themselves up superbly and hardly put a foot wrong after that, with
young Ter Horst adding to his growing reputation with match-winning performances against both Burgess Hill
and Horsham.

Atkins, who has run his heart out for the club since returning in November from a brief loan spell at Canterbury,
contributed five invaluable five goals in eight games towards the end to rekindle hopes of the play-offs.
But they still went into the final fixture of the regular season – needing to beat Herne Bay at home while hoping
Leatherhead didn’t beat Faversham in Surrey.

Ter Horst again came up trumps while Leatherhead fell at the final hurdle and Folkestone were facing the big
play-off semi at Maidstone.

Once again, this time in front of a packed Gallagher Stadium on a sunny April evening, there was little or
nothing between the sides until veteran striker Paul Booth rifled home a deflected effort 15 minutes from time.
So much achieved by so few for so little.

Thanks to the excellent contribution of the new, mostly unpaid, youngsters and the always sterling efforts of the
longer-serving players, Folkestone yet again achieved far more than anyone has a right to expect.
Most clubs never experience anything like the kind of upheaval that seems to be almost the norm at Cheriton
Road but it just wouldn’t be Folkestone without the kind of ups and downs we’ve had to get used to!!