On this day 71 years ago, Fleet stepped out to play a final in front of what would be the biggest crowd the club had ever experienced – a record that lasted another 14 years until eclipsed by the almost 30,000 who watched us face Sunderland at Roker Park in 1963. That record was, of course, eventually surpassed by another 10,000 at Wembley in 2008.
The 16,733 who turned out for the Kent Senior Cup Final at Priestfield Stadium between the Fleet and Gillingham on May 14th, 1949, remains to this day as the largest crowd the club has ever played in front of in Kent.
For one player, the game offered a platform for his burgeoning goalscoring talents. South London boy Bert Hawkins was at the peak of his powers – aged 25, he had already scored 56 goals in 99 games for the Fleet and celebrated his 100th appearance in this Kent showpiece final.
Naturally, he did it with a goal – though the small statistic of his 57th told less than half the story with Hawkins going on to amass 125 goals in his club career, holding a Fleet goalscoring record that took almost 50 years to break when Steve Portway eclipsed it in the final year of the 20th century.
Herbert Hawkins was born in Lambeth in July 1923, in the same year as another centre-forward with the same name and the two have often been confused down the years.
The Fleet’s Hawkins signed permanently in the summer of 1947 having played football for local Army teams either side of the end of the Second World War. He had already played two games for the Fleet at the tail end of the 1946/47 season, scoring on his debut against Gillingham in May 1947.
The Kent Senior Cup final goal at Gillingham on this day 71 years ago was the perfect foundation for his most prolific season at the club and he went on to score 37 in his third campaign of 1949/50.
That goal turned out to be the Fleet’s only one in a 1-1 draw – the second draw between Fleet and Gillingham in the final and the tie wasn’t decided until early the following season when another 12,633 people watched the second replay, Hawkins getting one of the goals in a 2-0 win to earn the club’s first silverware.
Hawkins stayed with the Fleet until May 1951 when – having scored 121 goals for the club – he finally earned the crack at the Football League that his efforts deserved. Leyton Orient signed him for the beginning of the 1951/52 season and he scored a hat-trick for the reserves against Millwall in a good start but failed to establish himself in their first team.
He only made six appearances for the O’s and returned to the Fleet in November 1952. His brief second spell yielded four more goals for his impressive stats in 19 more games and he wasn’t kept on at Stonebridge Road in summer 1953, having to watch the successful 1953 Kent Senior Cup Final from the sidelines.
Bert died in Hampshire in 1982, aged only 58. He held the club’s goalscoring record for half a century, with 125 goals in 224 games – a feat that never looked like being broken until Nineties sensation Portway’s remarkable goals per game feat finally surpassed Hawkins’ haul.
Hawkins still holds one record to this day, however. In September 1950 some 3,256 people were at Stonebridge Road to witness history being made as he smashed all seven goals past hapless Hastings United in a 7-0 win, a feat that even the great Portway never managed.