Folkestone - Saunders' signing is our best for years, admits Cugley
Also joining the club are another former Gillingham stalwart Mark Patterson as assistant-manager and former Dover Athletic manager Richard Langley as chief scout. “Mark Saunders has vast experience and is still a very good player and I would like to thank the directors for giving me the backing to go out and sign him”, said Cugley.
The signing of Reading-born Saunders marks a significant coup for Cugley after the recent departure of player-coach Scott Lindsey and record goalscorer James Dryden’s shock move to local rivals Dover Athletic. 34-year-old Saunders lives in Ashford and his location and wish to take up coaching responsibilities were key factors in his decision to choose to join Invicta ahead of a host of other interested clubs, including Gravesend & Northfleet and Welling United.
Saunders operated in every position for the Gills, including goalkeeper when Vince Bartram was once sent off, but is best-known as a tough tackling box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal.
He made 207 career appearances for Gillingham, with 120 starting appearances in the Football League and a further 59 appearances as a substitute. Over eight seasons from 1998, he scored 15 league goals for the Gills having joined the club from Plymouth Argyle.
At Plymouth he scored 11 league goals in 60 Football League appearances, with a further 12 as a substitute, from 1995-98.
He also has experience of non-league football as he began his career at Tiverton Town, for whom his brother Neil used to play against Invicta in their Dr Marten League Premier Division days.
Saunders and Leeds-born Patterson both came on as second half substitutes when Gillingham suffered penalty shoot out heartbreak in the Division Two Play Off Final against Manchester City at Wembley in 1999 after leading 2-0 going into the closing minutes under Tony Pulis. The club then experienced joy 12 months later when beating Wigan Athletic 3-2 after extra time in the 2000 Play Off Final at Wembley under Peter Taylor.
Saunders is fondly remembered for scoring a memorable goal for Gillingham against then Premiership club Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Fifth Round in 2000 to set up an away quarter final tie at Chelsea which the Gills lost 5-0 at Stamford Bridge. They had previously beaten Premiership club Bradford City in the Fourth Round.
A crowd favourite at the Priestfield Stadium, Saunders is known for his wholehearted attitude, but suffered a horrific double broken leg against Preston North End in August 2004 which ruled him out for the remainder of last season. Giving up his holidays this summer he battled hard to regain his fitness and was rewarded with a new short-term contract which expired on New Year’s Eve.
37-year-old Patterson also played for both Gillingham and Plymouth Argyle and more recently for Dover Athletic in the Dr Martens League Premier Division and latterly with Maidstone United.
“Mark Patterson is a very experienced coach and will also be a great asset to the club,” said Cugley. “The three new recruits come in addition to our recent three new signings of Stuart Playford (defender), Chris Wright (striker) and James Fraser (wing back / midfield) which has helped us to strengthen the depth of our squad. I hope that these new additions will strengthen us for the remainder of this season and put us in a position to push on and challenge for the play offs next season,” he added.
Saunders is expected to make his Invicta debut in their home match against Ryman Premier League leaders Hampton & Richmond Borough on Saturday January 21st.
The arrival of Saunders and Patterson will mean the departure from the club of former England and Manchester United defender Paul Parker, who joined the club as assistant-manager earlier in the season.
“I am sorry to see Paul go as he has proved to be a great help to me during his time here, but his work commitments mean that he cannot always be available, which to be fair is something which I knew when we took him on. Paul and I remain good friends and I expect we will still see him down here for the odd game in the future.”
Speaking of Richard Langley, Cugley added: “Richard has been watching games for us recently and has done an excellent job in reporting back to us on our forthcoming opponents, a job which has been very useful for me as our location doesn’t always make it easy to carry out such tasks."