What do the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Folkestone Invicta manager Neil Cugley have in common? They’re two managers that have managed the same football club for over 900 games. In an industry where the average manager lasts about fourteen months in charge before they’re handed their p45 and told to clear their desk, Wenger and Cugley are very much bucking a trend that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. Only last week Fulham dispensed with the services of Kit Symons, who had only taken charge fourteen months earlier, and Huddersfield Town in the same week also decided they wanted a change of direction after relieving Chris Powell of his duties after thirteen months in charge. Symons and Powell became the fifteenth and sixteenth managers to be sacked across the four top divisions in England so far this season, and it’s unlikely to end there either.
Beyond the bright lights of the Premier League and the Championship, where the pressure and scrutiny on managers is huge, non-league managers do tend to remain in their posts for longer than their League counterparts, but still, Cugley’s longevity at Cheriton Road is remarkable in today’s ‘hire them one day and then fire them the next’ culture, and shows the respect and admiration the owners, directors and supporters have for the man who is Mr Folkestone. The likes of Jay Saunders (Maidstone United manager), Tim Dixon (Ex-Ramsgate manager), Paul Chambers (Ex-Ashford United manager) and Ray Turner (Faversham Town manager) have all spoken highly of Cugley in the past and it shows the respect Cugley also commands from his peers around the footballing World in the County of Kent.
During his 19 years in charge of the East Kent club, Cugley has experienced the extreme highs of promotion four times and the utter dejection of relegation twice. Folkestone Invicta have also played at their highest level in the pyramid during Cugley’s reign when they completed in the Southern League Premier Division(2000-2003), once a division with a direct promotion to the Football Conference the highest level of non-league football in England. However, since a switch to the Isthmian Premier League in 2004, Invicta have found themselves bouncing up and down the various structures of the Isthmian Leagues, with the current team playing their football in the Ryman Isthmian South League, which is three promotions from the National Conference.
The last four seasons have been a tale of play-off heartache for all those involved with Folkestone, with the club suffering semi-final defeats in 2011/12 and 2012/13, and then final defeats in 2013/14 and 2014/15. It’s fair to say not many managers would have remained in charge during that long period of play-off disappointment, but this is Folkestone Invicta and they do things differently down in this part of Kent. Nevertheless after repeated play-off failure it would only seem fair to suggest that those loyal supporters in amber and black may have worried slightly if the club could push for promotion again at the start of the 2015/16 season, but they had needn’t have worried in the slightest as Cugley’s team have set a blistering pace so far in the Ryman South, leading the table after seventeen games having lost just twice to date. Their eighteen game of the season took them to the leafy surroundings of Walton on Thames and a clash with Walton and Hersham.
Tuesday 10th November 2015 – Ryman Division One South – Walton and Horsham 0 v 3 Folkestone Invicta – Attendance – 110
Whilst further up the footballing pyramid, the sight of volunteers helping their local club just for the love of football has long since been lost, down in the non-leagues it’s often only the hard work of volunteers the land over who help keep these clubs running and surviving on a day to day, week to week, month to month and so on basis, when crowds are sparse and money even sparser. It was whilst talking to one of these volunteers at Stompond Lane, home of Walton and Hersham, that I discovered the current plight of this Surrey based club. Elmbridge Borough Council are threatening them with eviction from the current home and want to force them to relocate to a new site that was once a refuse waste ground, they’re also being told they will have to share with the local rivals Walton Casuals who themselves are currently homeless and ground sharing at Merstham. As you can imagine if you told you were going to have to share with your local rivals, this hasn’t gone down well amongst the Stompond Lane faithful.
Whilst walking around the local area before kick off, the streets around the ground are noticeable for many properties being protected by gates and you instantly get the feeling this is a town awash with plenty of money. Stompond Lane may have seen better days, and the running track surrounding the pitch doesn’t do it any favours, but decor and athletics facilities aside, it shouldn’t be forgotten that football grounds mean so much more to so many and are rich with memories, history and are often the heartbeat the helps a community tick especially at this level. Unfortunately the local council sees it very differently and want the area the ground occupies as prime land on which to build more houses and the football club will have a battle on their hands to remain at the spiritual home they have played at for well over 50 years. The battle has been ongoing since the club’s lease ran out in 2004, and in February 2016 the issue will be heard again at a local council meeting. As a football supporter you can only wish them well in their battle as it’s been a messy one so far and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end in their favour.
Meanwhile back on the pitch the home side, lying in 15th place, had a tough battle on their hands to prevent the visitors and league leaders from picking up their fourteenth win of the season so far. However, recent back to back wins against fellow Kent clubs Whitstable Town and Ramsgate had given them hope a result was possible as the two teams kicked off on a mild November evening. Forty-five minutes later and it was all but game over for the home side as the league leaders showed their ruthless intent with a three goal blitz in thirty-nine first half minutes. Jon Pilbean got the ball rolling for the away side on eighteen minutes when he curled in from just inside the area, before Carl Rook doubled Folkestone’s advantage in the 25th minute when he stuck his leg out to divert the ball into the net when the ball was driven hard into the Walton and Hersham box. The forty or so Folkestone fans who had made the journey around the M25 to get here, complete with their famous Folkestone supporting dog, was certainty enjoying their evening, and six minutes before half time they had a third goal to cheer when Scott Head drove home from the edge of the area to all but secure the three points with forty-five minutes still to play. It could have been more too but for some good goalkeeping and wayward finishing.
Credit to Walton and Hersham they came out and made a game of it second half but their fight this season is as much off the pitch as it is on it. No further goals came in the second period and Folkestone ended the evening nine points clear of second place Molesey and sent out a message of ‘catch us if you can’ to the rest of the division. At this rate there will be no fifth play-off heartbreak for Invicta, but even if there was you get the impression Neil Cugley will still be around and surpass his 1000th game in charge. Hats off to you, Neil, hats off indeed.