After celebrating their Ryman League North title win, Folkestone Invicta manager Neil Cugley is looking forward to a more personal celebration.
It was way back on the first day of the 1997/98 Winstonlead Kent League Division One season when Cugley first took his place in the Invicta dugout.
VCD Athletic were the opposition and were dispatched by Cugley’s new recruits, a result that kicked off a nine game winning streak.
Quite the start for the former Ashford Town boss.
The success lasted way beyond those opening nine games, as Cugley rounded off an impressive opening season with the club by leading them to promotion as runners up behind Herne Bay.
Since then Cugley has become a key figure in the club’s history, leading them to promotions and some fine FA Cup and FA Trophy runs.
Next season Invicta will take their place in the Ryman League’s top tier, but not before Cugley hit a remarkable managerial landmark.
On the final day of the season Invicta welcome Tooting and Mitcham to Cheriton Road home, a fixture that mark Cugley’s 1000th in charge of the club.
A notable landmark hit, at a home game, on the last game of a title winning season.
A scenario that Cugley described as “perfect”.
He said “The thousand games thing was a surprise.
Richard Murrell, our programme editor, is the one that looks after the facts and figures and he said to me after the title win that the last game would be my 1000th in charge.
It is a real honour and a lot of my friends, players that have played for me will be there.
We will have a party but it is amazing for myself, it’s perfect the way things have panned out and it is something I will always cherish”
Cugley, who is also Director of Football at the club, started his career in Folkestone’s
youth team and supported the club as a youngster.
During his playing career he represented the likes of Maidstone United, Dartford and Dover Athletic.
After retiring as a player he stepped into the dugout with Ashford Town and Hythe Town before a return to the club he calls “special”.
Now, as a champion and a club legend, Cugley revealed just how proud he is of his acheivements.
“I can’t deny I am not proud of what I have acheived.
I played at Folkestone in the youth team, it is a club that means a lot to me and one I supported as a child.
I have a lot of affection for the club, everybody knows that.
It makes it even more special, sometimes the down sides hurt when you care so much but on the flipside the up sides are extra special”
For all of his acheivements with Invicta, being called a “champion” is a new experience for Cugley.
In his eighteen years at the club Cugley has been a runner up in a number of competitions but this season’s historic title win will be the first time he has landed a winners medal.
But rather than focusing on his own new experience, he paid tribute to people at the club and to his players.
“I’ve never been called a champion before so it is pleasing to hear, it’s a strange feeling really but there is a lot of hard work gone in, on and off the park, so I am delighted for the whole club.
It is credit to the players, they have kept plugging away and when we have lost a game we have always bounced back from them. That shows the resolve these lads have and it will serve us well for the tests that lie ahead next season”
What of next season for Cugley and his men?
An early title win, the first promotion in the non-league pyramid during this season, affords Cugley the luxury of getting planning underway earlier than the vast majority of managers.
That is a luxury that he is eager to take advantage and he insisted that he will make the most of it.
“We are planning for next season, I can’t deny that and although we are enjoying what we have acheived, there is always a focus on what is next.
It is a nice situation to be in and one that not many get a chance to do.
We have three or four weeks longer to plan, to talk to players, to get things right behind the scenes and we will make the most of that”
After one thousand games, the Neil Cugley story looks to have many more chapters ahead of it.
Interview: Mark Carruthers
Images: Folkestone Invicta FC (Michael Johnson)