With pride came overwhelming poignancy as Jay Saunders’ progression-packed Maidstone United tenure drew to a close at the end of August. The young gaffer had led the club he captained up three divisions to non-league’s top tier, and after a break in The City That Never Sleeps, Margate’s new boss has eyes wide open again as he looks to reawaken another side tucked away in his affections.
“In 60 years of football, this is one of the toughest decisions I’ve been involved with.” It was quite the change from the largely emotionless, robotic statements confirming managerial departures that we see all too often in the game today, with non-league most definitely not exempt from the trend.
They were the sentiments of Maidstone United chief executive Bill Williams, himself a former player and manager, when Jay Saunders’ mutually-agreed farewell to the club he will go down in the history of was announced. It was apt for someone who had led with emphatic distinction on the former Kent County League outfit’s climb to the Vanarama National League, presiding over their most recent three promotions.
Stones had arrived in the fifth tier in 2016 with the wind of two successive promotions at their back, but although they achieved finishes of 14th and 19th to stay up, the message from the top in August was that the fear of relegation this time around had instigated the call for fresh impetus. The Bearsted native’s impact at the club will remain beyond question, though, and it is by now well known that Macclesfield Town admired the young manager enough to offer him the chance to replace Shrewsbury Town-bound John Askey last summer, following the Silkmen’s promotion to League Two.
He chose to stay with Maidstone, but the Cheshire side were back in touch in October, with Mark Yates’ ill-fated tenure halted and Jay by now having left Stones some weeks earlier. He recalls the conversation with Macc, who would go on to unveil former Arsenal and England defender Sol Campbell as the new man in charge at the end of November.
“To be fair to them, their owner contacted me and asked what was my situation; at the time I was coaching at Bromley and he asked if I was contracted, which I wasn’t. He said ‘you were our first choice in the summer, we’re keen, but we are speaking to one other person and we’ll let you know how that goes,’ and in all fairness, they called me back and said they’d met someone they were really impressed with and that was the route they were going to go down.
“I didn’t expect much to come of it, because I think for someone like myself, them chances with League clubs only come up once in a blue moon, and my opportunity came up and for personal reasons, I didn’t take it. It was nice I was still in their thoughts, because obviously I’d done something good in the past for that to be the case.
“It was a good offer and I should have taken it first time around, but you can’t live in regrets, you have to move on, and I’m delighted to be at Margate and looking forward to the rest of the season ahead.”
Given the admiring higher-level glances, it is difficult not to describe it as a coup for a Bostik Premier side to land him, but the chance to help kick-start something at a club he has a long-established vested interest in sealed the deal. A one-time Gillingham youth, it was at Margate where Jay spent a sizeable proportion of his playing days, making over 350 appearances after joining as a 19-year-old.
After relegation in 2017, The Gate ended last season two points and two places off the play-offs under former Chelsea player Steve Watt, who worked with Jay as Maidstone assistant this season. The seaside club finished as high as 8th in the Conference in 2001/02, fuelled back then by the goals of Leon Braithwaite, but they were away from their Hartsdown Park home for three years, and subsequently expelled from the Conference in 2004.
While they are now looking to get back into the National League South, Margate are 17 points back from the last play-off place and just five clear of the drop zone, so it does not need a mastermind to work out where the immediate priorities lie.
Ex-Charlton and Reading defender Steve Brown had been joint-manager alongside Mike Sandmann before departing earlier this month. Also academy manager at Dover Athletic, Sandmann remains with The Gate, and Jay discusses how he believes the dynamic between the two will work in practice.
“From the club’s point of view, they felt that joint-managers hadn’t worked ideally for them, so when we spoke, I said I needed to have that conversation with Mike. I think from my point of view, I’ve always been in charge and a manager, and Mike understands that, so I guess you could say it’s me as first-team manager and Mike as first-team coach / assistant, but we’re doing a lot of stuff together and I have no issue with that at the end of the day.
“It’s a case of making sure we get points on the board and making sure we get us safe this season; that was my remit when I came in. We’re working very closely together on signings and training and everything.
“(Last) Thursday training, and Saturday for the game, it was a back seat, just so I could see how he’s done things and what needed changing. After seeing that, this week, I can start to put some ideas into place and bring one or two more players in.”
Jay also comes in after a five-month intermission (from management at least) that has allowed him a dose of vital respite and reflection. Even for those of us who follow it as ‘just’ fans, football can dominate the thoughts at any moment, like that prowling penalty-area poacher, waiting to come alive at the chance to strike.
As any coach or manager will testify, there is unfortunately no curfew when it comes to agonising over tactics, so almost eight years continuously managing a club, for all its plus points, is bound to take a toll. For Jay, while he has still been closely involved as a coach and observer, the last few months have yielded some very welcome extended time with loved ones, and a chance to go somewhere he has always wanted.
“Initially, it was ‘go out and watch plenty of games,’ which was what I did. All levels, Bostik upwards, and going and watching a few clubs train, through managers I know well.
“Then it was a case of taking a little break over Christmas and spending it with the family. I went away to New York, just to try and switch off a little bit; I’ve always wanted to go and never had the opportunity.
“I think going away kind of made me realise how much I was missing it. I had a spell with Bromley helping Neil Smith out down there, which I really enjoyed, but it just kind of made me realise how much I actually miss being in charge of a football club.
“I needed that buzz back and was desperate to get back in. I coach for my friend at Soccer Elite, so I do the daytime coaching there.
“Away from football, when you’ve got four kids, that takes up a lot of time! But that was why I wanted to do the New York thing as well.
“I’ve got some good friends, and the good thing is when I’m with them, they’re not massive football people, so you can switch off a bit.”
Maidstone and Margate, and Jay’s respective managerial challenge at each club, undoubtedly differ, but the opportunity to make the best kind of memories all over again can surely only whet the appetite. After taking over the Stones in March 2011, initially as caretaker and with the team eight adrift of safety and ultimately unable to stay up, Jay then took them from Isthmian League Division One South, back up to the Premier Division, to the National League South, and then the National League.
When Maidstone notched the latter of those promotions, winning the National League South play-offs in 2016, it was striker Dumebi Dumaka who dramatically rescued the final against Ebbsfleet United at the death in extra-time. Dumaka was at the forefront of the champagne images with goalkeeper Lee Worgan and company after penalties.
Decisive matches and snapshots like that will naturally stick in the mind, but Jay considers if there was a longer spell in particular at the club when it felt like happiness was at its maximum.
“I’ve got to say the Ryman days. I think we had them two seasons, obviously won the Ryman Prem and we beat Stevenage on TV in the FA Cup, then the following year the play-off win at Ebbsfleet.
“My first trophy, obviously winning the South play-offs is always nice, the first year back at the new ground. Certainly the Ryman Prem we had a real good group of lads, even in the Conference South, and everything seemed to be going right.
“It was probably too soon for the club to go up, and that’s maybe why the club’s struggled now, because it’s caught up with them, but certainly those two years were some real good memories. We had some good FA Cup runs, we won the Kent Cup, the Ryman Cup.
“We had some good years.”
Upon his departure, aforementioned Stones chief exec Bill Williams highlighted Jay’s influence from first team to academy, player development centres and soccer schools, stating that they also hoped they could maintain a relationship with him. Before the club in its current guise came to be, there was the old Maidstone United, a Football League outfit (1989-92) before going bankrupt and being effectively relegated seven divisions as they had no ground.
Originally Maidstone Invicta, the club later successfully applied to become a senior team as they progressed up the non-league pyramid. Jay joined as a player in 2008 and had the honour of leading the team as manager for their first game back in Maidstone, when the Gallagher Stadium opened in July 2012, after Stones had been most recently ground-sharing with Sittingbourne.
Having been at the heart of so much of the climb, Jay admits his sadness at not being able to gather the squad to bid farewell.
“That’s the only sort of sour taste I’ve got leaving the club. I never got the chance to say bye to the players; even supporters to a certain extent.
“It’s my local club and I’ve bumped into a lot of supporters since and I’ve had good things from them, so it’s a shame it ended and stuff went on. It’s a shame that it’s awkward for me to go back there to the ground, because it’s the club I supported as a boy, but that’s football and I’ve learned that over the years.
“You go from being really comfortable at a place, to things changing, and that’s what happens.”
As Jay’s Maidstone headed for National League South play-off success, Margate had been successful in their bid to stay in the division that year, following promotion. The Gate stayed up over Havant & Waterlooville by a solitary goal as 2015/16 drew to a close, and perhaps the remarkable turnaround of the now-National League Havant in the time since offers further hope as this new era begins at Hartsdown Park.
After relegation in 2017 and coming so close to the play-offs last season, it was mutually agreed that manager Steve Watt would move on, while the likes of keeper Lenny Pidgeley, top scorer Jordan Chiedozie and midfielders Sam Blackman and Jack Evans were among the departures on the playing side. There has been no shortage of changes, but there is the feeling that this is a good squad they have, albeit beset by injuries and in need of an extra killer touch in front of goal.
In the short-term, then, as Jay sees it, is it largely about lifting spirits while the pursuit of new signings continues?
“I think so. Speaking to people who’ve been at recent games, there seems to be an extra spring in the players’ steps; Steve McKimm at Tonbridge said he felt the Margate players had a bit more desire, which happens when a new manager comes in and everybody’s got a point to prove.
“There’s no doubt about it, with the games I’ve seen this year, and injuries to the likes of Frannie Collin and people like that, they’ve been unlucky in the final third, so that is an area we’re trying really hard today to strengthen. I’ve got a couple of targets in mind and working overtime to try and get at least one of those in.
“I think possibly in one or two other areas we need to strengthen as well, so it is a bit of both; just sort of rejuvenating the squad and giving them that bit of belief. I said to the boys after the game on Saturday, they’ve played a team in Tonbridge who were bang in form and in the play-offs, and we come away with a well-deserved point; maybe on another day you nick it.
“Defensive record’s been good this year, but we need to add goals. That’s what Kadell (Daniel) will hopefully bring – quality.
“It was tough for him on Saturday, only just meeting the boys on the day, but he’ll get better as his loan (from Dover) goes on, and we’ve hopefully got the options as well of new lads coming in.”
Together with his Soccer Elite FA role, which has him as scholars head coach, Jay will get his two evenings a week to work with the Margate squad. He says he has no qualms about readjusting to this level, expressing again the eagerness to crack straight on in the bid to haul them clear of trouble and on to bigger and brighter.
“For me, it’s not a problem. I started in Ryman South as a manager, so back then at Maidstone we didn’t have a training facility; we used to train at a local park and when it got dark we finished!
“So I’ve been there and that’s why it wasn’t a problem for me dropping down. I’ve had a few people say ‘why didn’t you wait for something higher?’ but I wanted to be back involved.
“I’m used to the two-night thing. Ideally, you’d always like more time with the boys, but we’ve got what we’ve got.
“There’s 13/14 games left so we’ve got to get the points on the board and we’ll find a system that works for us, do as much work as we can, and get our ideas into place as quickly as we can.”
Also representing Gravesend & Northfleet and Lewes as a player, the commitment he played with has been the bedrock of Jay as a manager. As he responds to the question of whether he feels on reflection he could have gone into another job with full vigour straight after leaving Maidstone, he explains why The Gate are now gaining a wiser and more refined Jay Saunders.
“Now looking at it, I needed that time away. For probably a year-and-a-half at Maidstone I’d really struggled to get my head around where the club were heading and what they wanted; obviously when we kept losing players.
“I think when it really got to me was last Christmas when we were on a good run at the time and we lost Joe Pigott (to AFC Wimbledon), lost Zavon Hines (to Chesterfield). We moved a lot of players on and it was sort of ‘try and find them players again,’ and there’s only so many times you can keep doing that.
“I was struggling just to get my head around it and I’m ambitious, I want to kick on, and I want to do things, and I kind of felt I was just going through the motions there. It was probably right for me that I needed a break.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, because you turn up for work and you get on with things, but I probably needed to come out to realise how much I missed it. It’s never nice to leave a club.
“I probably should have gone when the Macclesfield offer came up; that was when I should have gone, but I didn’t because of probably my loyalties to the club. As it happened, it got taken away from me anyway.
“Things happen in football and that’s what it was, but certainly the break’s done me good, and even though I’ve only been back in the job about three days, I’m really enjoying it.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I was playing for Maidstone and we had an away game, I remember it quite clearly, against Ashford (Town) Middlesex, and Bill Williams, director of football at Maidstone at the time, I was warming up and he kind of said to me, ‘I can see you as a manager.’ I just kind of laughed and said ‘no, I don’t think that’s for me.’ I then did some coaching badges; I did my Level 2 when I was at Gillingham and it went from there really. It never really re-entered my mind until later on in that season and Andy Ford left and Bill asked if I could take it until the end of the season. I think I had ten games, something like that, and it kind of just felt natural to take charge really. I used to work for my dad, who had a big company, when I left Gillingham, and I was managing groups of blokes who were a lot older than me from quite a young age. It felt quite natural and here I am nine years later!
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I do enjoy working with the forwards. When I had Joe Pigott, he was so dedicated to improving himself finishing-wise; he used to come in and do one-to-one sessions. So I do enjoy that side of it, but I can’t put my finger on (a favourite session) really. I think when you’ve got a good group of lads and they want to learn; I really enjoy the academy stuff I’m doing in the day time with a group of lads that really want to learn and take everything on board. I think that’s important; if they buy into what you want to do then that’s the biggest part.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
I don’t do as much now because my back doesn’t hold up! I still if I can; I always have my boots on and join in a bit. I think at 40 now, with the younger lads in the game, it’s moved on a little bit, but I did my (UEFA) B Licence and one of the coaches said you shouldn’t step in and demonstrate. I personally think if you’ve got the ability to demonstrate and you can show someone firsthand, especially younger lads, you should do it. If I’ve got my boots on and there’s something then I’ll always try and show them, and hope that it comes off!
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
When I was at Gillingham, we played at Highbury, and I’m a big Arsenal supporter, and we played there in the FA Youth Cup, so that’s something that will always live with me. I’ve not been but I’d love to go to the Nou Camp or Bernabéu; they’re just iconic stadiums, aren’t they? When I was at Maidstone, we went on an academy tour to Borussia Dortmund’s ground. I must admit, having a tour around that, I’d love to be there for a game, with that full house and atmosphere. There’s quite a few but I think looking back, Highbury was always the one, seeing my heroes like Tony Adams play there and then getting to walk out on that pitch.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
There was two, to be honest: Tony Adams and then probably Patrick Vieira. Tony Adams was Mr. Arsenal and I don’t think some people outside of Arsenal really appreciate what a centre-half he was, especially with all the stuff he had going on off the pitch; to play to the level he did was unbelievable. Then Patrick Vieira I just think was the complete midfielder for them years; he could run games single-handedly. For me as a midfielder, and I could play centre-half as well, them two really stood out. There was others at Arsenal, like Ian wright, and players at other clubs you appreciate, like Gazza, but certainly Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira would be the two.
And how would you sell the club to one of those two, if you were trying to sign them for Margate (in their prime)?!
(Laughs) For me, Margate’s a little bit of a sleeping giant at this level; I played there in front of big crowds when we were in the Conference, so I know what the club can be and where it’s heading. It’d be a case of getting down there, showing the plans for the club moving forward and trying to get them to buy into it. That’s a similar thing to what we did at Maidstone when I was starting out; you’ve got to get players who buy into the bigger project and what you’re trying to do. One thing is I’ll make sure they enjoy their football; I think anyone who’s played for me, nine times out of ten they’ve enjoyed it, so I try and get players playing with a smile on their face.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I love Ibiza, I love the whole place, but probably somewhere in America. I’m a big fan of America and obviously their football is growing and growing.
(Could coaching in the US be a possibility some years in the future? Or overseas somewhere?) Yeah, I had a couple of offers to go out to Australia coaching. I had a conversation with Jamie Day (now Bangladesh manager) as well. For me, it’s a little bit tough at the moment with young children, but certainly in the future when they’re a little bit older it’s something that would interest me.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
I suppose at different levels it’s different things. I think there’s so much money now floating around non-league, it becomes frustrating, and that’s what I found at Maidstone; trying to get players and keep players, a lot of it was down to the financial side. Probably loyalty is another thing I’d say; I don’t think you see many players now that stay at clubs for long periods of times and that’s frustrating. I played nearly 400 games for Margate and had long spells with Maidstone. With the agents involved, it’s not a bad thing, but I just think nowadays money is kind of the ruler and if players can get an extra 50 or 100 quid here or there then they’ll do it. I suppose as a manager that’s frustrating, but on the flipside, I’ve been a player and I can kind of understand it. As a manager, I don’t think you really get those years to work with a player now; you get a little bit of time and they get snapped up by somewhere else. That’s something maybe the Football League need to look at, because a lot of them now come in and they take these players, they go into a system and then they’re back to square one, two or three years later without playing any senior football.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
I’d probably put James Rogers up there; he’s playing for me now. I had him at Maidstone for a number of years and he was someone who was a real character. He’s got a lot of promotions on his CV and I’ve got him back now! He was always good for the changing room and he always got people together. One other’s probably a lad called Lee Shearer, who I played with many years ago. He played for Dover and Maidstone and is another big character.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
I’ve got one I’ve seen. I played for a manager once, and it’s probably the one I’ve learned from to make sure I’ll never do it! He punched the Gatorade machine, he punched the top of that, and his hand went straight through and the lid got stuck on his wrist. He was trying to give us all a rollocking and he was swinging about with the Gatorade lid stuck on his hand.
Your routine on a match day
I’ve been very superstitious all through my career; I’ve still got the same towel now as when I started out! I now go to the gym in the mornings, just to try and focus on the game ahead. Always like to get there early; so always a good 45-to-an-hour before the players turn up. Just try and have a bit of time to myself really, to make sure the decisions I’ve got in my head are the right ones. When I was younger, I probably got more involved with the changing room than I do now, but as you get older I think you need to make sure your head’s clear.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
It’d have to be Luther Vandross. He’s my favourite singer. Probably ‘Give Me the Reason.’ That’ll probably be on the playlist, and if it’s not, it’ll be added!
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
From a manager’s point of view, someone said ‘if you’re making a decision you have to make sure it’s your decision.’ That’s something I tried to take into management; ‘I’m gonna live and die by my decisions.’ I’ll obviously get advice and listen to what the assistants say, but I’ll always make sure the final decision I’m making is my decision. You can never look back and have regrets, if you like, and I think in life, that’s a similar thing. That’s something I try to live by now.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
Bobby Robson was always one that amazed me. He managed everywhere, managed Barcelona, he seemed like a genuinely good bloke as well. It would have been interesting to pick his brains and you look at the players he managed over the years, I’m sure he had some interesting stories.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
I think people probably see me as quite laid-back, which I am to a certain degree, but I’m very ambitious and I want things done the right way. So I’m probably not as laid-back as everyone thinks.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Yeah, do you know what? I don’t see it as work. I mean growing up, you ask most people what they want to do and it’s ‘play football,’ and I’ve been very fortunate. I look at every time I’m at work, as they call it, I don’t see it as that; I see it as something I love doing. It’s something that I love that I’ve been fortunate to get paid for. Going to work, I’ve done the other side of it, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and going to lift things and tiling and stuff like that. This for me isn’t work, it’s an enjoyable thing. Yeah there’s pressure and stuff, but you have to enjoy it, and if you do that, that comes across in your work and hopefully you get success.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes