The following article, written by Alan Reidy, first appeared in the Tiverton Town programme on 28 October.
Some things are inevitable – as sure as night follows day follows night, as sure as Olaf Mellberg will scratch his beard during interviews, and as sure as Ashley Cole will be jeered by his own compatriots when representing England there is one little statistic centring around Tiverton Town FC that is seemingly as certain as a three inch putt for par on a flat green. Our leading protagonist in this story is Mark Saunders, the veteran midfielder that first played for Tivvy when footballs had laces in them and boots were made of leather. In a quest to get a little more insight I asked the man himself whether he kept tabs on his own career from a statistical point of view following our victory at Bashley at the weekend.
First off it must be said that Mark is looking good for his age – still the surging runs from midfield, albeit not quite as frequent as they were in the 1990s, still a crunch in the challenge, still deft of touch and a clinical pass. I am told by the ladies that he isn’t too shabby looking off the pitch either, but that is for another time and another place. Mark was quick to point out that he is well aware of how many games he played and how many goals he scored for Plymouth Argyle and Gillingham: “eighty-one games, eleven goals for Argyle”, he says without pause for thought, and he is on the money. His career at Gillingham was longer, a total of 201 first team appearances and eighteen goals as a return.
But our fact of the day is about his goalscoring record in Tiverton colours. It is difficult to nail down the exact number of appearances Saunders made in his early stint at Ladysmead, but what is known is that his volley at Bashley three days ago was his 126th goal for the club. Those goals have arrived in 86 different games since his first and Tiverton’s third in a 3-1 Western League Cup win over Yeovil Town Reserves in December 1989, but the stunning revelation is Tivvy’s success rate when Saunders gets his name on the scoresheet. Of those 86 games Tivvy have drawn just one, a 4-4 derby game against Elmore in December 1991, and lost a meagre two – an FA Vase tie in 1990 at home to Dawlish (Martyn Rogers also scored in the 3-4 loss), and then during the festive season of 1992 when Saunders’ brace and a Kevin Smith goal wasn’t enough on the other side of town. So that leaves a remarkable 83 out of 86 games that Tiverton have won with Mark Saunders scoring.
To throw around a few more numbers, Mark’s 126 Tivvy goals have included five hat-tricks, three quad-tricks and a healthy twenty-one doubles. Amazingly exactly half have been scored at Ladysmead, the goal at Bashley being the 63rd Mark has scored on the road, and his best tally over a season was in 1993-94 when he bagged 35 goals and still ended up as only the third highest goal-getter at the club.
I got the impression that Mark was duly impressed, although in fairness he may have just been being polite having spent the afternoon legging it around with a team of which half are young enough to be his sons. All the same Mark did, in reaction to the amazing win rate Tivvy secure when he scores, lay claim to an even better win percentage at Gillingham: “we never lost when I scored”, he proclaimed with chest puffed out and halo floating above his crown. And that really is something else. But – and I hate to burst the bubble – this isn’t quite true! The first seventeen goals were in keeping with the undefeated record, but Mark’s final goal for the Gills was in an FA Cup game against non-league Burscough in November 2005, a strike that put the Kent team 2-1 ahead with fifteen minutes to play. Unfortunately Ian Cox scored an own goal in the last minute to bring the sides level, and seconds later Burscough’s David Rowan scored a winner and created a cup shock of sorts. So in games that Saunders scored Gillingham’s record reads won 7, drawn 8, lost 1. Can’t blame him for forgetting the one defeat, mind you.
Mark Saunders may sound gruff and unsavoury on the pitch but he is affable and softly spoken away from the mud and sweat. He was happy to reminisce about his early days at Tiverton, his initial decision to stay a while at Torrington rather than sit on the bench at Ladysmead under John Owen’s tutelage, and the subsequent following of his brother’s footsteps to Tivvy once he was certain that he would get plenty of time on the pitch. His prolific goalscoring days may well be behind him now, but his steadying influence in an otherwise youthful Tiverton Town side is not to be underestimated – it was clearly evident at Bashley and Mark’s experience and knowhow will be invaluable as the Yellows continue to battle their way up the league standing.
Thanks to Alan Reidy for permission to re-use his article.