IT IS fair to say that Chippenham Town manager Mark Collier will be enjoying these rare few weeks where football is not the only thought on his mind – let alone his family.
However, having masterminded the Bluebirds’ assault on the Southern League Premier Division title and a campaign in the National League South on the horizon, thoughts of Hardenhuish Park will never be too distant.
The former Swindon Town coach and manager of Swindon Supermarine took the reins at Chippenham back in October 2013 - following a humiliating 9-0 defeat at home to Stourbridge and Steve Winter’s sacking on a surprise holiday for his 40th birthday - setting out a three-year plan to get the Bluebirds out of the doldrums and pushing for promotion.
Collier and his assistant Tom Jones with the Southern League shield
And, as promised, he completed that journey last month in emphatic style as Chippenham clinched the Southern League title with three games to spare and a record points tally for the division in the process.
However, Collier admits that it came at a cost as his personal life became wrapped up by the task at hand and he even began to question himself when he was arriving home soaked to the bone from places like Merthyr Town in the early hours with his own side not even playing or arriving at Hardenhuish Park earlier and earlier to ensure that no stone was left unturned.
“It totally engulfed my life,” explained the 58-year-old. “I’m on the road a lot with work so I get a lot of time alone in the car but everyone was talking about it, you couldn’t get away from it.
“Even at home, you start getting asked questions. Whether you want to answer those questions or not, you just want to get away from it.
“Someone said that I had gone to bed thinking about it and woken up thinking about it and that is exactly it.
“Our meeting time at the ground was 1.30pm and I would start getting there at 11.30am. I don’t know why, but I would just feel more comfortable getting there and knowing that everything was covered.
“If you plan properly and everything is done, the hard work brings you success at the end.
“I made sure the players had what they wanted, so there were no excuses, everything was done for them, everything was right for them.
Chairman Neil Blackmore (left) presents a decanter to Mark Collier to commemorate his 500 Southern League games as a manager
“It engulfed my whole life for the whole nine months of the season and obviously pre-season before that, so it’s nice to have a couple of weeks just talking about nice things before we start planning for the next season.”
However, as he admitted, Collier is only a small cog in the goings on at Hardenhuish Park and knows his side would not have achieved what they did last year without the support of the of everyone at the club.
And while chairman Neil Blackmore dug his hand into his pocket to help finance Chippenham’s title-winning season with signings such as Dave Pratt and Will Richards, it’s the little things like the chairman's wife making the team’s lunches on away trips that really hit home for Collier.
“Neil was very emotional on the day we lifted the title,” added Collier, whose side is also made up of part-time players who have to balance work with long trips away on Tuesday nights to places like King’s Lynn.
“He has put a lot of hard work in. Neil didn’t put his suit and tie on until late because he was dragging water on the pitch.
“You got to the ground at 7am on a Saturday morning and Neil Blackmore is there, sweeping up, painting, or fixing something.
“It’s not just the investment, it’s the time and the manual labour and the work he puts in.
“The lads have a pre-match on the coach to every away game. That pre-match of jacket potatoes etc. is sorted by the chairman’s wife and whatever time she must get up when we’re off to King’s Lynn or wherever on a Saturday morning to make those up.
“The kitman still there at 10pm washing kit and coming back at 1am in the morning and loading washing machines up so the kit is ready for the following Saturday.
“That takes time but I have to respect that.
“I can’t win the league on my own, the players can’t win the league on their own.
“There are so many people to thank and it doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and lots of application from everybody.
“The team have won the title and the club have won the championship.
“When I got the job, I said to the chairman that we have to bring everyone together because the players can’t win it on their own.
“I had a competitive budget to work with but there were some clubs with bigger and better but they didn’t have what we had, that togetherness and that spirit.”
Collier celebrates the 3-1 win at Hitchin Town in April which saw Chippenham put one hand on the title
Ultimately, it was a 23-game unbeaten run, which started with a 3-3 draw at home to Slough Town back in December and only came to an end once the title had been secured without kicking a ball on Good Friday, which secured the title for Chippenham.
And it was at that point that Collier knew that his side would not only be lifting the trophy come April but that they will also be able to hold their own when they make the step up to the highest level the club have ever reached.
“We started the run and did particularly well and when we got to eight games, I said, ‘can we make it nine, can we make it 27 points out of 27?’,” said Collier, who even had his own Claudio Ranieri pizza moment when it came to training.
“As we would win the next game, the lads just kept growing and I would hear lads saying ‘nobody can beat us.’ “There was an inner belief. No one said too much about it but there were games when we were behind or we were drawing and you could feel it coming.
“Lads were saying, ‘get me strapped up, I want to play out there.’ As a manager, that is what you want to hear. You don’t want lads coming in saying that they have got a bit of a strain and they don’t want to play.
“Late on in the season, we stopped training on the Thursday because we were doing so well and I kept saying, ‘we’ll have Thursday off. You keep winning, we’ll have Thursday off.’ “The chairman questioned if we were fit enough but we were winning.
“I put the trust in them and they put the trust in me and we won together.”