Chris Hilton has been the ultimate safe pair of hands for Stocksbridge Park Steels over the past five years.
“It is a very good question,” laughs Chris Hilton as he begins to answer why he’s agreed to a sixth campaign in the Stocksbridge Park Steels hot-seat considering he’s having to rebuilt his squad yet again.
Just a few months ago health nearly made him to quit a role he loves doing. Flirtations with the relegation spots in the first half of the season raised stress levels and affected all parts of his life.
But here Hilton is, still pacing the Bracken Moor dugout and busy assembling his squad for the slog of a BetVictor South East season.
“Last season was a massive shock to the system with how difficult it was, even though we finished in mid-table,” Hilton tells Non League Yorkshire.
“I really shocked by how we started and how results continued. Fortunately we finished strongly, but you find out who your friends are when you are losing games. Management can be a lonely place and I’ve learnt a lot.
“I haven’t been diagnosed with depression, but I certainly went through some sort of depression during that bad period of results.
“People need to be aware that management and staff face the same problems that players do. Luckily I have a good network around me, but others aren’t as fortunate.
“When you’re winning the phone is constantly going, when you lose it never goes off.
“I was really down and everyone noticed I was, the family, everyone. It affected everything. At one point I thought ‘do I really need the pressure (of managing Stocksbridge)’?
“But I don’t like quitting and it was massive relief when we came through it (the bad run).”
Chris Hilton has been the man for all seasons at Stocksbridge having taken charge in 2014.
It feels a lifetime ago since he replaced Darren Schofield following relegation from the top flight of the NPL. Six years later he has built several Steels squads on limited budgets, enjoyed memorable FA Trophy runs, reached their respective play-offs and sold Harrison Biggins to Fleetwood Town.
Hilton has been Stocksbridge’s ultimate safe pair of hands. But even he admits the 2018/19 season was almost one bridge too many.
“I was close to walking away at the end of the season and I nearly walked away halfway through the season as well,” he says.
“Around Christmas time when we were doing badly I did question my ability, whether I was doing the right things or whether I was out of touch? You do when you’re losing games.
“Luckily for me I’ve got a good chairman (Graham Furness) and a good board who support me 100%. They said stick with it and see the job through.
“If it had been another club I would have been out of the door, 100%. I wouldn’t have seen the season out.
“I owe them for sticking with me. In the end we got the club out of trouble and comfortably into mid-table.”
Stocksbridge boss Chris Hilton, his former assistant Ryan Laight and current number two Lee Thompson watch on.
Loyalty is a recurring theme throughout Hilton’s playing career. He spent years as a player with Frickley Athletic and was even granted a testimonial. Even his first managerial stint had longevity – four years in charge of Worsbrough Bridge – a period that saw him cemented as a Park Road great.
His sixth season with the Steels also makes him one of the longest-serving Yorkshire Non League managers at Steps 4,5 and 6. Only Ian Richards (Penistone Church), Phil Harding (Yorkshire Amateur) and Wayne Benn (Hemsworth Miners Welfare) rank above him.
Although he was keen to repay the backing of Furness and his committee, there was a lot to consider when deciding whether to stay on with his loyal assistants Lee Thompson and Shaun Handisides.
“How I felt for a big part of last season was something I really thought about before we decided to carry on,” he says.
“I think I will handle it (stress) a lot better now because I’ve been through it.
“It is strange, I never had the same level of stress at Worsbrough. Even though some Saturdays you woke up sometimes not knowing whether you had a full team and you always had someone pulling out at 1.30pm.
“This is my tenth season in management overall and I did think ‘do I really want to do another’? Especially considering we would have to rebuild the team again.
“When I sat down with Tommo and Shaun it was a question we asked because of how difficult last season was.
“I could have taken time out, do some badges, be more relaxed and spend more time with the family, but I sat down with the chairman (Graham Furness), Tommo, Shaun (Handisides) and we decided we’d give it a go.”
Stocksbridge are back in the BetVictor South after the NPL, in their wisdom, chose to the abandon the East/West divide after just one season.
Hilton believes his squad is already stronger than it was this time last year – not that he has finished his recruitment.
“I found last season hard because of the quality we lost and we struggled to get the quality in,” he says.
“It will be difficult this season. There’s some crazy money knocking around and there’s even more this year because of there being more places for promotion.
“I do think we have a good mix now. We have a hard-working bunch and I don’t think we’re far off.
“We’re a couple of players short and we also have a few players to come back from injury. Ed Hall the goalkeeper is going to be back. Frosty (Danny Frost) is going to be fit in the next week or so.
“There’s probably a couple of players we need to get in and if we get them we should be fine.”
He might get stick for having had more clubs than Tiger Woods, but his record is outstanding. He led Shaw Lane to promotion in 2014, almost single-handily in the 2-2 draw with Knaresborough Town. Grant Black gets the credit for raising a sunken Ossett Town off the ocean floor and averting certain relegation in 2016, but Frost deserves just as much for scoring the goals.
He then joined Stocksbridge at the right moment last season – although Hilton insists other players also played major roles in helping the Steels avoid relegation.
“He does tend to have a lot of clubs, but I think he is settled here now,” he says.
“If we can keep him fit he can score goals. He’s had plenty of offers this summer, but he said he wasn’t interested and wanted to stop with us.
“He made a big difference for us last season. He said he was the club’s saviour as Frosty would. But the goalkeeper we got from Hull made a big difference for us, Kurtis Turner came back.
“There weren’t just Frosty, but he was a big part of what got us out of trouble. No doubt about it.”
Hilton will just hope Frost’s goals will keep them at the top end of the league, rather than just keep them afloat.