Courtney: “A special five years”

On the fifth anniversary of his appointment as Hinckley AFC manager, one word comes up more than any other when Courtney Hunter-Belford reflects on the last half a decade.

“Enjoyable” is Courtney’s primary reflection on a five years that has seen a lot happen under his stewardship. A ground move, lockdown uncertainties, double play-off heartbreak, a short time away, a League Cup trophy, a league title, promotion and a steep rise in attendances marks an at times turbulent, but ultimately successful time in charge so far.

That word “enjoyable” pops up a lot during his moment of reflection on his first five years at Hinckley – be it from building a team from scratch at the beginning, to returning after a brief spell coaching at Atherstone Town, to title charges and eventually winning promotion.

“The last couple of seasons even more so,” he reflects. “It’s been a strange five years because of the two covid seasons. That was difficult and stop-start but to end that cycle on promotion and the cup final last year was really special.

“Having time away made me realise how special this club is and how much I enjoy being here. It’s been a long time now, I’ve been managing for seven years and to be spending five years here is really enjoyable.

“It’s been a big learning curve but it’s something I’m very proud of.”

It seems a long time ago that fans trekked over to Ibstock for home matches, but that was the case when Hunter-Belford took over in the summer of 2019. The club had just come off the back of its worst season, a low league finish and crowds dwindling. His first impression of the club was one that was “on its knees” but he quickly set about turning that mood around.

“When the club first started it had a real a positive outlook. Fans had got their club back, there was a positivity around it. I played against Hinckley a couple of times for the Griff and I always wanted the club to do well.

“Then I came over to watch a couple of games in the season before I came in and it felt a low place. I told the club that I wanted to bring the community feel back, and just get people to enjoy themselves. Fans haven’t had it easy with groundshares. Ibstock was good in the sense we could make it our own but being half an hour away is a difficult commitment.

“Being honest with fans was also important to me, being approachable and bringing a team together you could relate to.”

And so he set about building his team. He had to do that from scratch, though – only three players played more than one game in both his first season and the one before it. He had to find a new squad and gel them in one pre-season.

That summer, the FA confirmed a restructure of the non-league pyramid that would see four teams promoted from step six – and while that was always something Courtney wanted to strive towards, he always felt it was an uphill battle given the rebuild he had to implement.

“Promotion was unrealistic in the first year but towards end of that season we started to feel we’d built a good young side. We had lots of local lads from the Nuneaton and Hinckley areas to get that relationship with the fans.

“We were trying to get mix of those who knew club, like Luke Richards and Becks (Bekir Halil) and young lads who were new to the level, to try to build a team to go for the next season.

“Covid meant another big turnaround which was difficult for consistency but we got our feet under the table. The club and I were getting used to each other, and we really had those two years as a start-up.”

After football was curtailed in March 2020, pre-season training couldn’t start again until the following August under lockdown rules. When the group did come together, it came with a new assistant. Courtney had sounded out Joe Conneely after he left his role as Coventry Copsewood manager, and he arrived as assistant along with brother Ryan as coach.

Courtney calls Joe his best signing of those five years, but says it wasn’t always set in stone that Joe would join as assistant.

“Bringing him to club was a tough sell because he was a manager in his own right. I needed an assistant at the outset but my conversation to him was that there were no roles. I said that the staff has a responsibility so he could still feel like a manager. That was then reciprocated when I came back in from Atherstone.

“He had as much input as he wanted to have and made big difference. The same goes for Ryan who had that tie-in with the Strachan Foundation and gave us the connection to people like Jack Edwards.”

Having had two “start-up” seasons brought to a premature end, it was widely felt that 2021/22, his third year in charge, was one to target. The club was moved sideways to the United Counties League, meaning more favourable travel, more local derbies and plenty of new teams to face.

With that coming together and retaining a good portion of the group who ended the previous shortened season, he set about pushing for promotion.

“We had a proper pre-season. We knew football would go ahead, covid had gone, we could focus on having a good young team and get ideas across of how we wanted to play.

“We got agonisingly close. It was very tough to take. We were in such a good position. We had a period where we won lots of games and had a platform to win it but we got things wrong as managers and ultimately we fell short.”

He pinpoints that as a key experience he has learnt from during the last five years, and another came just after that. With the pitch at Barwell being dug up and replaced by an artificial surface, it meant the club had to move their midweek home matches from Tuesdays to Mondays.

That clashed with his work and so he stepped down as manager, joining the coaching staff at Atherstone before being able to move his shifts around and return five months later.

“I never wanted to leave after that season but the change in nights with work made that so. I had to take stock and think about what’s best. I thought that would be best to be part of a staff at Atherstone but it turned out that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

“I still learnt a different way of doing things, and watched people do things in different ways. I also saw step five so that will help with this season coming.

“It also helped me strip the emotion back. I could take stock, realise that I don’t need to say as much, and that massively helped when I came back in. It allowed me to watch from afar slightly, which definitely helped me and Joe this season.

“So it (leaving) wasn’t a mistake because it’s helped me become a better manager. Everything happens for a reason – if you learn from mistakes, they become valuable.”

Having returned in November 2022, the team, having gone through another big rebuild in the summer and returned back to the Midland League, were off the pace in the Division One title race. Another good run helped them reach the play-offs but losing in a penalty shoot-out to Droitwich Spa brought back all too familiar memories of 12 months previously.

That, Courtney says, gave himself, Joe and the squad “fire” going into this season.

“Promotion was always the target. When I sat down five years ago, I said our aspirations were to get the club promoted, how ever long that took.

“This was the first season where we were all settled. We knew the league, we knew the ground, there were no interruptions. Everything was set in place from the end of the season before and keeping a consistent squad massively helped.

“We probably used too many players but we had a lot of injuries. We used the experience from the seasons before to know how to get through that, and to run with a squad we trust.”

That was a challenge during November and December, when he and Joe were rarely able to name more than three substitutes because of the scale of injuries plaguing the squad. But they went on a 13-match unbeaten run during that spell which provided the backbone of the title success.

“To get through that period unbeaten with stretched resources took us towards where we needed to be. Winning at OJM and Coventry Copsewood were big results. Then away at Droitwich, we knew that was really a big win.

“We had to keep our feet on the ground but we made it clear that there was pressure on us to win a league. Had we not got over the line, we potentially wouldn’t be here for another go! But we were able to do that and the boys were fantastic.”

And so begins planning for the club’s first season at step five. Pre-season dates are almost confirmed, with friendlies to be announced soon, and a confirmed league placement to come later this month.

“We’re planning for the UCL South albeit it’s difficult to plan until you know for sure. We’re meeting with the Board next week to see what our aspirations are, and hopefully that’s all aligned. A club like Hinckley always has to look to push towards the top, whichever league you’re in.

“We’ll try and keep the nucleus of this squad together. We have to add players too but we owe it to the boys to keep the majority around. If we do that, we’ll still have a good squad who can compete at that level, and hopefully it’ll lead to another successful season.”

The word “enjoyable” comes up again towards the end of the chat, when he reflects on his standout memories of his first five years in charge.

This time, he says it in reference to the fans relishing this season’s achievement. Having wanted to bring back that enjoyment when he took over, five years on he is aware of what this promotion means to the supporters.

“Getting promoted was the pinnacle, it’s what we’ve strived towards. To give something back, after a long 10 years, to people who have given their time, the Board of Directors, the staff, the fans. For us all to enjoy that together having broken our attendance record was very special.

“We’ve grown the club and if we were to leave tomorrow then it’s in a better place than when we started. It’s a special club, and a special community all as one.”

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