When Stockton Town won the Wearside League title for the third time running in 2015, Martin Hillerby had to once again deliver the crushing news that they wouldn’t be promoted.
“It was an immensely trying time,” explained the chairman. “I stood in front of them and said, ‘the ground isn’t going to be developed in time but I’ve got this solution and that, please stick with me.’”
And the players did. The following season Stockton won the title for a fourth time and Hillerby delivered on his promises.
Then, with the same squad, they stunned the Northern League Division Two by winning the divison in their first season.
“There’s a lot of belief and what I don’t think many people realise is that all bar one of the players live in the town,” said Hillerby. “About 75 per cent of the players have come through the junior ranks. It’s about how you treat people and how the people in charge of the club are viewed.
“That’s why they believed in me because I’ve known them since they were eight or nine. We have built the club up by junior players coming through.
“We’re looking at creating a reserve team next season to bridge the gap between the U18s and the first team which has become bigger since we’ve been promoted.
“We employ a full-time football development officer who goes out into the community, works with all the managers and coaches and develops all our junior teams.
“How many other Non-League grassroots clubs would commit to spending tens of thousands of pounds on getting that area of the club right? We believe we have a model that is working.”
Stockton, who have a 3G pitch at Bishopton Road West, are on course for a top-half finish in the Northern League Division One and in less than two weeks, they’ll play the biggest game in their history at Marske United, the first of a two-legged FA Vase semi-final.
But despite their impressive success in recent years, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Anchors at the start of the season – crashing out of the FA Cup in the extra preliminary round before losing their opening eight league games.
“We were looking at each other and saying, ‘what’s going on?’ because no one could quite believe it,” said Hillerby. “We were coming off the pitch and the other clubs were saying, ‘they’re a good team’ but we’d just been beaten 4-1.
“The guys pulled together as a group and turned it round. They’ve been behind in games, in this Vase run too. They just find the answers for the problems. They have great spirit.”
Even the man in charge of it all, manager Michael Dunwell, began having doubts.
He said: “It was a test of character for myself and the players. You question yourself; you question whether you’ve lost the dressing room. It was an eye opener.
“We won 4-1 at Sunderland in our ninth game and that was the turning point. Then we went on a run of 21 wins in 24 games.
“I’ve been at the club for about five years and it’s been an amazing ride to be a part of. It’s all down to the togetherness of everyone.
“After our form at the start of the season, we were probably favourites to go down, now we’re two games from Wembley.”
In only their second-ever FA Vase appearance, Stockton haven’t done it the easy way to reach the semi-finals.
Their cup run was almost over before it had begun in the second qualifying round, needing a last minute extra-time winner to see off Consett 4-3.
Wins over Bootle and West Auckland both needed 120 minutes too before two home victories over Stourport Swifts and Windsor saw them into the last four.
Now Stockton’s league rivals and the bookies favourites await – a side Dunwell knows well.
“Carl [Jarrett, Marske manager] is one of my best mates,” he said. “I was assistant manager for him at Billingham Town. We’ve played against each other before and we both know each other’s teams inside out.
“They’re an excellent team with some outstanding players. There is a spirit about us which gives us a chance. We’ve got a lot of quality as well. It will be a tough game for both teams.
“They pay for players and if you look at their squad they’ve got people who have won the competition and played at a higher level. We’ve got a team who have been together for a long time.
“It’ll be a great occasion for us but one we want to win.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday