Non league stalwart turned manager talks FA Cup first round, Jamie Vardy, Craig Noone and the beauty of Sunday League
James Colliver has forged a life for himself in the sport of football, despite never making it into the professional ranks.
Football has always been in his life.
At the age of 10, he signed for Rotherham United and when he left, it was actually on his terms.
The Millers offered him extended schoolboy forms, but the Sheffield lad decided to turn it down to focus on his education, go to college and seek opportunities in non league.
Crucially, his association with Rotherham United didn’t end, Colliver beginning his coaching education at Millmoor - something that helped lead to his current status in the game as Clipstone manager in the North East Counties Premier.
His playing career began at Worksop Town, where he was part of the Under 19 set-up.
“I got a few sniffs of the first team, sat on the bench and played in a couple of League Cup games,” he said.
Despite the lack of senior appearances, Colliver did plenty of learning.
“There were some good experiences, like going to Bournemouth in the first round of the FA Cup with the first team squad for an overnight stay.
“Travelling with great players like Gav Smith, who I’m still friends with now, being part of the FA Cup build up, the occasion, with the likes of Chris Waddle.
“I was 17, I roomed with Gary Bennett, a big experiencced centre-half because they didn’t want me and Ryan Hindley in together – he’d be messing about all night and we’d get no sleep.
“I made sure I prepared right, was in bed early and then got his kit ready for him, took it all in.”
To get first team football he went and played at Glapwell, and then spent three years with Stocksbridge Park Steels.
That spell at Bracken Moor, from 2003 to 2006, began when former Manchester City player Wayne Biggins signed defender Colliver.
Pete Rinkcavage, who part of the management team at Worksop during Colliver’s stay there, took over from Biggins and led Steels to a measure of success.
Colliver said: “Pete came in and we enjoyed some good times there.
“We just missed out on the play-off final, and won the Sheffield Senior by beating Worksop, and that was with a squad developed on a low budget.”
He also got an early view of a player who has since come to national prominence.
“I played with Jamie Vardy at Stocksbridge, and he always had bags of energy and frightening pace – it’s unbelievable how his career has turned out.”
A move from Steels to Ilkeston didn’t work out for Colliver, lasting just four months at the New Manor Ground, before he signed a contract with Belper – a decision and a three-year stay he looks back on favourably.
“Again, we just missed out on promotion, ironically losing to Stocksbridge Park Steels in the final.
“We had such a strong team, with Lee Stevenson and Ross Hannah, players who have gone on to play in the Football League.
“We created a real togetherness, and being club captain was special, we were a happy camp who got good results.
“Beating Alfreton over two legs in the Derbyshire Senior Cup, that’s a good memory.”
It was around this time that he started to eye a more permanent move into coaching, armed with the badges he had earned through Rotherham United.
And his long-time association with Rinkcavage - the man he credits as being the best manager he worked under - provided an opportunity.
“Pete was back at Worksop and he brought me in as assistant manager.
“It wasn’t for very long, because Pete left and Martin McIntosh came in, and although I had the opportunity to stay, Pete got in at Frickley and took me straight there as player/assistant manager.”
Worksop were second in the Northern Premier when the duo departed, and Frickley were second bottom when they took over, with a much smaller budget.
“We needed to go and change things around to keep them in the league, and we did.
“But Pete brought in Jason Maybury, who had always been his number two, and I had to decide what I wanted.”
After a spell as assistant manager at Staveley, and boss of Handsworth’s County Senior side, Colliver landed his first NCEL Premier managerial role, back at Staveley last summer.
It was a baptism of fire.
He and assistant Ryan France guided the Miners Welfare side up to second in the table by Christmas, thanks to an 11-game unbeaten run.
But all it took was a couple of defeats in January and February, and rumours began to circulate that Staveley were lining up a replacement.
“There were a lot of promises, but we had a really tight budget.
“The chairman wanted to play a particular style of play and build youngsters into the first team.
“When we eventually left, we had ticked all the boxes, but he seemed to want more, and it felt like we were fighting a lost battle.
“There was a strong rumour that they were bringing in Brett Marshall, it just wouldn’t go away.
“We cut ties with four games to go, which was disappointing because I could see a future with Staveley, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Never one to take a break from the game, he took on the job at newly promoted Clipstone.
With no Under 19s, no Under 21s and a very small budget, he knows he’s in for an interesting time.
“It’s going to be tough, most of my contacts are in the South Yorkshire area so I’m asking players to travel further for less money.
“But hopefully we can pull off a few upsets and prove a few people wrong.”
When he talks of his playing days in non league, it’s the relationships he’s made that come come more readily to his tongue than results, goals or achievements.
“I think you make more friends than you do enemies, and any enemies only last 90 minutes, then you go and have a drink in the bar,” he said.
“Ryan Hindley has been my friend since I was five years old, and we grew up with Ryan France.
“And when you travel in with someone two or three times a week you get very close.
“The car schools, they’re the people you remain friends with, like Ross Hannah, he’s living round the corner from me now so I’m spending a bit of time with him.”
He’s played with some incredibly talented footballers, like Vardy, who have gone on to achieve great things.
But there have also been characters, who lit up changing rooms or starred in stories Colliver can tell for years.
“Stefan Zoll,” he recalls.
“You would never meet another like him. Really talented player.
“I think his dad was German and his mum Arabic maybe, and he was studying Arabic and went to Syria where he got locked up for weeks.
“You had your Karl Colleys and Stewart Copnells, and Steve Hawes is another, he’s a good friend, he was the only player who could mess about in warm up and then at 2.55pm by switched on and ready.”
There are also players he remembers for the problems they presented.
“Craig Noone, who’s now at Cardiff, I remember playing against him when he was at Skelmersdale United and he tore me inside out.
“He was the best young lad I came across and then you see he’s got a move to the Football League.
“In pre-season you’d play Sheffield United, Wednesday, Doncaster.
“I still remember getting turned inside out by Michael McIndoe.”
He could talk football, specifically non league both past and present, all day long.
The Blades fan freely admits he lives and breathes it.
“I’m still doing what I was doing 15 years ago - last week every single evening I was out playing or watching or coaching.
“I’m in a luckier position than most because my partner is a relative of Paul Mitchell (Chesterfield’s director of player recruitment and Colliver’s former boss at Worksop) so she’s grown up with it and knows what it’s like.
“I prefer to go out and watch live non league than Man City on Sky.”
And just in case his partner is reading, his football obsession is not just for fun, it’s all part of the job.
“You’re always learning. I watch non league, Sunday League, professional clubs’ development teams.
“It’s non stop.
Still aged just 32, Colliver’s playing days are restricted to Sundays, with the team he runs alongside his brother, Handsworth Turf Tavern.
That’s where he gets his release.
“Saturdays, you’re judged on your results, but Sundays are totally different, you can play with your mates, enjoy it and then go and have a few drinks.
“I’m glad I get to do both.”