• Sam Byrne

"I go out there feeling I can do anything" - Collar on blistering form, title race, Challinor, more

Image credit - Mike Petch

Stockport County’s drastic change of fortunes since manager Dave Challinor’s arrival in November is there for all to see – a glut of goals, wins and thrashings have been dished out by The Hatters on a regular basis since the former Hartlepool boss’ appointment at Edgeley Park.

On the pitch, few have typified that turnaround more than Will Collar.

The former Brighton & Hove Albion youngster registered one goal and two assists in his first thirty appearances following his move to County last February.

When County eased past ten-man Eastleigh 3-0 on Tuesday evening, Collar’s assist for Connor Jennings to hammer home brought about the midfielder’s sixth assist in his last six appearances – to go alongside five goals at the same time.

In such scintillating form, the 24-year-old - a real conduit for the box-to-box, high intensity style of football Challinor wants to see at Edgeley Park - is naturally seen as the man of the moment for supporters and pundits alike, with ‘reborn’ and ‘reinvigorated’ often associated with comments on Collar’s performances.

But for the man himself, his current form is merely a sign of what he’s capable of when given regular game-time.

Collar’s stint under former boss Simon Rusk spanned across 39 fixtures. Of those 39, Collar was either not selected or an unused substitute for sixteen of them. Of the remaining 23, the midfielder played the full ninety minutes just three times.

Since the appointment of Challinor in early November, County have played fourteen times, with Collar starting ten of those fixtures and coming off the bench in two more – with both the trip to Woking immediately after the memorable 5-3 FA Cup win over Bolton, and the FA Trophy fixture against Larkhall earlier this month, seen as rare opportunities for Collar to be rested.

“For me, it’s more a case of ‘this is what I’m capable of when I get the opportunities’. Under the former manager, I was in and out. I didn’t think I was playing too badly when I did play, but you get into a rhythm when you get regular games, and that’s how I feel at the moment.”

“I just feel like, when I go out on the pitch at the moment, I can do anything, and it’s always a lot nicer when you’re contributing to a winning team,” said Collar.

Following that chaotic extra-time win over League One Bolton back in November, in which Collar started, I asked Challinor about the prospect of the former Hamilton Academical man becoming a mainstay in the County boss’ rather new-look side.

In comments which clearly reached Collar himself at the time, Challinor openly responded by explaining that he felt the midfielder was “a bit too safe”, and “doesn’t believe in himself anywhere near as much as he should do”.

After being rested in the 1-2 win at Woking just three days later, Collar would go on to start every single game under Challinor (with the exception of the above-mentioned Larkhall rest) after that feedback – notching that quite remarkable goals and assists tally in the process.

“I completely agreed with the manager’s comments at the time. I thought it made sense when I heard that he’d said it. I’m very much a confidence player, I always have been. When I feel confident, I feel like the fans will see that confidence out on the pitch, and I go out every week feeling like I can do a lot for the side, and for this club.”

“The opportunities the manager is giving me…I’m very grateful for that. Like I say, once you get a run of games you get that rhythm going and feel like you can really show what you can do. It’s hard for any footballer to be in and out of the side as I was previously, but I feel like the fans are now seeing what a run of games can do for both me and the club.”

Aside from his limited opportunities on the pitch at the time, it seemed that Collar’s move to Edgeley Park came in difficult circumstances. Football being played behind closed doors, the recent controversial exit of manager Jim Gannon at the time still causing a divide amongst supporters, and the eventual dismissal of Simon Rusk – the manager who brought Collar to the club – in late 2021.

But for Collar, any notion that his time with The Hatters pre-Challinor may have been a struggle are wide of the mark, with a tight-knit group at the club – as well as the chance to play in front of the “unreal” County fans this season – ensuring a ‘settled’ atmosphere.

“To be honest, it hasn’t been difficult at all in terms of how I feel at County. The group we’ve got is absolutely unbelievable, I get on with everyone, we have a great laugh together, but we know we can go and get the results and be serious when we need to be.”

“I feel so comfortable here, and the lads play a big part in that. I’ve never really found it difficult to settle because of that – of course it’s not nice to not be playing regularly, but by way of actually settling, it’s been really easy for me, and I feel extremely happy.”

Image credit - Mike Petch

A big part of that group are Collar’s midfield colleagues, former Bolton Wanderers skipper Antoni Sarcevic and the tireless Ryan Croasdale - who have formed a formidable axis in the middle of the field for The Hatters, with Challinor regularly keen in post-match briefings to praise the trio.

It’s the view of both the Hatters chief and supporters alike that the work of the three in both halves of the pitch get this County side “ticking”, with all three contributing goals and assists since the former Fylde manager’s decision to leave Hartlepool Utd for a return to Edgeley Park.

“We just have such a good understanding,” said Collar.

We know what all of our roles are in the side, both individually and together. We all get on well off the pitch, which I think always helps too.”

“We just seem to be on a wavelength, and it just makes it genuinely really enjoyable to play alongside them.”

Collar penned a two-year deal to remain with The Hatters in May of last year, after joining on an initial six-month contract.

With the extension set to keep the Horsham-born midfielder at the club until the summer of 2023, it seems inevitable that Challinor and company will look to discuss new terms at some stage, with widespread belief from fans and players alike that Collar is now into ‘first name on the team sheet’ territory at Edgeley Park.

For the man himself, the desire to set up shop with The Hatters for years to come is a strong one – as is the aim to hit an as-yet undisclosed goals tally in the current campaign!

“I feel really settled, and I don’t see myself anywhere other than here. It’s a hundred percent the aim to establish myself here for as long as possible.”

“Funnily enough, in terms of how many goals I can get this season, I had a bet with Scott Quigley in the summer. He gave me a number to hit, and I gave him a number to hit. I’m not going to say what mine is, but I’m getting close – fifty quid off Quigs at the end of the season is the aim!”

With both a title charge and a real push to win the FA Trophy – which would secure a Wembley final for County – both well on the table for Challinor’s men, Collar is holding out hope of an unforgettable double to seal a personally successful campaign for him.

“We fancy ourselves in the next round of the Trophy – it’s obviously a favourable draw, although we won’t be assuming the game’s won at all. The draw looks good with a few of the other top teams being drawn against each other too, and of course a Wembley final is what every player wants.”

“Personally, I’ve never played there, and I’d love to get there this season. Promotion is the aim and what all the lads are focussing on, but it would be great to celebrate promotion with a Wembley final!”

“In terms of the league, the lads only have one thing in our minds, and that’s winning the title – not aiming for the play-offs. We feel like we’re on a run where, if we can carry this on, we’ll be hard to stop.”