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Ireland's man of the match wants more

21-year-old Nathan Collins shone in his side’s draw with Ukraine.

Nathan Collins pictured after last night's Nations League fixture in Lodz.
Nathan Collins pictured after last night's Nations League fixture in Lodz.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Jun 15th 2022, 8:33 AM

AFTER SUFFERING the heartache of relegation on the final day of the Premier League, many players in Nathan Collins’ situation might struggle to put this disappointment behind them and let their club woes impact their international performances in the immediate aftermath of such a dispiriting setback.

Yet if anything, in this instance, the opposite has proved to be the case.

It seems looking back and dwelling on past misfortune is not part of the centre-back’s makeup.

The 21-year-old only made his competitive debut the other week in Armenia but already feels like a key member of the squad.

“Nathan has been really, really good,” Stephen Kenny said afterwards. “His decision-making is excellent, [as is] his all-round game. He was definitely exceptional over the four games.”

On the back of a long, gruelling club season, the Leixlip native emerged as the only outfield Irish footballer to play every minute of action in their Nations League campaign during this window.

Competing in four games over the course of 11 days at elite level is no mean feat, and it was no surprise afterwards that when asked by RTÉ how his body was feeling, the youngster simply replied: “I’m tired, I need sleep.”

Yet like Ireland in general, Collins got better with each passing fixture.

He would already have been many people’s choice as the Boys in Green’s player of the campaign so far after the first three fixtures, having been one of the few individuals to emerge with credit from the Armenia and Ukraine losses.

However, his display on Tuesday rendered the matter no longer up for debate.

Even if you ignore the stunning goal that put Ireland ahead, the youngster was man of the match by a distance.

The ball seemed like a magnet to him on occasion, as he was consistently perfectly positioned to snuff out countless Ukrainian attacks. His positional sense and ability to anticipate danger may sometimes go unnoticed or underappreciated by casual viewers, but those within the game will recognise exactly how invaluable he has become to the Irish set-up in such a short space of time.

However, it was his remarkable solo effort that will live longest in the collective memory.

To say Ireland are not a team renowned for their centre-backs scoring from improbable solo runs is akin to suggesting Brazil have a penchant for the odd flair player.

There are occasional anomalies — Ronnie Whelan’s incredible scissors kick against Soviet Union at the 1988 Euros springs to mind.

But traditionally, certainly post-Jack Charlton, Ireland have invariably been associated with ugly goals from set-pieces that are anything but pleasing to the eye.

Nevertheless, between Collins’ wonder goal last night and Michael Obafemi’s similarly spectacular effort on Saturday, not to mention Chiedozie Ogbene’s stunning overhead kick against Belgium, the long-held perception of Irish football as predominantly drab and hard-working is threatening to change dramatically.

Some credit must go to Stephen Kenny. The aforementioned names are talented players no doubt, but the manager is creating an environment where individuals are not afraid to try things, instilling a sense of belief and positivity that is reflected with increasing regularity on the pitch.

It is certainly more difficult to imagine Collins being that far forward and encouraged to try to beat players under many previous Irish coaches.

But that is not to take anything away from the Burnley star. The moment highlighted many of the best aspects of his game — the reading of the play in being able to intercept the Ukraine pass in the first place, in addition to the balance, skill, bravery and composure to carry the ball forward before delivering the type of finish that would make a striker proud.

There are also shades of former Irish star Richard Dunne in how notwithstanding his imposing physical presence, Collins is deceptively quick and frequently has the pace to recover on the rare occasions he is caught in a bad area.

Yet perhaps the player’s most essential attribute is less obvious from simply watching him in action.

He was involved in 19 games in the Premier League last season, earning a player-of-the-month nomination for April, and you don’t get to that level without enormous drive.

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In a profile on The42 last year, when Collins was uncapped by Ireland and still on the books at Stoke, his father David said: “I think [Nathan] stated it before, he doesn’t only want to play for Ireland, he wants to captain Ireland. He doesn’t only want to captain Ireland, he wants to qualify for World Cups. He doesn’t only want to get to World Cups, he wants to qualify out of the group.”

Many other youngsters would not have the confidence and perhaps the belief to publicly outline such ambitions, but Collins — who became Stoke City’s youngest-ever captain at the age of 18 — has long stood out from the crowd.

It gives an insight into his mentality that also came across in his RTÉ interview last night. In many cases, young players let their standards drop and lose their hunger to an extent once they get a taste of stardom. The money, the hype and the pressure are among the factors that can go to their head.

With Collins though, in the best sense of the phrase, he seems perennially dissatisfied and unwilling to rest on his laurels, demonstrating the type of temperament fundamental to going far.

“I want to be here for the long run,” he explained afterwards. “I want to be the best player I can be and I set high standards for myself. I want to be the best there is. I want to keep improving.” 

With his season finally complete, attention will now turn to off-field matters.

Whether the Irish star lines out in the Championship with Burnley next season is far from certain.

Leeds and Newcastle were both linked with his signature last month, though the player has so far batted away any attempts from journalists to gain insight into his club future, insisting he would spend the international window focusing exclusively on Ireland.

His performances over the last two weeks certainly won’t alleviate the transfer rumours and may even have increased his valuation to an extent.

And with Burnley reportedly in a difficult financial position as it stands, they may be tempted to cash in on one of their prized assets.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. Football is rarely straightforward, and like any young player, Collins is capable of suffering bad luck and is far from guaranteed a sustained career at the top level.

Yet everything in his attitude and ability that he has shown up to this point would suggest he has a very bright future indeed, with the clear potential to be a star at both international and Premier League level for years to come. Needless to say, he wouldn’t settle for anything less.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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