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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'It's only confidence-boosting for me that I've been picked ahead of Shane Long'

James Collins still admits he has a long way to go to match the Tipperary native’s achievements for Ireland.

James Collins pictured at today's press conference.
James Collins pictured at today's press conference.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JAMES COLLINS WILL almost certainly make his Ireland debut against Bulgaria in Tuesday night’s friendly.

No other players have been called up after Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick withdrew due to injury following the Switzerland game, leaving Collins and Scott Hogan as the only two natural strikers left in the squad.

It is the second time Collins has been called up to a squad. He previously featured for the qualification matches against Gibraltar and Georgia, though on that occasion, the Luton striker did not get game time.

Collins’ family will be flying over from Britain in the hopes of seeing him take to the field at the Aviva in what would be a big moment for the 28-year-old striker, who was born in Coventry but is eligible to represent the Republic through his parents.

And despite having to wait a long time to make his Ireland bow, Collins says he never gave up hope of international recognition.

“I sort of didn’t think about it for a while, I just made sure my club football was going well and made sure I was doing well back at home.

“Obviously when you’re doing well, it gets recognised and luckily enough, the gaffer called me up in March and he’s called me up again, so I’m delighted.”

Collins has been a pivotal figure at club level with Luton, helping the team earn back-to-back promotions. Last season, he was named League One Player of the Year as he helped his side secure a spot in the Championship, in the process scoring 25 goals in all competitions.

The forward has also made an encouraging start to this season with the Hatters, registering three goals in six appearances so far — form that suggests he is more than capable of stepping up to the challenge of second-tier football.

The player’s form has been rewarded by Mick McCarthy, who has somewhat controversially selected the uncapped Collins ahead of Shane Long, who has played 82 times and scored 17 goals for his country.

The Tipperary native is out of sorts at club level though, making just one Premier League appearance off the bench for Southampton this season, with Collins benefiting as a result.

I suppose that decision is really not down to me, obviously it’s down to the gaffer, and it’s only confidence-boosting for me that I’ve been picked ahead of Shane Long,” Collins says.

“But what Shane has done in his career and what he’s done for Ireland is far greater than what I have done, so you’ll have to ask the gaffer that question [as to why Long has missed out].

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“But I’m delighted that I’m here and if I do get a chance, then it’s down to me to take it.

“It’s a massive opportunity not only for me, but for a lot of players who have not played many minutes. Even though it’s a friendly, we still want to win the game.”

Being in the Ireland camp has also given Collins a chance to work with Robbie Keane, the player most consider to be the greatest striker the country has ever produced.

Collins remembers watching Keane play as a youngster, when the Dubliner became the most expensive teenager in British football after signing for Coventry.

I used to watch Robbie when he was at Coventry, as a boy, and he’s obviously been a fantastic striker and I’ve always watched him when he was playing. To work under someone like that now, to get tips off him, and to do drills with him in training sessions with him, just to be around him day-to-day is something I never thought would happen, so I’m really enjoying it.”

It’s been quite a journey for Collins too. In 2011, he was deemed surplus to requirements at Aston Villa, having failed to break into the first team. Since then, he has had stints at Shrewsbury (twice), Swindon, Hibernian, Northampton (on loan), Crawley Town and now Luton. Like many in the Ireland squad, he has recovered from an early setback and gradually worked his way back up towards a higher level of football. John Egan, the man sitting next to him at today’s press conference, also falls into that category.

“Me and John were talking the other day, it was not so long ago when we were playing against each other in League One for Gillingham and Shrewsbury. So, to see how far we’ve both come since then — obviously, John playing in the Premier League now and myself in the Championship — it can show any young player that, if you do have a setback, you can only bounce back if you work hard. 

And did Collins score that day?

“That’s why he brought it up,” Egan says with a smile.

“Funny enough, I did, but it ended in a draw,” Collins adds. “We’ve had a few battles, me and John. He’s a friend of mine now, I’m delighted to see him do so well.”

Egan, for his part, returns the compliment, explaining: “He’s a handful, he’s a good finisher, to be fair. James has been brilliant, and anywhere he’s been, he’s scored goals. You know, anything you’re going through the scores on Saturday, any team he’s played for, he’s always been on the scoresheet, which is your job as a striker. And he’s looked really sharp in training. So I really hope he can get a chance to show what he’s about on Tuesday and hopefully, with a bit of luck, he’ll hit the back of the net.”

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Paul Fennessy

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