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'When I look back on those things, I think ‘What was I doing?' You’ve got to learn from them'

Former Ireland U21 striker James Collins has matured in recent years, and it’s showing on the pitch.

Celebrating his hat-trick against Plymouth last month.
Celebrating his hat-trick against Plymouth last month.
Image: Nigel French

JAMES COLLINS IS the first to admit he made mistakes in the earlier stages of his career. 

At 28, the former Ireland U21 striker has been scoring regularly this season for a Luton Town side pushing for promotion to the Championship.

His full focus is on his football and providing for a young family. His name appeared in the headlines last month after bagging a hat-trick against Plymouth Argyle at Kenilworth Road.  

There were a couple of times in the past when he was receiving media attention for the wrong reasons, however. 

In 2011, Collins and his former Aston Villa team-mate Barry Bannan were arrested when the Range Rover they were travelling in crashed on the M1 at 5.30am on a Sunday morning. Bannan was banned for 18 months and fined for four offences, which included driving with excess alcohol, while Collins was released without charge.  

In 2016, he found himself caught up in controversy after being pictured urinating into a glass along with another ex-Ireland underage player, Samir Carruthers, on a balcony at the Cheltenham Festival. 

Both apologised, but the pair were hit with a ban from all racecourses in Britain and fined two weeks wages by their respective clubs.

“When I look back on those things, I think ‘What was I doing?’” Collins recently told The42. “They were stupid things. I was 19 at the time of the first incident, but it’s not good and I definitely regret doing them.

“I think you’ve got to learn from them and make sure you don’t do ever repeat them. That’s what I’ve done, and they are the sort of things that would never happen again.”

“When you’re younger, you don’t take life too seriously,” he adds. “You do stupid things, but when you get older and have a family and kids, you realise that you’ve got to work hard for them.

“I’m in the prime of my career now, so I feel like I’ve really settled down in life and I think that’s showing on the pitch as well.”

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - Oxford United v Aston Villa - The Kassam Stadium Playing for Villa in a pre-season friendly in 2009. Source: Tony Marshall

The Coventry native was snapped up by Aston Villa at the age of 12, and he worked his way through their ranks. Having scored 23 goals in the Premier Academy League in 2008/2009, he was loaned out to Darlington and, subsequently, Burton Albion to gain some first-team experience.

“I loved every minute of it at Villa and worked under a great first-team manager in Martin O’Neill alongside some top players, who have gone on to have great careers,” he says.

“My time there stood me in good stead in terms of everything I have done in the game because we were taught the right way. Martin was brilliant, but I wouldn’t say I was close to getting in the first team because we had a strong squad then and we were in the top six in the Premier League.

He always came to watch our reserve games and he was often complimentary of us and our work rate. He gave me the chance to go out on loan a couple of times to get experience, so I owe a lot to Martin O’Neill.”

With O’Neill stepping down at the start of the 2010/11 campaign, Kevin MacDonald was instilled on a short-term basis. Collins was called into the first-team squad for a Europa League trip to Austria, but he knew it was time to leave. 

“When Martin left, Kevin came in as caretaker manager and he rewarded me for doing well in the reserves by taking me away to Rapid Vienna.

“That was my only taste of the first team competitively. I had to move away from Villa to make a good career and that’s what I did. I got out and played games straight away. I’ve played over 400 games now.”

Graham Turner signed him for League Two side Shrewsbury Town and he was the club’s top scorer as they won promotion to English football’s third tier. A free agent in the summer of 2012, he turned down the chance to stay at New Meadow and instead opted to join Swindon Town. 

Premier League legend Paolo Di Canio was their manager and that was a major factor in his decision.

“I was on a free and I had done quite well at Shrewsbury that season,” he explains. “When I heard Paolo Di Canio wanted to sign me, I went to meet him and he was a big reason behind why I signed.

“He was so enthusiastic, I loved how he wanted to play and he brought in some exciting players. It was a pleasure to play for Di Canio because he taught me a lot, so I was gutted to see him leave that January. I believed we had a really good chance of getting promoted that season.”

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Second Round - Stoke City v Swindon Town - Britannia Stadium Collins with Di Canio. Source: Neal Simpson

On New Year’s Day of 2013, the Italian coach introduced Collins from the bench and he repaid him with a 12-minute hat-trick before adding a fourth in a 5-0.

As the centre forward walked off the pitch with his match ball, Di Canio jokingly went to snatch it from his arms. 

Nine times out of 10, he was very serious and focused,” he says for the ex-Lazio and West Ham star. “He kept himself away from the players and didn’t get too involved, but you would get the odd laugh and joke out of him, and a funny story every now and again.”

A month later, however, Di Canio offered his resignation and Pat Fenlon’s Hibernian paid a reported £200,000 for his services that summer.

“Not many Scottish clubs spend money to sign players, and he did.” Collins says of the former Bohemians, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers boss. “I enjoyed working with him and Jimmy Nicholl, so it was a shame to see him leave because different managers come in and have different ideas.”

A poor run of form saw Fenlon resign in November, and he was replaced by Terry Butcher. The ex-England defender couldn’t turn things around, and Hibs were relegated. 

“Terry came in and decided to change a few things. He brought in some of his own players and I had no arguments with that.

“We were struggling and when you don’t score goals as a striker it does knock your confidence. Then you get relegated and you’re thinking ‘Oh no’. 

“It’s a big regret of mine not doing well in Scotland because I went up and wanted to be a success. In football sometimes, it just isn’t to be.”

Soccer - Scottish Premiership - Hibernian v Heart of Midlothian - Easter Road Collins celebrating his goal in the Edinburgh derby in 2014. Source: Danny Lawson

A return to Shrewsbury beckoned, and it proved a good decision. Under Micky Mellon, Collins regained his confidence and got himself back on the goal trail (with 17 in all competitions) to help them earn another promotion — this time to League One. 

He left by mutual consent in 2016 and there was one season at Crawley Town before he wound up at current club Luton back in June. 

Having recently spent five seasons in the Conference, the Hatters have been back in the football league since 2014 and, last season, finished second in League Two. 

Under Nathan Jones, they have continued that form and only Portsmouth currently sit ahead of them in the League One table.

“We couldn’t be any happier with how it is going at the minute,” says Collins. “Luton is a club that’s on the up. They do everything the right way — it’s got a brand new training ground and they have permission to build a new stadium next year. We’ve got a great fanbase and a great history.

“It’s a pleasure to be part of it because everyone — the staff and the players — are moving in the right direction and we all want to do well for the town. It’s definitely a club that will be involved in bigger things in the future.”

He adds: “When I came in last year, the gaffer said he would make me a better player. He said he would give me the freedom to play and he would back me. He has stuck to his word and he has been brilliant for me.

It’s nice to repay him with some good performances and a few goals.”

They have surpassed expectations this year and, although there is still a long way to go, promotion has to be the aim now. 

“At the start of the season, we set our targets and we said we weren’t in this league just to make the numbers up,” he tells.

“Having come up last year, we had that momentum and you kick on. Promotion is definitely possible and we’re quietly confident we can achieve something great, although we can’t be disrespectful to any of the teams in this division.”

James Collins Lining out for Ireland's U21s. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Collins was a teenager when Don Givens spotted him playing for Villa. After it was learned that his mother was from Mullingar, the forward was called up to Ireland’s U19s squad before progressing to the U21s. 

“I think I got 12 caps,” Collins says. “I enjoyed every minute of it playing for Ireland and I would love to do it in the future. I played with some great players who have gone on to become excellent Premier League footballers.

“Robbie Brady, Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick, Seamus Coleman, Alan Judge… loads of good players. Fair play to them, you could tell they were top notch back then.”

New manager Mick McCarthy will be casting the net out to ensure he has the biggest pool possible to choose from when the Euro 2020 qualifiers come around in May. 

While Collins knows he will need to be playing in English football’s second tier at least to be considered, he hasn’t given up hope of lining out for the Boys in Green at senior level. 

“Everybody wants to play senior football for their country but there are a lot of players out there that are ahead of me at the minute, which I totally understand,” he ends. 

All you can do is play well for your club. If Luton were to get promoted to the Championship next season and I’m still a part of that, when you look at the Ireland squad now a lot are playing at that level.

“A new manager coming in will have new ideas so you never know, but I would love to get a call-up to the senior squad. I’m also realistic that I’m quite a distance away from it though. I’ve got to focus on doing well for Luton.”

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Ben Blake

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