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'They'd be home this week from New York to support him only for Covid, they're fierce GAA men'

Into his tenth senior season, Mark Collins will be crucial to the hopes of Cork success after years of struggle.

Mark Collins is a key figure in the Cork football cause.
Mark Collins is a key figure in the Cork football cause.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

TOMORROW MORNING ON Munster football final day, they will tune in from New York and follow the action closely.

Transatlantic trips for these occasions would normally be undertaken without question by Vincie and Anthony Collins.

The passing of the years have done little to sever their connections with home in West Cork or loosen the bond that ties them to their football teams of choice.

If anything the distance has heightened their fanaticism over the fortunes of Castlehaven on the club stage or Cork in the inter-county arena. 

Their nephew Mark’s presence facilitates that all the more, his input increasing the satisfaction dervied from that momentous win over Kerry.

It took a pandemic to bring the weekend journeys to a halt, unable to witness tomorrow’s game with Tipperary in person.

“They’d be home this week from New York to support him only for Covid,” says Dermot Hurley, a stalwart in Castlehaven colours and a midfielder for Cork during Billy Morgan’s second spell in charge

“They’re fierce GAA men. Guaranteed, 100% they’d be over. It’s a pity.

“I’d say they come home for seven or eight games a year between Castlehaven and Cork. You wouldn’t find more enthusiastic GAA people. The first chance they get they’d hop on a plane on a Friday, be at the game and be gone again Monday morning.

“There’s seven Collins boys there. Below in West Cork you still have Christy, Dinty and Bernard. In Cork City you’d have Francis and Donal. Then the two lads who went to America in the 80s in the height of emigration, Vincie and Anthony. Their sister Ann is over there as well.”

That move Stateside a few decades ago precipated the arrival of a transformative figure on their club and the wider Cork football community.

As Larry Tompkins notes in his recently-released autobiography ‘Believe’, the Christmas of 1986 was a turning point in his life. His football career was shrouded in uncertainty, aggrieved at his treatment in his native Kildare when the prospect of a fresh start emerged.

Vincie Collins had come over from Castlehaven in 1984 with Anthony following in 1985. They were good players and like Martin O’Mahony and Martin Connolly, they were incredible guys to train hard. The way the Collins’ and the two Martins talked about Castlehaven, you knew there had to be something special about the place.
It wasn’t anything serious at first – the usual, you’d be out after matches and having a drink, people would ask why I wasn’t at home when I was playing such serious football. They’d say that the Haven would be a perfect place for me, jokingly at the begining but there was something there. When Francis Collins was over in the autumn of 1986, I had said I was thinking about it.”

larry-tompkins-14121997 Larry Tompkins in action for Castlehaven in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Three years later Castlehaven made the breakthrough to land their maiden Cork senior crown. Tompkins was star of the show as they reversed their loss to St Finbarr’s in their first final appearance a decade previous.

Six Collins brothers started in that 1979 decider, only Francis played when they realised their long-held ambition in 1989.

Tomorrow his son’s input is of critical importance if Cork are to end a barren spell of their own.

“There’s another Collins generation there, that Mark would be part of,” outlines Hurley.

“You’d have Brian, he played with Cork in the 90s, minor, U21 and senior. Liam and Bernie, they’re brothers, Christie’s sons, both played. Kieran, another brother, would be involved as well. Richie would be knocking around, he’d be Bernard’s son. They’d all still be involved in the club in some shape or form.”

dermot-hurley-of-cork-is-tackled-by-darragh-ose-of-kerry-1122006 Dermot Hurley in action against Darragh Ó Sé in 2004. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Mark is the current flagbearer. He was drafted in as a 20-year-old for training games in the summer of 201o as Cork’s journey to lift Sam gathered speed. By the following January, Conor Counihan had offered him a permanent place on the panel.

He hasn’t relinquished it since.

A championship debut arrived against Down in July 2011, five more substitute appearances followed before his first start occurred two years later against Galway in Croke Park. Since then Cork have played 28 senior championship games with Collins starting 26 of them. Kerry in ’14 and Tipperary in ’17 were the only two exceptions, and he came off the bench in both.

A constant presence in a time of struggle. Only Paul Kerrigan has been knocking around the Cork squad for longer and as he recently pointed out, the Nemo Rangers man at least got to appreciate some good days when he started off.

The Collins’ experience has reflected that undergone by Cork. He’s tasted championship defeats against eight counties, personally to the fore on the days when they have come desperately close or left subdued by severe beatings.

mark-collins-of-cork-reacts Collins reacts after a controversial penalty decision in the 2015 Munster football final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“He’s a consistent performer in the good days and the bad days,” says Hurley.

“He’s 30 this year and has been around a long time. It hasn’t been the best decade but Mark has still been a constant. If you look at it, opposition always try to put one of their best backs on him. They all see him as a threat. 

“If Cork had more success over the last few years, I think he’d have been close to an All-Star. But it’s just that Cork haven’t had a great run these past number of years.”

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Collins has persisted and his longevity is of little surprise to his club colleague. Hurley recalls the teenager that joined their club senior team in 2008 and grew in stature. He hasn’t been starved of success in other areas either.

The title have arrived in pairs. Club U21 glory in ’07 and ’10. Sigerson wins in ’11 (UCC) and ’13 (Dublin IT). County senior wins in ’12, when he bagged the man-of-the-match award, and ’13 with Castlehaven.

“You could tell straight away that he had all the ingredients. He was excellent straight away at senior for us and he was still U21 at the time. He’s got the skills, all the attributes. Kicking, catching, the athleticism and the scoring.

“He would score in every game even if he’s playing midfield and that’s outside of his frees which are excellent. He’s a top class player and he has grown into that leader role.

Hurling came calling too at times for a player who works as an accountant. Growing up in Douglas he hurled locally, drawn to Castletownshend and Union Hall in West Cork for football by the deep family links.

Both his father and his uncle Donie hurled for Blackrock. Donie would serve as a Cork senior selector in 2003 and also played alongside Brian Cody in the James Stephens ranks when work took him to Kilkenny for a few years.

declan-connolly-and-ronan-burke-with-mark-collins Mark Collins in action for Cork in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A dual minor and U21 player with Cork, Mark answered the call from Jimmy Barry-Murphy in 2014 after the football had been packed up for the year. It transpired only to be a training role with no gametime for that semi-final against Tipperary but he kept going with Douglas, 2020 the first campaign where football was his sole focus.

A year which offered no certainty of playing has unexpectedly seen big games and big moments packed in to a tight time frame.

On the early October night that word filtered through about the country potentially moving to a Level 5 lockdown, Collins captained Castlehaven in a county semi-final against St Finbarr’s. He stood over a pressure free kick at the close of extra-time, landing the point that sent the contest to penalties.

In the shootout he struck home two kicks, the second sudden death shot determining the winner after a pulsating night. Club activity was closed up the following day, the 2020 decider with Nemo Rangers has been shunted back to next March.

Five weeks later Collins was sizing up another last-gasp free, this one converted to rescue Cork against Kerry and send the game to extra-time. That semi-final contained all the qualities he offers the team with a blend of energy, creativity and score-taking. Cork notched 13 scores, Collins kicked four of them while supplying the assist or drawing the foul for another three.

His versatility and contribution around the pitch are valued. Last summer he was stationed closer to goal in an attacking double-act with club-mate Brian Hurley that served Cork well with Collins chalking up 2-30 over six games. 

But a fortnight ago he roamed around the pitch to help orchestrate the game.

mark-collins-and-gavin-white Collins is fouled for a second-half free by Gavin White. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Looking at him growing up, I always thought number 11 was his position, that’s where I’d pick him anyway,” states Hurley.

“But he can play anywhere in the six forwards, he’s an excellent midfielder as well. He’s so adaptable.”

When the final whistle sounded against Kerry, Collins sank to his knees on the pitch, the Cork player closest to the North Stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Arms stretched wide in jubilation, it was easy to understand that emotional release. 

Since being part of the U21 team side that blew Kerry away in April 2011, his senior championship record against the neighbours the county is benchmarked against, had read one win, one draw and six defeats.

Adding a second success over their arch-rivals was savoured but securing a Munster medal and finding that element of consistency are the next goals to be chased.

“You couldn’t wish it on a nicer guy to be fair,” says Hurley.

“He’s very down to earth. But that’s his upbringing too, Francis and Jacinta, they’re very down to earth and the whole Collins family are. They’re GAA mad.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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