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The Irish teenager preparing for one of the biggest games of his career

Nathan Collins is set to feature in a crucial qualifier against Iceland on Sunday.

Nathan Collins is expected to feature when Ireland take on Iceland on Sunday.
Nathan Collins is expected to feature when Ireland take on Iceland on Sunday.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

NATHAN COLLINS IS preparing for what he acknowledges is one of the biggest games of his short career so far on Sunday.

Ireland U21s host Iceland at Tallaght Stadium, and three points in that match, plus a win in the final game against the group’s bottom team Luxembourg is expected to be enough to secure the side a first-ever qualification for the European Championships at this level.

Italy currently top Group 1, three points ahead of Ireland, and look likely to finish in first place.

However, six points from their final two games is expected to secure Ireland a place in next year’s tournament, as one of the five best runners-up in qualification.

Given that Luxembourg have lost all but one of their group matches, Jim Crawford’s side are expected to prevail away in Beggen next week.

The Iceland game, though, looks a trickier task. An Irish team managed at the time by Stephen Kenny lost the reverse fixture 1-0 in Reykjavík.

Collins started the campaign behind Conor Masterson and Dara O’Shea in the defensive pecking order, but the latter’s elevation to the senior team has given him an opportunity to impress at centre-back.

The 19-year-old Leixlip-born footballer has been impressed by O’Shea’s rise, but plays down comparisons with him: “It’s different circumstances at different teams and I just need to concentrate on myself,” he explains.

The Stoke starlet comes from a footballing family. His older brother Josh is also a centre-back and plays for UCD. His father David was on the books at Liverpool as a youngster and also spent time at Wigan, Oxford, Shelbourne and Athlone Town. In addition, his uncle Eamon represented Portsmouth, Southampton and Colchester among others, and also played for Ireland at both the 1984 Uefa European Under-18 Football Championship and the 1985 Fifa World Youth Championship.

“I would have seen him at Christmas a few years ago but it is just a daily topic to talk about football in my family,” he says of Eamon, who also had a stint managing St Pat’s. “That’s what it always ends up as: football, football, football. I haven’t really spoken to him about [the World Youths], because I’m just concentrating on myself at the minute. If I need him he’s there. If I need anyone, I will talk to them.”

Asked whether the Iceland fixture is the biggest game of his career so far, the youngster replied: “I’d say it’s up there, to be fair. Even Italy, you could say, was a massive game as well. Whatever game we play here now or previously, they’re massive games that we need to win.”

Ireland had looked in a strong position to win the group until last month’s 2-0 loss to Italy proved a blow to their qualification hopes.

Nonetheless, Collins says the team would have taken their current situation had it been offered to them at the start.

While we were still disappointed that we made it nearly tougher on us with the last result against Italy, we know that’s gone now,” he says.

“We have seen [Iceland] and see how they play. We know what we are expecting, we’ve seen videos. We know what we have to do, we know our jobs and our roles and what we need to get what would be a massive win.

“They have quality. They obviously wouldn’t be in the position they are if they didn’t. They are good, athletic and strong. They can play, they can go longer. All round they are a really good team, we have to prepare for that, but we can play as well. We have our own quality and we know what we need to do.”

The annoyance is palpable when Collins recalls the last time the Irish met Iceland. They created plenty of chances and looked the better side for a considerable portion of the contest, but ultimately could not find that elusive goal and were duly punished.

I felt like it was a really tough game, the circumstances, the weather, the pitch, everything that was thrown at us, it was really tough. We know ourselves that we didn’t play to our best capabilities but we know, the dressing room after the game was livid, we were so annoyed. We know it was tough. But that’s why we’re ready for Sunday, we want a good performance to show what we can do.”

While Ireland have never qualified for the Euros at U21 level, Collins has played a part at both U17 and U19 level in Irish teams that reached major tournaments.

Part of the motivation driving the team, he says, is the tendency for others to underestimate Irish sides.

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“I’ve seen so many players through the years who have been good at my level or whatever age group, it has been positive. We all have the same objective. I know I keep saying it, but we want to win, we need to win, we want it, we have this… People have this vendetta against Irish football in a way, but we want to show we can play at the highest level and we can beat teams. We have that mentality, that winning mentality.

“I’m not sure where it comes from, everyone has that opinion of Ireland, it’s only a small country, but we know ourselves we have good players in this group and we know what we can do. We know we can cause damage. If we show up, we can play any team there is.”

Unlike many players at this level, Collins already has plenty of experience at senior level. He made his Stoke first-team debut back in the 2018-19 campaign. He played a total of 14 Championship games last season and has lined out four times so far in the current campaign.

The club looked in danger of relegation for much of last year, but the appointment of Michael O’Neill helped steer them to safety, and they have built on that progress, as they currently sit eighth in the Championship table.

Even last season, I need to take the positives,” he says. “It was a great experience, everything that happened.

“It doesn’t happen to a lot of players and what we went through was tough, but what I’m getting out of that in my own career is really good.

“But of course, this season now, the way we’ve started it, has been really good and positive, for myself and the team.

“The gaffer has done really well for me. I’ve learned a lot since he came in. Obviously, he’s going to let me know about my positives and negatives, but he’ll answer questions if I need answers. Even his backroom staff have been good as well.

“I’ve only had a little taste of [first-team football] and want more. I feel that I have gotten better in the last few weeks and months, but I’ve still to improve a lot. I can kick on a lot more. I want to play more and need to play more for myself. It definitely does help. We’ve seen that with previous players who’ve played a lot of games; they’ve really kicked on.”

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Paul Fennessy

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