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'He wants to captain Ireland': The making of a teenage star admired by Arsenal, Man United and others

Leixlip native Nathan Collins has risen through the ranks to become one of the most highly rated young defenders in English football.

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NATHAN COLLINS doesn’t turn 20 until April, but he has already captained Stoke, becoming the youngest-ever player to do so.

Richard Walker, an underage coach at the Potters, recognised the Ireland U21 international’s leadership qualities early on.

“The U18s squad finished training and were coming in for their food,” he recalls. “I noticed that the players were in dirty kit from the training. The first 3-4 players came in and I was like: ‘Right, go back out, get showered and get a fresh kit on.’ The next 3-4 players came in and it was the same message. 

“The next batch of players that came up included Nathan. Obviously, word had filtered through and he was captain at the time. I said: ‘I’ve told the rest of the lads, you need to get showered and changed before you come up.’ 

“The players were due to go in the gym after lunch. Nathan said: ‘That’s all well and good, but we can’t get a second set of kits. We’ve got gym shortly, so effectively you’re saying, we need to shower, and put some wet kit on before we go into the gym.’ He did it in a way that was exactly how it should have been relayed. It was highlighting a situation that needed highlighting, that no one that had come before him felt they should highlight.

“I spoke to the kit department and said the group of players are going to need fresh kit for the gym session and it was sorted. But none of the other players had been brave enough, for want of a better word, to actually point this out before Nathan did.” 

***

A high number of promising youngsters have come through the Irish underage system of late.

Over the past two to three years, players such as Troy Parrott, Jason Knight, Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly and Jayson Molumby have all made notable strides at club and international level alike.

Of the coming generation, perhaps one of the more underrated players has been Nathan Collins.

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Unlike the other above-mentioned names, the Leixlip native has yet to win a cap at senior level, though that could soon change.

With Shane Duffy out of form and John Egan injured, the Boys in Green’s backline does not appear so set in stone as previously had been the case.

At 19, Collins has already made 49 appearances in all competitions for Stoke City, including 27 this season, as he has established himself as a regular in the Potters’ defence.

That number would be higher were it not for an injury Collins suffered in the closing stages of a 4-1 defeat to Norwich earlier this month.

Stoke boss Michael O’Neill recently suggested the injury would keep the centre-back out for around 6-8 weeks, in a blow to the promotion hopes of a side currently ninth in the Championship.

If he recovers in time though, it is conceivable that Collins may earn a call-up for Ireland’s forthcoming opening World Cup qualifiers away to Serbia and home against Luxembourg on 24 and 27 March respectively.

The Potters, though, will be relieved to simply be able to call on the player’s services, given that he was the subject of intense transfer speculation in the January window.

Arsenal and Crystal Palace were both linked with the Ireland U21 international, while Burnley were reported to have bids of £4.5 million and £7.5 million for Collins rejected, as they eye a potential replacement for James Tarkowski, who is expected to leave in the summer.

A price tag of £10 million was reportedly placed on Collins — a deal that would have made him the most expensive Irish teenager ever, eclipsing Robbie Keane’s £6 million move to Coventry in 1999.

The rumours prompted club legend Mike Pejic to suggest Stoke should only accept “silly money” for the talented youngster, suggesting the Irishman was a key player to the club’s promotion hopes.

Whether Collins stays at Stoke in the long run remains to be seen, but this significant transfer talk is certainly a testament to how far the player has come in a relatively short space of time.

***

To say Collins’ family has a background in football would be putting it mildly.

His father David was on the books at Liverpool as a youngster, though was hampered by injuries in a career that included spells at Wigan, Oxford and Shelbourne.

His uncle Eamonn also competed in England, playing for Southampton, Portsmouth and Colchester among others, before going on to manage St Patrick’s Athletic between 2003 and 2004.

He has a number of cousins who played the game to a good level, including Mikey, who like David spent time on the books at Liverpool as a youngster, while his grandfather played in the League of Ireland, with an FAI Cup winners’ medal among his accolades.

josh-collins Nathan's brother Josh has played for UCD and recently joined Waterford. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

His brother Josh, a ball-playing centre-back (like Nathan) and a late developer (unlike Nathan), has just signed full-time for Waterford after a couple of years combining playing for UCD with his studies there.

One man who saw Nathan’s potential from an early age was his former coach at Cherry Orchard, Eoin Clarkin, who has experienced a similarly meteoric rise in recent years. He is now a full-time strength-and-conditioning coach with Arsenal Women, having previously worked at Kilmacud Crokes, UCD and Dundalk among others. He has also enjoyed a reunion with Collins of sorts, as he was appointed to the Ireland U21 backroom staff when Jim Crawford took over from Stephen Kenny as manager last April.

“He was probably 6’2 at the age of 13,” says Clarkin, who worked alongside his father David, Cherry Orchard’s manager at the time and the club secretary to this day.

“Although he was big and strong, what stood out about him as a player was he was also technically very good with his feet. He was very intelligent. How he read the game, on and off the ball [was impressive]. 

“He didn’t have any real weaknesses. Another thing that stood out for me was he was tactically more developed and more aware than most kids I’d seen at that age. He was almost like another coach on the pitch. His level of communication and detail, what he saw.

“The game could be going a certain way and it could be just something that tactically fixes the shape of the team, organising people around him, whether that’s the midfield or the full-backs. For a kid the age of 13, that was very impressive.

“Or he might see a problem in a game. He was good at being able to see pictures on the pitch that we may not see from the line. It could be an overload in midfield, whether it’s for or against us.”

eoin-clarkin-arrives Eoin Clarkin pictured during his stint as Dundalk's strength and conditioning coach. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Father David says his own experience as a youngster at Liverpool came in handy when deciding on the best path for Nathan.

“I went away around the same age, 14 or 15, and it was just a different world to what they’re doing now,” he says.

“I went to a much bigger club, which is very difficult at the best of times, but if a young boy is going to a big club now, it’s a really big ask.

“Nathan had a look at a couple of clubs, but we didn’t put him out to 10 different clubs, like they do with a lot of young players.

“We went into Stoke and there was such a warm feeling. We had a little sniff around. Nathan went out training, so I had a look behind a few little doors that you probably shouldn’t look behind, as you do.

“They were category one for the English system, so you’re guaranteed certain standards. You were basically getting the same type of stuff that you would get at a top Premier League club. And Stoke at that stage were in the top 10 [in the Premier League table] three years in a row. So there was a great buzz about the place. 

“Nathan loved the people around the area, we came in, the cleaning ladies were having a cup of tea with us and the canteen ladies, they just made us very welcome.

“I went out to look at one of the sessions and the detail that the coaches went into on preparations for matches was unbelievable. I was looking at the set plays they were doing with the young kids, phenomenal work.

“When I went away to Liverpool, they were the best team in Europe. It was more the financial package at that time. In the 1980s, people needed money and you sort of went that route.

“It wasn’t really a financial decision [in this instance], it was a head decision from my previous experience and Nathan’s heart.”

On his experiences managing Nathan at Cherry Orchard, David says he consciously surrounded him with “modern, well-educated coaches,” and often let him train with elder brother Josh’s team.

And even at that early age, David says Nathan’s mentality stood out.

“I’d be halfway home and he’d say ‘I’m on the bus.’ He wouldn’t wait for me. He was never going to be late for training.

“It got to the stage then where we had to let Nathan go [to England]. We weren’t in a panic, we were happy for him to stay and get his Leaving Cert, but he was playing at such a standard, the demands he was putting on me and the team, I couldn’t give him enough. 

“My two eldest boys, Josh and Nathan, have taken different routes. Josh at 14 to 16 should not have been going to England. He had the chance of a trial here or there, but it wasn’t the right pathway for him for where he was at that age. So Josh stayed at home, got his Leaving Cert, won his All-Ireland, then went to UCD. He got a scholarship, he got his [undergraduate] degree and his masters, now he’s signing for Waterford. So he’s done an incredible job.

“My preference was to keep them [both] doing their Leaving Cert. But football has changed. The academy system now is so good. Look at the players they’re producing. England won the U17s and U20s World Cup. So I couldn’t hold him back really.”

david-collins-athlone-town-15101995 Nathan's father David pictured during a stint with Athlone Town in 1995. Source: © Matt Browne/INPHO

David adds that the new rules preventing Irish players from joining British clubs until the age of 18 owing to Brexit, thereby potentially hampering the development of a future player in Nathan’s position, are “a big problem”, suggesting that the FAI establishing a category one-standard academy in Ireland is the only viable alternative he can think of.

“The category one academies over there are full-time. They’re teaching kids about food, they’re doing the education side of it, the video analysis. When Nathan was 16, I went over to visit him, and the 23s were playing — he was in the squad, he wasn’t playing. We sat in the stands. As we’re watching the match, Nathan’s saying ‘step out’. Seconds later, you’d hear the coach shout ‘step out’. Or you’d hear him say ‘get on the cover’ and then you’d hear the coach say it. So he was a step ahead of what the coach was saying. That’s a compliment to the coach, because in such a short period of time, he has installed such knowledge into him.”

Since joining Stoke at 14, Collins’ rise has been meteoric. In April 2019, he was just 17 when he made his debut away to Swansea. He came on in difficult circumstances, with the team down to nine men. They lost 3-1, but the Irish youngster impressed, and made his full debut for Nathan Jones’ side against Middlesbrough 10 days later.

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“He didn’t look like he wasn’t supposed to be there,” recalls brother Josh of the Swansea game. “His first touch was a 40-yard diag [a crossfield pass]. I can still see it. I’ve a video of it here on my phone. It was just incredible and you thought: ‘Maybe he can go on and do it.’ You’re always questioning how it’s going to go. That just cemented it to me that if he keeps his head down, he does have a chance of making it.

“But every game you see him play, he becomes more assured. It feels like he’s getting more confident in himself.”  

Josh continues: “He was always trying to beat me, or beat the older lads. So I think that’s where he got his competitive edge. And when you look at it now, we’re always texting and calling each other, talking about the games, how he thinks he’s done. I’d watch most of his games. The one positive of the lockdown is that all his matches are streamed, so it’s easy to watch them. I’d like to think we help each other out, as he watches my matches whenever they’re streamed too.”

***

Walker, a former centre-back himself who played with the likes of Crewe, Port Vale and Wrexham up to Championship level, is now overseeing youngsters’ development at Stoke and recalls being impressed by Collins from the outset.

“I’m pretty sure [his first match at underage level] was a game against Liverpool. He played right-sided centre half in a 4-3-3. The temperament, the composure, the calmness and the leadership jumped out. 

“We [always] play out from the back. I recall he got turned over in possession, giving the opposition a chance. The thing that stood out was his reaction. The hand went up straight away, in terms of acknowledging the mistake.

“But [moments later], he very quickly got on the ball. I can’t remember exactly, but he did something [impressive], where he really went: ‘Listen, that hasn’t fazed me.’”

One area that Stoke particularly tried to develop was Collins’ footwork, and specifically his ability to deal with one-v-one situations and acceleration on the turn.

“That was probably the area that needed to improve, but he did make significant improvements,” Walker explains. “I think the testament to that is he’s now playing a lot of football at right-back in our first team. It’s obviously a position that, if you’ve got a weakness one-v-one, it will expose you.

“Nathan would work tirelessly before and after training on his fast feet work. Paul White and Karl Hodges in the sports science department would do a lot of work with him, but it was driven by Nathan first and foremost.”

Collins’ displays have attracted admiring glances from a number of clubs in recent times, including Manchester United.

“There were strong links with Manchester United,” says Walker. “I did have brief conversation with him around that time. It wasn’t an intrusive conversation, just seeing how he was. He was very philosophical and said: ‘Listen, I’m happy. Que sera sera. I just want to enjoy my football and continue to develop.’ I haven’t spoken to him over the recent speculation, but I know exactly where Nathan will be [in terms of his mindset].”

soccer-nationwide-league-division-one-stoke-city-v-crewe-alexandra Richard Walker, pictured during his time at Crewe, helped Collins progress at underage level. Source: EMPICS Sport

Walker continues: “The word ‘potential’ is a big thing, but I believe the potential is there to be a future Premier League centre-half. If you look at Harry Maguire as an example, it’s probably not a ridiculous comparison in terms of certain attributes that Nathan has. 

“At the top level, there seem to be less and less players who are enjoying defending.”

***

So while Collins still has a long way to go if he is to fulfil his potential, the early signs are certainly promising.

“It’s madness the levels he’s playing at that age, it’s unbelievable,” says Josh. “Obviously, I’d love to play at the highest level myself, but to see Nathan do it, it’s 1% or whatever that come through an academy and go on to play professional football. What he’s done at this stage is just crazy. We’re all so proud of him. Especially when you’re involved in a game, you see how hard it is, even competing with lads in the League of Ireland, you need a lot of things to go for you and you need to have a strong mind. So I kind of look up to him more than anything with what he goes through and how he does it.”

“He was always a bit of an all-rounder, but exposure to full-time football has improved him on the ball, physically and technically,” adds Clarkin. “He’s a man now and that’s probably the biggest difference [to when I first encountered him], he’s probably 6’4. 

“You jump with him in drills, because you have to in my role, and he’s very, very strong. And you have to have those attributes to compete in the men’s game.”

west-bromwich-albion-v-stoke-city-sky-bet-championship-the-hawthorns Collins has so far made 49 appearances in all competitions for Stoke. Source: EMPICS Sport

Both David and Eamonn represented Ireland throughout the age groups from U15s to U21s, while their elder brother Michael played for the country at junior level. A senior cap is the one accolade that has eluded the family so far.

David adds: “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.

“If you look at the Ireland games he’s played from U15s, Nathan has [rarely] been in a team where they lost a match. The only time he lost a game was in quarter-finals and things. He lost games in the U21s this time around, but at that stage, three or four of the lads had gone up to the senior squad. I’ve no doubt if they kept that squad together, they would have been in the Euro U21s this summer.

“So Nathan, of course, would have ambitions. He’s played under Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager for the guts of 10 years. Michael wants to play the same football that Stephen [Kenny] wants to play. Both of them want to play good football, both of them want to play out from the back, both of them have high standards, so it ticks the box that Nathan’s learning his trade off a manager that wants to play the same way as the international manager. That’s Nathan’s dream and what he wants.” 

– First published 07.45, 24 February

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Fennessy

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