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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
INPHO Roddy Collins.
# Interview
‘You box, you grin and you get knocked out’ - Roddy Collins on life
The manager and former player chats about his new book and career in football.

RODDY COLLINS is very much a product of his era.

His new book, ‘The Rodfather’ written in collaboration with the journalist and author Paul Howard, opens with the Dubliner turning on the TV recently to see a match where Drogheda United fans launch into a song: ‘Roddy Collins — is a wanker, is a wanker,” they chant.

It is not an isolated incident. Abuse from football fans is nothing new for Collins.

Yet while modern players often get upset by supporters’ abrasive ways, the experienced League of Ireland coach does not take it personally.

“It never unsettled me,” he tells The42. “I loved it, to be honest. Once it was only abuse and songs and that it was grand, once it never involved my kids or wife. It’s all a big theatre and we’re all part of it — the players, the referee, the crowd, the managers, the fourth officials are all part of the big pantomime.

“And if you can get the crowd focusing their attention on you, well obviously that’s important to the team. So it’s all good. It’s no problem.”

And while there are lighter moments in the book, it is also quite an affecting read at times with Collins describing the process of putting it together as “great therapy” and admitting that emotionally, it was “a bit of a challenge”.

Collins’ father Paschal had hoped he would pursue boxing like his younger brother Steve, a former super middleweight champion of the world.

In the end, though, the glamour of football and dreams of emulating his idol, the Manchester United legend George Best, proved too tempting to ignore.

“Boxing is really tough,” he says. “And the rewards are very difficult to come by. But as regards football, the glamour, the crowds, the teammates, the camaraderie, I was just into that, you know?

“And boxing is something I still love to this day and I go to the Celtic Warriors Gym on a regular basis, mix with all the boxers, great people. But for me, the glamour of football, the razzmatazz was my thing.”

Nevertheless, even though he never pursued a career in the ring, Collins had to deal with his fair share of blows growing up. Two of his young friends died, while his father also passed away suddenly from a heart attack while out for a run at the age of only 49.

“The two younger ones were two friends on the road. One was stabbed and the other was killed by a car. It does wake you up a little bit, it makes you more alert and more aware of the difficulties of life and how you could end up being in situations like they were. So that would educate you to avoid those situations.

“But when your father goes, you never get over that. That’s impossible. Especially when you’re with him all day. And then he goes out that night, you tell him you’ll see him later and then he leaves you. You never see the man you love again. Horrendous!

“It definitely shapes your life because you get to a stage in life where every day you’re worried. ‘Am I going to see my child again? Are they going to see me again?’

“It leaves a mental scar. Maybe people that go through it should get some and I should have gotten some counselling for sure, but I didn’t. Back in the day it was just ‘get on with it,’ you know? But it definitely shapes your life because you want to be around as long as you can for your own children and you don’t want them to suffer like I did and my brothers and sisters and my mother suffered when my father died.

“And the other thing about it is, when you get to my age, you become more responsible with your health. You go: ‘Hold on a minute, I don’t want to leave my kids and grandkids without a grandad and a father. So it makes you look at things differently.”

The Rodfather_Hi Res Jacket

Collins himself has had more than one near-death experience. While playing for Dundalk, the Shamrock Rovers defender Mick Neville “accidentally nutted me in the back of the head”.

As a result, Collins’ body went into spasm, he lost consciousness and swallowed his tongue. A priest was giving him the Last Rites before he regained consciousness.

His wife Caroline was at the game and naturally shocked at what was unfolding. He writes: “Someone fished [my tongue] out of my windpipe, but they had no idea how long I’d stopped breathing for and what the impact of that was going to be.”

Many years later, in 2009, he had another significant scare. After feeling unwell, Caroline convinced him to go to the hospital for a check-up. The problem turned out to be serious and he had to get a number of stents into his heart to open blocked coronary arteries.

After the successful operation, the consultant suggested he had been just days away from suffering a fatal heart attack and urged him to live a more healthy lifestyle.

“You look at it, you go ‘hang on a minute,’ and you get a second chance.

“So I’ve cut right back now. I look after myself as best I can, live a healthy life and try to respect the medical people that kept me alive.

“And when I got back to meet them, they always say: ‘Well done, you’re the model patient.’”

Life on the field was also far from plain sailing. He broke his leg on four separate occasions, including for Bohemians at 19 when he felt on the verge of great things as a footballer, having just made his European debut in a Uefa Cup tie with Sporting Lisbon. He was 22 by the time he returned and so Collins missed out at a vital stage of his development.

The young attacker had big dreams of playing in the top division in England and feels that setback was a major factor in curtailing those ambitions.

“You’re doing really well and you’ve been at three clubs, and then suddenly bigger clubs are coming looking at you and you get an absolutely shattered broken leg, it was a really bad one, and you don’t kick a ball in anger, probably for three years — the formative years, the most important years are gone.

“And in three years an awful lot of things happen in football, people replace other people, managers replace players. So it’s about being in the right place at the right time and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Yet the former player does not lie awake at night thinking about this disappointment.

“It’s not something I’m sad about, it’s life. You play football, you put your foot in, you get broken up. You box, you grin and you get knocked out — that’s life. Otherwise, you’d just wrap yourself in cotton wool and be nothing or nobody.”

roddy-collins-with-his-daughter-sinead Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Roddy Collins training with his daughter Sinead. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

The numerous leg breaks were symptomatic of the era in which Collins played. Footballers were given little protection by referees during his 1980s heyday and extremely robust challenges were ingrained in the culture.

“The game nowadays is non-contact,” he says. “Back in our day, you’d regular pick up a cut face and the odd broken nose. Broken legs were in the game a lot more than they are now. There was a little bit of nastiness around as well.

“I’m not saying the chap that broke my leg was nasty. He wasn’t. He just was inexperienced and didn’t know how to tackle. But look, it happened. You went in full blooded to win a ball. Nowadays nobody tackles and we were always told: ‘If you don’t tackle, you’re going to get broke up.’

“But it just was the way it was. We were all desperate to achieve. If you felt putting your head into the mixer would move you forward in the game, you did it.”

And when he wasn’t injured, playing football was not exactly easy either. As documented in the book, the family are often moving to places like Mansfield or during his time in management, Malta, for stays that usually turn out to be short-term. The kids are taken in and out of various schools. Employment is regularly precarious. Money is often scarce. Early on in his career, Collins sometimes balances football with work as a plasterer. So for the most part, the George Best lifestyle that the young footballer aspired to seemed very far off. But the 62-year-old plays down any suggestion that it was ever a  considerable struggle.

“I think a tough life is one that’s forced on you,” he says. “People were sent to work in England. My father was sent to work in England when he was 15, digging the roads and shovelling coal on a train, that was tough. 

“But when it’s a choice that you make yourself to try to fulfil a dream that you have or an ambition, it would be disingenuous to turn around when it’s over and go: ‘That was a tough life.’ There were tough moments alright, but it was brilliant. 

“It was probably tougher on Caroline and the kids because they had to go without [me] a lot of the time, but they always knew I was trying 100%. And they were backing me in what I was trying to do, so when we sit down and really when we do a bit of introspection about the whole thing, we say: ‘Yeah we had tough days but we had more good days and some of the tough days became great days with the fun we had out of it — like making a stew out of nothing, we talked about that, and when we did get paid every two weeks, it was like Christmas day. We would go to the supermarket and buy everything that we didn’t even want because we had it.

“But it was a choice. No one forced it on anyone. Caroline was my biggest supporter and a very intelligent woman because if she thought I wasn’t pulling my weight or giving 100%, she wouldn’t have come with me. So it unified the whole family, we all dug in together and then we all unified behind each other.

“Whatever ambitions our kids, or grandkids have or what Caroline wants to do, it’s a unit that went together and we’ve no regrets.”

roddy-collins Andrew Paton / INPHO Roddy Collins celebrates with supporters at the end of a Bohemians Uefa Cup game. Andrew Paton / INPHO / INPHO

Collins’ time in management, meanwhile, was more successful than his playing career but similarly turbulent.

His greatest stint came at Bohemians, where he won both the Premier Division title and FAI Cup in 2001. Yet even when hitting those heights, there was an underlying tension in the background, with the powers that be never fully embracing his methods.

“The Bohs job, in the space of two and a half years it went from relegation fodder, I would have said, ‘we’re going down,’ to winning the double, getting two away wins in Europe and making a massive profit financially, which to me is a total success.  

“And it’s only when I read the book, from Bangor to Bohs to Carlisle — I was in five cup finals. Four relegation dogfights came out of them all on top, one league title, one cup win and two away wins in Europe. And that was in the first five years of my managerial career, then it goes pear-shaped, we all know what happened.

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“So when you look at that, as a young manager coming in, in five years, achieving all that, there’s only one way you’re going, and that’s right to the very top. And unfortunately, that was prevented by very vindictive people.

“And that does upset me when I read back on it. But I took on city hall for the right reasons, I was vindicated in the end, but I suffered a huge chunk of my managerial career because of it.”

There is a recurring theme in the book of Collins not getting on with figures of authority whether it’s the Christian Brothers in the school from which he was eventually expelled or the club chairmen he frequently clashed with.

“My personality was set very early on,” he writes in the book’s early pages. “I wasn’t going to be controlled.”

However, when asked, he somewhat plays down this ostensible rebellious streak.

“I mean I respect authority, I have to. Otherwise I’d be in prison. It’s wanting to win and driving things on [that annoys others]. And let’s be honest, the League of Ireland only for Shamrock Rovers at the moment, and Derry maybe and Dundalk a few years ago, they just saunter along. Wanting to win was my biggest obstacle. And wanting to win every single game, every cup, every European game, and knowing how to go to the next level. But not getting backed up and demanding it and putting people in tight situations where they have to facilitate me, they didn’t like that. I’m change. People don’t make change. So that was it.

“At Carlisle, I was grand with [the owner] Michael Knighton. They just finished the highest they finished in about four years. Everything was going great. And then obviously he needed to sell the club. That became a row. He sacked me when I was going to pack up anyway.

“So then the new man [John Courtenay] comes in [and promptly reappointed Collins]. He knew more about football than anyone, especially me. And that became a problem. So anything I had was only ever wanting the best. Monaghan, no problem. Athlone, no problem, they wanted to get promoted, and I got them promoted.

“Derry was a different ballgame. I upset too many local people by calling out local players and staff who weren’t up the mark because a club like Derry winning two cups in 15 years or whatever was a joke. So I could see how it needed to be sorted out. But sometimes you have to work your way and if it works, it works and you get success. If it doesn’t, you get sacked and you’re better off. Otherwise, you’re beating your head off a stonewall for nothing.”

football-nationwide-division-3-shrewsbury-town-v-carlisle-united-29403-carlisle-manager-roddy-collins-mandatory-creditaction-images-michael-regan Alamy Stock Photo Roddy Collins pictured during his time at Carlisle. Alamy Stock Photo

Quite possibly the darkest period in his life came after a difficult spell at Shamrock Rovers concluded in 2005.

Collins believes there was an orchestrated campaign from people behind the scenes in football to prevent him from getting work.

“In Ireland, I couldn’t get an interview,” he writes. “Every time I applied for a job I was quietly told the same thing. I was toxic.”

As a result, he recalls: “I was unemployable. For two and a half years, I didn’t leave the house for any meaningful purpose. I had no reason to get up in the morning, so I didn’t bother. I stopped caring about my appearance. I ate rubbish all day, every day. My weight ballooned to 17 stone. I stopped laughing. I couldn’t see the joy in anything.”

Asked what got him out of this distressing period, his answer is simple: “My wife, Caroline. Every time I was really down, she’d say: ‘Come on. Look at what you did at Bangor. Look at what you did at Bohs.’ And she continued to remind me of all the good things and forget about all the bad things people were putting out there about me and she kept me going and kept saying: ‘Don’t worry, Rod. Somebody out there will give you a job.’”

It turned out Caroline was right. Since then, Collins has been employed by Maltese side Floriana, Cork City, Monaghan United, Athlone Town, Derry City, Waterford and Athlone again.

In the four-year period when he was out of management, the Dubliner spent time training fighters in bare-knuckle boxing.

“It helped put bread on the table. Because I was blocked from work. I couldn’t go back to plastering because I have a bad left hand at the minute. And I have five children that had to be educated through university, so I needed money.

“So the travelling boys needed training. I’m brilliant at it because I know my boxing and I’m a good motivator. I was able to be strict with them and they respected me. So yeah, that was done and I’ve no regrets — lovely fellows. And I still call them friends.”

Yet still, it is in football rather than boxing where Collins’ heart lies.

“Knowing that I was good at it kept me going. And that’s why I’m still at it. I applied for a job yesterday in England because I still believe I can do it and I’ll keep doing it until I get another job.

“The highlight [of my career] hasn’t come yet hopefully. The job in England has been narrowed down to four people, so you never know. If I get back in the dugout, it’ll be in the next two or three weeks and it would be absolutely unbelievable. Fairytale stuff.”

‘The Rodfather’ by Roddy Collins with Paul Howard is published by Sandycove and is available in shops and online now.

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