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The Irishman aiming to fill David McGoldrick's boots

James Collins is hoping he can carry his encouraging club form onto the international scene.

James Collins has won six caps for Ireland.
James Collins has won six caps for Ireland.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT’S BEEN AN eventful week for Irish international James Collins.

Last Saturday, he was at his clinical best, hitting a hat-trick in Luton’s 3-0 win over Preston.

Wednesday, by contrast, was an altogether more frustrating 90 minutes. The Hatters lost 1-0 to Middlesbrough, with Collins having his spot kick disallowed.

The unfortunate incident saw him slip as he took the penalty, with the ball deflecting in off his standing foot, causing the goal to be ruled out by the officials.

“Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t great,” he says. “It cost us a point, I’ve got to take responsibility for that. My standing foot slipped and the ball hit my left foot, so it was the right decision, because it did hit my foot twice, but it was one I was hoping to get away with.

“When I looked up, the ball had gone down the middle rather than where I wanted to put it, so I knew something didn’t add up, but listen, it’s football. I think Middlesbrough were saying it happened to their player on the same pitch, the same penalty spot [recently].”

While the midweek encounter was not one of his better moments, 2020 has gone well overall for Collins.

He currently has nine goals in all competitions, with Luton currently sitting 13th in the Championship ahead of today’s game at home to second-place Bournemouth.

15 goals in all competitions for Collins last season, meanwhile, helped Nathan Jones’ team survive in remarkable circumstances. Having been 10 points away from safety as late as February, a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Blackburn on the final day ensured they beat the drop.

And Collins currently looks well placed to eclipse his goal tally from last season, while the team appear to have undergone a general improvement as well.

“It’s been a good start to the season for myself and the team,” he says. “We’ve played some good stuff and we’re competing at a much better level than we did this time last season.”

Now 30, it’s been an interesting journey for the Coventry-born striker. He has been representing Ireland since underage level, with his mother hailing from Mullingar.

Collins says he was well aware of his Irish background growing up and even had a stint playing GAA with local side Roger Casements.

He had to give it up, however, after signing for Aston Villa as a teenager. The young striker would go on to spend several years developing at the Premier League side, but a first-team opportunity never came.

Collins had already spent time on loan in League Two with both Darlington and Burton Albion, before joining Shrewsbury on a permanent deal. How did he feel about dropping down three divisions in order to secure regular first-team football?

I think it’s just mentality really. I knew I’d got to a certain point at Villa where I was never going to get into the first team. Martin O’Neill was the manager at the time and he was really honest with me. He said ‘there are people who are going to be in front of you, but if you want to go out and play, then we’ll let you go for free’.

“He was honest with me and allowed me to go on loan a few times, I managed to do quite well and then Shrewsbury came in for me with a permanent deal and they were going well at the time.

“It was just that time for me to go out and play men’s football. I was 19-20 when I left Villa permanently, there was only so much reserve football that would benefit me so I got myself out in the big, bad world. 

“I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, to be honest. I’ve nearly 500 appearances now and I’m only 30, so being able to get out that early has allowed me to achieve that.”

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Collins has slowly climbed back up the British football ladder since then. There have been occasional setbacks, including a short stint at Hibernian, which he concedes “didn’t work out”. In total, since leaving Villa, he has spent six seasons in League Two, three in League One, two in the Championship and one in the Scottish Premiership.

Swindon, Northampton and Crawley Town are among the clubs he has spent time at, scoring just shy of 200 goals in the process.

This current period with Luton is probably the best spell of his career, as highlighted by the inroads he is beginning to make at international level.

Having played his last game for the Ireland U21 side in 2012, he had to wait until last year for his senior debut to come, appearing off the bench and scoring in the 3-1 friendly win over Bulgaria in September, after getting a first call-up the previous March.

“To be honest, I didn’t think [the first squad call-up] would come as early as League One level,” he says. “I know I was doing quite well, but I was always a realist and thought I’d have to play at a certain level to have a chance, maybe like Championship or Premier League.

“But Mick gave me a chance when I was doing well in League One and I can only thank him for that. He was brilliant for me.”

Like the rest of the squad, Collins has struggled for goals since that memorable first cap, though he only made his full home debut in the most recent Nations League game against Bulgaria.

“I think it’s the biggest achievement of my career,” he says of playing for Ireland. “I managed to make my debut at the Aviva, and win, and score. I don’t think it gets much better than that. Obviously, I’m really proud of that and I just want it to continue.

“I’ve got to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully stay in the mix for the squad and it’s down to me then to go in to produce the goals if I get the chance.”

Collins is somewhat of an anomaly in that the other strikers who are starting to emerge for Ireland at international level are all considerably younger than him. And he feels he can complement the likes of Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly.

“They’ve got some great ability between them, but I feel that when you’ve got a lot of young strikers, it’s nice to have someone maybe a bit older and experienced to help them.

All those strikers that you mentioned are different types of strikers to myself. They’re all ball players, they like the ball into feet with pace. I feel I can bring something different to the Ireland squad and I try to prove that every time I go away. I was thankful the new gaffer gave me a chance to do that against Bulgaria.”

For much of the past two years, David McGoldrick was widely considered Ireland’s first-choice striker. Indeed, Collins initially struggled to get into squads under Stephen Kenny, with his first call-up from the new boss coming last month, after the Sheffield United star announced his retirement from international football.

Now, it seems, there is a spot up for grabs in the starting XI, and Collins is aiming to claim it, as Ireland prepare for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers home and away against Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, with the fixtures due to take place between March and November next year.

“[David McGoldrick] was the main striker when I first got into the squad with Mick. Every game I saw him play, he was fantastic. Obviously, he had the shirt on merit as well. 

“With Didzy retiring, it gives anyone an opportunity to really make a claim for that number nine shirt. [Ireland have] got some fantastic young strikers coming through as we’ve mentioned earlier. But why can’t it be me if my club form carries on being good and I’m playing regularly week in week out?

“I think it can definitely be me to stake a claim for that shirt. I’ll keep working hard and trying to do well for Luton. Come March, hopefully that is the case.”

Originally published at 07.15; Updated at 10.22

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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