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Fulham midfielder John Collins yearns for action

last updated Sunday 15th December 2002, 10:53 AM
Andrew Smith
Fulham midfielder John Collins expects to tog himself up in suit, shirt and tie, take his place in the Loftus Road stand this afternoon and watch his club, Fulham, entertain Birmingham City. It will be as close a glimpse of Premiership action as the midfielder experiences these days. The 34-year-old Scot’s last league outing for the London club was now more than four months ago.

Not until Tuesday is Collins again scheduled to be stripped and booted in Fulham colours. Then, the salubrious surroundings of Dagenham and Redbridge’s tattered Victoria Road ground will be where he parades his wares. The midfielder will do so against West Ham United as a, presently, permanent fixture of his club’s reserve side. For one of the stellar Scottish footballing talents of the past decade and more, such a turn of events seems positively unbecoming.

Fulham midfielder John Collins
Fulham midfielder John Collins
Yet not so unbecoming that Collins will now contemplate slipping into a tracksuit and pursuing a career in coaching. This despite being linked with the Aberdeen post in the immediate aftermath of Ebbe Skovdahl announcing his intention to resign three weeks ago. Instead, the former Hibernian, Celtic, Monaco and Everton playmaker’s continued evangelical fervour for scurrying round football pitches does not preclude him anticipating life without an active interest in the game. Possibly, indeed, in a matter of months.

"There is every chance I will retire at the end of this season," Collins reveals. "And if I do, I will take a complete break from football and move back to the south of France with my family. I am not interested in coaching at the moment, and can’t say right now if I ever will be. I don’t know whether I was on Aberdeen’s shortlist for the manager’s job at Pittodrie, but the club never spoke to me about it. I have no desire to go down that road right now. The longest rest period I have been away from the game in 18 years has been one month and I want to spend more time with my wife and three kids in a country we loved living in."

The downturn in Collins’ footballing fortunes is a recent phenomenon. He began the season in the Fulham senior side, as they pursued entry into the UEFA Cup via the Inter-Toto Cup route. Within a month of the domestic campaign kicking-off, however, Collins began to find himself ever further behind youthful prospects Sean Davis, Sylvain Legwinksi, Martin Djetou, Steed Malbranque and Pierre Wome for a place in the midfield of Jean Tigana’s side.

His only first-team appearances of late have been restricted to the Worthington Cup. Although not having missed a training session this season and claiming to be in "as good shape as ever", the fitness freak chooses to play with players almost half his age at empty stadia and non-league grounds in an effort just to keep ticking over. In fact, perhaps the one remaining aim he has in his playing days is to enjoy one last hurrah by forcing his way back into Tigana’s plans.

The pair developed an almost familial rapport when the Frenchman guided Monaco to league success and the quarter-finals of the Champions League during the years between 1996 and 1998 that Collins played for the Principality side. That relationship will not be threatened by whatever transpires in the months ahead. No matter that the midfielder declined Tigana’s offer to join the Fulham coaching staff and has no enthusiasm for going on loan elsewhere to play-out the remainder of the season.

"I wouldn’t up sticks for a couple of months because it would mean being away from my family, which I just know would make me miserable," Collins explains. "Happiness in my personal life now matters more to me than happiness in my professional life. Of course, it is far from pleasant that for the first time in 18 years I am not a first pick when fit. I know I’m still good enough to play in the Premiership and think Jean is wrong not to play me. But I won’t be spitting out the dummy.

"If this season turns out to be a non-event it won’t sour the final days of my playing career. I have enjoyed too many blessings in the game since I made my debut for Hibs at the age of 17 to be bitter over anything. I’m grateful now that I’ve only known how frustrating it is to be a squad man for a matter of months. Better players than me have had to put up with this for the prime years of their career. I don’t know how they coped."

Appearing of no concern to Collins is coping with day-to-day existence when he is no longer playing a game that has consumed him since he travelled up to Glasgow twice-weekly from his Galashiels base to play for Celtic Boys’ Club as a 14-year-old. He anticipates regularly flying back from his French idyll to offer analysis on games for one of the several media outlets who have intimated they would be keen to have him proffer opinions on air. Collins believes he will require no other gainful employment to fill the void created by retirement.

"The game has been good to me and I’ll never struggle to put food on the table for my family, so now I want to kick back and take it easy in life," Collins maintains. "Many people have told me that within six months of quitting the game I’ll be desperate to find a way back in. So much of what gives me pleasure on a daily basis is outside of football, though, that I just can’t see that being the case."

The supremely self-assured Collins believes his timing in the pass, tackle and run remain as true as ever. It is his desire to gallop across the Cote d’Azure every morning that has concentrated his mind on avoiding a situation developing wherein he might be flogging a dead horse. In giving serious consideration to dispensing with his football boots forever come May, the midfielder is mindful that, save for eight months sidelined with crushed cartilage in his big toe while with Everton four years ago, those boots have always slipped onto the end of legs that the rigours of football have failed to weaken.

"Timing is everything in a footballer’s career and you have to know when it is time to give up," he says. "I have no interest in dropping down the leagues. Neither would I want to play on for a couple of years, even at the highest level, only to slow down and then be caught with a bad one that would do me permanent damage. I wake up every morning without feeling any aches and strains and I want it to stay that way so I can go jogging each day. I don’t want to put my long-term health on the line at this stage, having looked after myself properly all this time."

Typically, Collins insists he has no regrets about any aspect of his career. Earlier this year he passed up the opportunity to come out of retirement to play for Scotland under Berti Vogts, having resigned his international commission immediately after leading his country to an, ultimately hollow, 1-0 win Euro 2000 play-off win against England on their own soil in November 1999. For Collins, that night represented closure.

"I can go to my bed at night, close my eyes and conjure up the image of me leaving the field at Wembley," he says. "To a Scot, I don’t think it would be possible to bring a close to your international career on a bigger high than the one I did."

In the coming months, however, Collins might find himself lying back, closing his eyes and thinking of Monte Carlo bay.
Source sport.scotsman
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