TALK to Neill Collins for just five minutes about football and it becomes abundantly clear. He’s a Blade.
The 32-year-old Scot played his 34th match of the season for Sheffield United only a few weeks ago in a five-year stay spanning 216 appearances. It turned out to be his last.
Now the big defender is forging a new life and career in Florida at North American Soccer League club Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Which puts Collins in the unique position of being able to offer a fascinating inside view as to why United have struggled for five turbulent years to escape the third tier of English football. But for a turnaround of truly titanic proportions that alarming figure is set to become six.
Collins has just played his second match for the Rowdies, a 1-1 draw at newly-formed Miami FC, managed by former AC Milan and Italy World Cup-winning star Alessandro Nesta.
“Nobody would have been saying that to me at the start of the season, laughed Collins. “Going away to Miami. It is part owned by Paolo Maldini (another World Cup winner with Italy who has five Champions League medals) so it was always going to be a tough challenge.”
Challenge is what Collins is all about and he’s certainly had more than his fair share at Bramall Lane. But you sense it was a severe wrench to leave a club he genuinely loves. He also holds a deep affection for what he regards as a unique set of football supporters.
“I think the fans were great towards me. In terms of loyalty I've not seen that from any set of fans I've played for. I also think there have been times when they have had every right to be frustrated.
“Their patience was quite unbelievable and that really made me want to do so well for them and made my affinity grow. It's not just the fans in the stands either, but the fans that work behind the scenes.
“You've got the likes of Tony Currie and Len Badger and then you've got the people at the club who are unsung heroes. These people deserve so much success. They work so hard and they want the club to do so well.
“I enjoyed a great relationship with supporters and I always tried to play as hard as I could for them all. Some people will always have an opinion on you and there's nothing you can do about that in terms of whether it's good, bad or indifferent. But I would take umbrage against anyone who said I didn't have the best interests of Sheffield United at heart.”
LET CLUB DOWN
United have long since over-stayed their welcome in League One but Collins, in a brutally truthful assessment, doesn’t think it had to be that way. “I always acted professionally and gave 100 per cent.
"To be perfectly honest if everyone who came through the door had done and played like that in my time we probably wouldn't be in that league. It has not always the case and it's a shame that some let the club down. “The fans don't get to see that but certainly the players who have been there behind the scenes have seen it and it’s been really frustrating.”
So what in Collins’ view from the dressing room has been the major factor behind United’s inability to shake off the shackles of third tier football? A big fish with a large budget which struggles to swim in a small pond full of relative minnows.
“People like to generalise and see things in black and white, particularly some fans. They are either 'yes or no'. But it's not as simple as that,” said Collins.
“I think if you go back to the first season in League One, the Ched Evans situation (United’s top goalscorer was jailed after being found guilty of rape) was an obvious reason why we never got promoted.
“But you forget, for example, the day that I missed the Oldham game due to my son being seriously unwell in hospital on life support (more on that later). Harry Maguire and Matt Lowton got sent off and John-Francois Lescinel injured his knee. So we lost the entire back four in one game.”
Nine-man United squandered a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 after Shefki Kuqi converted an injury-time penalty. “We lost to Oldham and I think we won four points in four games when around that stage of the season we had been racking up wins right, left and centre. So that was a bad turn.
“They were totally unforeseen circumstances. Manager Danny Wilson had never seen anything like it. Those two instances cost us dearly. Then there was that heart-breaking play-off final against Huddersfield which went to penalties.”
United, arrived at Wembley in 2012 despite having amassed 90 points. Cruelly, they were pipped for automatic promotion by neighbours Wednesday.
Huddersfield could not break the 0-0 deadlock after extra time and so the match was decided on penalties. All 22 players took one. Collins converted his but United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen missed the agonising 22nd spot kick. Huddersfield won the shootout 8-7 and promotion.
“It was all just freak so that year I don't think the blame can be levelled at anyone,” said Collins.
He believes the decision to sell leading goalscorer, Nick Blackman, was a major reason why the following season ended in failure. United, under caretaker Chris Morgan, eventually succumbed to Yeovil in the play-off semi-finals shortly after boss Wilson was sacked. A decision which club co-owner Kevin McCabe recently admitted he regretted.
“That second season Danny over-achieved when you look at the players we had,” said Collins. “We sold Nick Blackman in January, a top goalscorer. We kept 21 clean sheets and anyone who does that would normally be promoted. But we didn't score enough goals and maybe if Blackman had been there it would have been enough to see us through.”
David Weir was appointed Wilson’s successor for the following season which began disastrously. Scottish international Weir, entrusted with his first managerial job, brought a brand of attractive, passing football to the Lane. But with no end product it left the Blades hovering close to the relegation zone in October and led to Weir’s rapid dismissal.
“Davie Weir did a lot of good things but never managed to get the rub of the green,” said Collins. “At that time with the recruitment policy I think we probably signed four or five players who aren't playing professional football anymore. When you look at people like Sean McGinty, Jasper Johns, Fabian Brandy. Maybe you can look back at that with some regret.”
Collins, however, while agreeing it didn’t work under Weir, has some sympathy for his fellow Scot, not least because of the enforced sale of midfield talisman Kevin Mcdonald.
He explained: “I’m all about winning and obviously it never happened. Davie didn't win enough but some performances we completely controlled the game. We dominated teams off the park with the ball and some results could have gone either way.
“Davie had the potential to be really successful. The club at that time were trying to adopt a model that other teams had used but Sheffield United is a different animal, it's a different club.
“It wasn't going to work but I agree with you. A lot of people see that period as a major failure. It wasn't as clear cut as that. I think personnel was the biggest problem.
“He built his team around Kevin MacDonald and we sold him so suddenly. I know what I'm good at and I know what I'm not so good at. You need someone like Kevin McDonald. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses but when you lose someone like that they are hard to replace.
“Having said that it was a great run towards the end of the season (under Clough). We just missed out on the play-offs and got to the FA Cup semi-final so we recovered relatively well from a disastrous first part of the season. Then last season under Nigel Clough I think there were a variety of reasons why it never happened.
Collins shares the frustration of fans at the probable outcome of this season. “It has been the most disappointing because there has been the most expectation and we've been pretty far off it. But the players and staff feel it too.
“Overall, I don't think it's a case of there being one reason for failure to win promotion, I think there are a million reasons.”
As irony would have it, Collins final match for the Blades was played out in front of the two managers who have had such a big impact on his career for very different reasons.”
The 1-0 home defeat to Clough’s Burton Albion, then League One leaders, at the beginning of March was the low point of what even United’s owners have already admitted is a bitterly disappointing season. Something which recently prompted them to slash next season’s ticket prices by 10 per cent.
Clough, sacked by United nine months earlier, had effectively condemned Collins to exile less than two months into the previous season without offering any explanation.
Something to its eternal shame, the local Press chose to sweep under the carpet as it cosied up to Clough instead of doing what any self-respecting journalist would do – pursue a big news story.
As United leaked goals and were in desperate need of a reliable centre-half, the man who had formed a rock-like partnership with Harry Maguire in the previous campaign, was banned from training with the first team.
Eventually loaned to Port Vale, Collins thought his career was over at the Lane. That is until the arrival of Nigel Adkins who immediately reinstated him. Collins insisted then he had no idea why he had been banished and that bewilderment remains.
“Throughout the whole time I've always told the total truth,” he said. “There was no big bust-up, there was no isolated incident where we had a shouting match. I wasn't late for training or anything.
“There were no words or explanation about what happened. Look, if you want to doubt me I understand, but I think I had proven in the season previously and even in the one before that, that I could offer something.
“I wasn't given the opportunity to fight for my place from the bench or in the squad. That opportunity just wasn't there. He clearly wanted to excommunicate me. There was no real reason for it and I think everyone could see the team needed a centre-back at times.
“But there was never any chance. Even when I went on loan to Port Vale there was no way, I think, that he would have ever brought me back. I'm as mystified as everyone and I'm being genuine when I say that.”
Clough chose one of his lieutenants to break the news of the beginning of Collins’ demise.
“I was told I wasn't in the squad by Gary Crosby and things gradually got worse for me. Then after November I was told I could leave and wouldn't be training with the first team anymore, I'd be training with the Under-21s.
NOT PART OF PLANS
“From there it was quite clear I was not part of their plans. It was always, always my aim to try and get back in the team. I've seen other players where they got their heads down, got stuck in and got back. That's what my intentions were.
“It was the right decision eventually because I did return, but obviously, in that particular situation it wouldn't have made any difference what I had done.”
Collins had sympathy for teammates who also found themselves in Clough’s black book. “I was the most high profile case when you bear in mind over the previous three seasons I had played 150 games,” he said.
“But there were other lads who were unfairly treated Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Michael Doyle at different stages could have been used more. Andy Butler had come in and signed and was discarded just as quickly.
“Stephen McGinn had had a fantastic pre-season (he was loaned to Dundee who then signed him after United cancelled his contract). So there were a lot of people who felt the brunt of it. The most disappointing thing was that the club suffered the most.
“We actually had a good feeling from the way we had finished the previous year and I thought there was only one place we were going and that was up. Unfortunately it didn't prove to be that way.”
Collins’ sudden move across the Atlantic with his family, wife Amanda, four-year-old son Patrick and daughter Peyton, aged 3, came as a surprise to United fans. “It happened pretty quickly for myself,” said Collins, “but it wasn't something that just happened after the Burton game.
“It had been in the pipeline for a couple of weeks before that. It is something that developed and I have to say that the club were excellent in understanding my feelings on the situation.
“My thoughts were always to play for Sheffield United until I was no longer wanted. The way the season looked like it might be heading, it was too good an opportunity to turn down at this stage of my career.”
His rapid departure denied him the opportunity to say a formal farewell to the Bramall Lane faithful. But his message from Florida is one big ‘thanks’.
“I never took their amazing support for granted,” he said. “I just hope that the club, and particularly the fans, get the success they deserve. I feel very humble to have played so many games for such a great club.
“I'll be watching from afar and my two children will be as well. They've grown up in their short lives to support Sheffield United and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.
“They've got home shirts, away shirts, goalie shirts. They know all the songs (hopefully not literally all of them!) and they love it.
“My family have loved coming to Bramall Lane and last year when that stopped – they weren't going to the match, they weren't going to watch their dad – they really missed it. My wife and my mum and dad all loved it too.”
And what about the three anxious weeks in 2012 when a very young Patrick was on a life support machine?
“I’m a private person, so I didn’t talk about it as the time,” explained Collins.
“My son had a problem with his heart. He had a cardiac arrest But everything is fine now. He's fit and healthy. He came through it, thankfully, but as you can imagine it wasn't a good time.
“He was in intensive care for three weeks and it put things into perspective. The play-off final at Wembley that year was so gutting but when I thought where I was three months previously that was far worse.”