BRAMALL LANE and the Al Lang Stadium are as different as chalk and cheese. Nevertheless Neill Collins is making a quick transition to his new life at North American Soccer League club Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The season across the Atlantic is only two-and-a-half weeks old but already former Sheffield United defender Collins is celebrating being named in the NASL’s team of the week.
That came on the back of a 1-1 draw last weekend at Miami FC, managed by former Italian World Cup-winning star Alessandro Nesta. Tampa Bay's experienced Bulgarian Georgi Hristov equalised in injury time to snatch a point and maintain his side’s unbeaten record.
Collins is reluctant to jump to conclusions when asked to compare what he left behind last month and American soccer’s equivalent of the Football League Championship. The star-studded MLS (Major League Soccer) is the US Premier League.
But they can’t go close to competing with the Greasy Chip Buttie song. “I don't think they've got anything quite as passionate as that,” he told ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com from his Florida home. “That’s something my four-year-old son Patrick will need to teach them.
“When you talk about passion and atmosphere, coming from somewhere like Bramall Lane is always going to be a step down.” His new football home has a capacity of 7,500.
“The Al Lang used to be a baseball stadium but they've done it up now and it's a really nice place. The playing surface is fantastic and the facilities are good. For our league it is really top draw. It's a picturesque place to play, right next to the marina in St Petersburg.
“But as you can imagine coming from 18,000 and 19,000 home crowds it's going to be very different for me. But in respect to the league and the relationship to where it stands, it's very good here.
“The Rowdies have got a group of hardcore fans and we're one of the better supported teams in the league. The traditions over here is totally different and they view football much differently, too. The atmosphere at the first league game was pretty good but the pressures and expectations are definitely very different. As you know, at Sheffield United it's very high tempo. All action. The game's played at 100mph. It's different here, not least because of the heat.”
Collins’ made his Tampa Bay debut just over a fortnight ago, a 0-0 home draw with Indy Eleven from Indianapolis. It resulted in a booking for the 32-year-old ex-Blades man who spent five years at Bramall Lane and was known as an uncompromising player.
“The refereeing was definitely different,” said Collins. “It woudn't have even been a foul in League One but that is something I am going to have to adapt to. I’m a pretty physical player but if anyone looks at my record over the last five or six years I don't give away many fouls and I don't get booked very often. That's something I need to keep an eye on.
“Refereeing is bad enough in England but you can imagine it's much worse here. The players are brought up in a completely different environment. In England we like a hard tackle and a strong challenge with no quarter given or asked. Whereas here it's very different and the players can be quite cute to buy fouls and generally, on the aggressive side, you have got to be careful.
“The South American nature as we all know is pretty clever in terms of buying fouls. A lot of the foreign players are from there so it's something that will take a bit of getting used to.
“I just came in and won a header and the lad went down like a ton of bricks. He'd wasn't used to a 6ft 4in Scotsman bearing down on him.”
So what would English fans make of the general standard of football in the second tier of American football? “It’s probably too early in my time here to give a good answer,” said Collins. “There are so many variables. If Tampa Bay Rowdies were in League One they’d probably struggle with the amount of games they would have to play. The poor weather and the intensity of it is different, as is the physical side of things.
“But what I would say in this league we've got good players. Georgios Samaras (Greek international and former Manchester City, Celtic and West Brom forward) has joined Rayo Oklahoma City. Croatian international Nico Kranjcar, who used to be with Tottenham, has just signed for New York Cosmos.
"There are a lot of players from South America, so they're pretty good technically. But I have to reserve judgement until I see more and play more games. It is a bit slower tempo because of the heat and I think they're slightly more technical. A few more passes."
Collins is no stranger to Florida which has helped him to make a quick transition. “It's always very tough moving clubs, never mind just moving countries,” he said.
“I'm fortunate because I know the area well enough to have settled in relatively well. It's about getting used to a different culture and a different style of football.
“I’ve been coming on holiday for pretty much the last 20 years. There have not been too many summers when I've not been out here. It's somewhere we love to come and we know pretty well. My wife, Amanda, son Patrick and our three-year-old daughter Peyton have just joined me after their visas came through. I think for them it's a weight off their minds coming to a place that they know. That's made it a lot easier.”
The Rowdies play most away games much farther afield than English clubs. Three trips are to teams in Canada. So apart from Florida neighbours Miami FC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Collins has said goodbye to long coach trips and traffic jams which is part and parcel of a footballers life in England.
“There are two or three drives which we can do by bus but it'll be mostly flying and we've got Tampa airport only 20 minutes away from the training ground,” he said.
“It will be great to go and play in these different cities. When you have been to Scunthorpe five, six, seven times – I can't say it's monotonous because it's been great going there with the support behind us which Sheffield United get – but it's good to go and play in different stadiums and I'm looking forward to that.”
Collins commuted from Wetherby to training in Sheffield during his time at United. Now his regular trip is just a stone’s throw away. “I certainly won't miss getting struck again on the A1 or M1,” he said. “I know that drive like the back of my hand I've done it that often.”
The Scot still hopes that one day, however, in the not too distant future he may once again be pulling into the car park at United’s Shirecliffe training complex.
“I’ve got ambitions to go into management. To be manager of Sheffield United would be fantastic but it is such a big job I think you want to go and earn your spurs somewhere and show you are getting it on the basis of on not what you have done as a player but what you've done as a coach and a manager.”
Another former Blades centre-half, Chris Morgan, now assistant coach to Danny Wilson at Chesterfield, is more likely to be first in the queue and Collins can’t imagine a better fit.
“Morgs had the job on a couple of occasions as caretaker and I could see from the second occasion in particular that he had learnt a lot.
“Chris has a fantastic standing at the club. He's a deserved legend for what he has done and he epitomises all of what Sheffield United are about and which I think they need to get back to.
"He was one of the reasons why I came to the club. I wanted to play alongside him. When it comes to management Morgs will have to go and prove himself by being a boss somewhere else and getting a certain degree of success. Then he'll be able to come back and take the United job.
“Everything points so far to suggest he has the credentials to do that. He already had some good experiences and he did really well managing United's Under-21s.
“But I think at Chesterfield he will learn a lot and that is where he'll start improving. He's got a lot of time on his side so there's no rush.”
Collins, who has a two-year contract at Tampa Bay Rowdies which will take him to the age of 34, is in no hurry either. “If I'm still enjoying it and people still want me to play then I'll play,” he said. “But I have got my badges so I am prepared either way. I've done a bit of work with the Academy kids at United. I love trying to help people. United will never be far from Collins’ thoughts no matter where his football career takes him. He has so many great memories, despite his five-year stay coinciding with a difficult period for the club.
“My debut was fantastic,” he said. For someone so young to play in a Sheffield derby it was unbelievable. Now that I've been at the Blades for five years I've really understood what it meant that day.” Collins was signed by Neill Warnock for a short spell on-loan from Sunderland – he signed permanently almost five years later in January 2011 – and was plunged straight into the match at Hillsborough. United won 2-1 with goals from Michael Tonge and Ade Akinbiyi to complete a Championship double against the Owls.
“At the time it was just a whirlwind. To come in and play without the build-up was probably a good thing at the time but now I can appreciate what a big performance and a big result it was that day.
UPS AND DOWNS
“In my five years there have been a lot of ups and downs. We've under-achieved. I don't have many regrets but I look back to a couple of moments in time and I just can't believe that we never managed to get what we deserved or what we should have achieved.
“The FA Cup semi-final and going on that run was just fantastic.That is one of the best feelings I've ever had as a player or a fan.
“That day we beat Charlton 2-0 in the quarter-final at the Lane was the reason why you play football and while what happened in the semi-final wasn't the objective (beaten by then Premier League Hull 5-3 after having led 2-1 at the break), it was great for the fans to get enjoyment from seeing us playing so well, particularly in the first half at Wembley.
“Any professional footballer has to live with ups and downs and there were plenty of both for me at Sheffield United. But it’s a terrific club and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”