NEILL COLLINS has just escaped the might of Hurricane Irma. Now the former Sheffield United centre-half is preparing for a major storm of a very different kind.
“Five years is a long time to wait for a shot at your nearest and dearest,” says Collins who will be rooting for the Blades as he watches the 128th Steel City derby from his Florida home along with a worldwide television audience of millions.
The Scot played in the last meeting between United and Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, a 1-0 defeat in 2012 “that still rankles”.
Since crossing the Atlantic Collins has created a remarkably inciteful and well written blog – A Journeyman’s View – giving a unique perspective of football from the inside. A fascinating read and a must for Blades fans as it often features nuggets from his time at the Lane.
He doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the noisy neighbours. “The sides would have met earlier a few years ago in an FA Cup quarter-final but the team from the dark side of Sheffield bottled it and lost in a replay to Charlton. It robbed us off a chance to face off in front of a national audience with the prize a trip to Wembley.”
So how does Collins, 34, who left Bramall Lane in March 2016 for a new career and lifestyle with Tampa Bay Rowdies in the North American Soccer League, assess the upcoming showdown?
“As I look forward to watching this weekend’s game as a fan instead of player, I can’t help but think the Owls will be a far different proposition than they were all those years ago,” he said.
“In my time in English football I faced them a total of eight times and lost only once, in the last derby the clubs played. A bitter 1-0 defeat that still rankles. For years Wednesday were the also-rans of the Championship. Home or away, it was usually a guaranteed three points. I hate to say it but they are a different challenge these days.
“Their wage bill dwarfs United’s and they have been challenging at the top end of the Championship for the past two years. Building a squad to try and reach the Premier League has seen them spend millions of pounds on wages and transfer fees.
“Going to Hillsborough will be no mean feat as they [the Blades] sit proudly in the play-off spots after a fantastic start. When I look at both squads there won’t be many players or staff in either squad that will have experienced this game before and while some will have played in other derby games, they will be blown away once they line up for kick off on Sunday.
“What United do have in their favour are two men that know exactly what this game entails The Blades manager and captain [Billy Sharp] both have red and white blood coursing through their veins and will be under no illusions of the task at hand. Under Chris Wilder I would never count United out; his record has been nothing short of phenomenal.”
Collins adds: “I just hope that, come the final whistle they are the ones smiling while the Greasy Chip Butty song echoes loud and proud across the city.”
Collins made the most dramatic of United debuts after responding to an SOS from then boss Neil Warnock. He recalls: “One Friday over ten years ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed in Sunderland receiving treatment for a badly infected wound on my foot. The doctor advised me it would keep me out of action for at least two weeks. Less than 48 hours later, I was playing in one of the biggest, best and most bitter derbies in England. The Steel City derby. Sheffield United v Sheffield W%#+€@&Y.”
Collins adds: “I will never forget arriving at the old dilapidated but historic ground and stepping off the coach. The Sheffield Wednesday fans were lined up and frothing at the mouth ready to hurl abuse and vitriol at us as we made our way to the dressing room.
“Always the pantomime villain, Warnock lapped it up. By the time I reached the away dressing room, the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I hadn’t even got my kit on yet. It’s moments like this that made we want to be a footballer.”
It was a memorable encounter in February 2006 between the Championship rivals. Michael Tonge and Adi Akinbiyi put United 2-0 up by the break in front of a 33,439 crowd. Wednesday set nerves jangling in the Leppings Lane end, scoring from the penalty spot with ten minutes remaining. But United and Collins stayed firm to take all three points and complete a league double.
Collins loan spell from Sunderland ended shortly afterwards. He rejoined five-and-a-half years later in a permanent move from Leeds, making 214 appearances and scoring 14 goals.
Before he settles down in front of the telly foe Sunday's showdown, the Rowdies, fifth in the USL Eastern Conference, take on Charlotte Independent at home. The entertainment? A concert at full time featuring Mr Bombastic himself, Shaggy. Blades announcer and DJ Gary Sinclair eat your heart out!