NEILL COLLINS is a man made for football management. He just didn’t expect his chance to arrive so abruptly. The ex-Blade's unrehearsed first taste came only 24 hours after suddenly hanging his boots up on a career spanning 598 matches over 18 years with 10 clubs.
A rollercoaster which passed in a high-speed blur. Newly installed as boss of Tampa Bay Rowdies and having taken charge of his first training session which lasted an hour, he had to wait only three minutes for them to grab a lead at the Al Lang Stadium against Pittsburg Riverhounds, the only undefeated side in this season’s United Soccer League.
Collins kicked every ball from the touchline as Pittsburg equalised and then grabbed a lead. It took former England midfielder Joe Cole’s second half equaliser against a team that arrived in Florida having conceded only three goals in eight matches, to prevent Collins from kicking off life in the dug-out with a defeat. The 2-2 result dropped Rowdies from seventh to ninth in the table.
“In some respects, I loved it. In some respects, I absolutely hated it,” said the former Sheffield United defender and captain. “It’s funny because all my career, I’ve always been an avid football fan and a keen follower of coaches with an eye on being a coach. I always said to people it would be great [to coach] because then you’re in control of so much more than just yourself. I did not feel in control on the bench. It was my first game, I learned a lot.”
But sounding like the man in charge came naturally. “Those lads tonight tried to do everything I asked. At times it worked. At times it didn’t, but the most important thing is that they were trying to implement specific things I asked.
“The first goal was a short corner and a goal. Yes, their goalkeeper made a mistake, but that was one of the things we looked at it and they went out and did it. There were a couple of things they didn’t do, but we’ve only had one day [since I took over]. I was very careful not to overload them but at the same time try to make an impact.”
Collins, 34, captained the Rowdies for his 67th and final appearance since leaving Bramall Lane in March 2016 for a new life in the States, in a 1-0 US Open Cup defeat – an FA Cup equivalent – at Jacksonville Armada in midweek. The following day Rowdies coach and former Leicester City, Grimsby and Bristol Rovers midfielder Stuart Campbell, who signed Collins, left the Al Lang Stadium “by mutual consent”. The Rowdies remain unbeaten at home, the season began in March, but have lost six successive matches in all competitions on their travels without scoring a goal.
Finding a replacement was a no-brainer for club chairman and CEO Bill Edwards. “I’ve witnessed Neill’s intensity firsthand and I know everyone in the locker room has immense respect for his ability and work ethic,” he said.
“He’s got the skills, the drive and the attitude to move the club to the top of the table. There are good coaches out there but I think you can make a great coach by giving someone who already has a passion for the club a chance to lead it to victory. I have great faith in Neill.”
Collins made his debut for the Blades on an initial short loan spell from Sunderland in a famous 2-1 victory under Neil Warnock at Sheffield Wednesday in 2006 in front of 33,439 fans. He returned to Bramall Lane four-and-a-half years later quickly establishing himself as a leader in central defence and becoming a crowd favourite. Five years and, including the loan spell, 214 appearances in all competitions.
He said after his step up to management: “Curtailing my playing career is not an easy decision but when an opportunity is as good as this one it’s impossible to turn down. It’s a fantastic club with many fantastic people behind the scenes and an excellent playing squad. I’m excited about the challenge of taking this club to where I think it should be.”
Next up is a trip to Toronto FC ll followed by three home dates which will be invaluable as Collins tries to lay the foundation for his managerial platform.
To many fans in the UK where Collins has played, including Leeds United and Wolves, he was regarded as a no-nonesense, reliable, traditional British centre-half. But to anyone who has spoken to Collins about his thoughts on how the game should be played and the importance of man management, it soon becomes clear that he is a far more sophisticated character.
His blog A Journeyman’s View makes thoughtful, well written and interesting reading. Whether his is prepared to share his thoughts as a manager in quite such an eye-opening and transparent manner is doubtful.
He told ViewFromTheJohnStreet after starting his career in Florida: “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.”
Collins is always up for a challenge. Moving to the US and reinventing his career demonstrates an ambitious man with an eye for the future and thinking out of the box. He owns a football coaching academy helping nurture the brightest young soccer talents in the Tampa Bay area and was also a volunteer coach with the United States Paralympic National Team.
Now if he is to make it in management he faces the biggest test yet. A man who has all the attributes to make people sit up and take notice. Remember, you read it here first.
Warning to Rowdies players – it'll be tough love from now on during training!