NEILL Collins was rejected by his beloved Kilmarnock twice, impressed Mick McCarthy by splitting a player’s head open on trial at Sunderland and played alongside England stars Harry Maguire and Joe Cole.
The Barnsley head coach sat down with the Chronicle this week to look back over his playing and coaching career which has led to him occupying the Oakwell hotseat.
He was born in 1983 in the coastal town of Troon in Ayrshire, better known for its golf course. But it was football that became his main obsession, starting with local side Troon Thistle.
Collins said: “My dad had played professional football in Scotland for two or three years.
“His family were all football mad. I played for my local team which my dad coached.
“My dad took me to watch Kilmarnock from five or six years old. It was the only thing I really cared about as a kid.
“I would come home from school, get changed and go to the park.
“At that point, Ayrshire was a footballing hotbed. Three of us from my first team played for Scotland under 21s which is unusual for a small town.”
Collins would play for the youth teams of his beloved Killie but was released aged 14.
“It hurt a lot and it felt short-sighted.
“I had been one of the best players then I was released six months later.
“I developed a lot slower than some. If you see pictures of me with Kris Boyd (future Scotland striker), he was a man, I was a boy.
“A lot of players were growing and overtaking each other. I felt I should have got the benefit of the doubt.
“Academies now are much better at thinking about how players might develop.
“But it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a burning desire to make sure it never happened again.
“If I had been kept on, I might not have had the same motivation.”
He returned to Troon Thistle then joined Queen’s Park at under 16s level before breaking into the first team who play at Hampden Park.
“I made my debut when I was still at school.
“We were relegated then finished bottom of the third division. But we had four or five 18-year-olds in the team including me. It was tough but a really good experience.”
Collins then moved to Dumbarton and completed a degree at Strathclyde University, with trials at Premier League Charlton Athletic as well as Rangers.
“When my contract at Dumbarton ran out and my degree finished, it was the perfect time to explore professional football.
“I had played 100 games in three years and I felt I accelerated in my development past a lot of players who were in academies.
“I trained with Kilmarnock again but they weren’t interested.
“I went to Sunderland on trial.
“There were a lot of big names but I couldn’t care less. In my second week on trial, I played against the first team who were preparing for the first game of the season.
“I split someone’s head open with a tackle. Someone told me to calm down and I said: ‘if you don’t shut, up you will be next’. I think Mick McCarthy (manager) liked that.”
Collins signed for the Black Cats in 2004 and was a squad player as they got promoted to the Premier League.
“When I signed for Dumbarton, I got interviewed for the matchday programme. It said ‘where will you be in five years?’ and I said I would be in the English Premier League.
“I got so much stick from the players in the dressing rom. But I signed for Sunderland and we won the Championship. A lot of those lads said ‘fair play’.
“I played 15 games in the promotion season which was a big achievement, especially after being in university a few months earlier.
“Getting promoted was a blessing and a curse. I knew I wasn’t ready for the Premier League.”
Collins was loaned to Hartlepool then Sheffield United but also played in the FA Cup for Sunderland, when they suffered a shock defeat to Brentford. He eventually reunited with McCarthy at Wolves where he established himself as a Championship regular.
“Roy Keane came to Sunderland and wanted me to stay. But I wanted to play under Mick again. We got to the play-offs in the first season, then came seventh then won the league.
“It was probably one of the most enjoyable periods of my career. It was a young hungry team like at Barnsley now. Everyone was very focused on trying to get better.”
Collins had fallen out of the first 11 just before Wolves reached the top flight then had short spells at Preston and Leeds United.
“Preston sacked Alan Irvine which seemed awfully harsh. Darren Ferguson came in with the remit to cut the wages and get players out.
“I went to Leeds and helped them get promoted out of League One which was an amazing experience. In the Championship we had a really good start but again I was out of the team and ended up going to Sheffield United.
“It was two quick turnarounds and an unusual period in my career.”
Collins then spent five years at Sheffield United who were in the third division, playing more than 200 games.
“I regret I wasn’t able to help the club get out of League One. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. There was the Ched Evans situation (the striker was convicted of rape then found not guilty in a re-trial).
“My son was really unwell and I missed four games when he was in intensive care.
“But Danny Wilson was brilliant with me during that time and got the best out of me of any manager. I felt a lot of trust from him and he was a great man-manager.”
Collins played mainly alongside future England and Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire for the Blades.
“You won’t get anyone who will speak higher of Harry than me. He kept his performance level so high at such a young age.
“I couldn’t believe someone didn’t buy him before Hull did.
“He has had a lot of unwarranted criticism.
“I find it quite hard knowing how good a person he is and how good his family is.
“I played more than 150 games with him and we developed a really good partnership.
“Harry will tell you I wasn’t slow to criticise him. He was laid back and I wasn’t.
“He was a young player desperate to learn and I tried to help him as much as I could.
“He was probably the best player I played with, along with Joe Cole who came to Tampa at the end of his career. I got to see Harry at the start and Joe at the end.”
At United, Collins lost an FA Cup semi-final and also a play-off final to Huddersfield Town on penalties.
“I would probably pinpoint the play-off final as the most disappointing game in my career. There wasn’t much in the game and then, when they missed their first three penalties, you can’t help but think this will be your day.
“I took the second penalty and scored.
“I wanted to take the first but Lee Williamson took it and missed it.
“I scored seven penalties in seven for Sheffield United which is the best in their history.”
One of the other regrets of Collins’ career is never getting a Scotland cap, having played for the under 21s and B team.
“Most players who played for the clubs I played for would have picked up a cap or two.
“But there were a lot of old firm players in my position at the time.
“I don’t think I could have ever been regular but it would have been nice for myself and my family to have had the opportunity to play for my country.”
Collins left Sheffield United in 2016, then moved to Tampa Bay Rowdies in the second tier in the USA – first as a player then head coach.
“I pushed for something different when I knew I was leaving Sheffield United.
“I knew Florida quite well from going on holiday and it was a good club.
“I wanted to play as long as I could.
“But I became head coach much earlier than I expected.
“As a player, I used to think a lot like a coach.
“At times it hindered me because I was thinking about the team and not myself as much. I was more suited to being a coach than a player.”
Collins’ Rowdies won their conference twice and broke points records, before he returned to England as Barnsley head coach in July.
“For me there are things you have to learn about Barnsley and League One, but I learned the overall principles in Tampa.
“At least I have a really good background and experience to draw upon. I dread to think what it must be like for someone who goes straight into a manager’s job in England having not coached.
“The passion people have for the game here is relentless. It’s a different outlook.
“Also there is a chance for players who are doing well to move on. When money is involved, it changes people and dynamics.
“But by and large you are still dealing with people, and trying to get the best out of them.
“There have been some great games so far this season. Port Vale on the opening day (a 7-0 win) and some of the away wins we’ve had. I know those days are special. We want to have as many as possible, and hopefully right at the end of the season.”