THE snow is covering the ground, it gets dark just after it has become light.
There is a brightness on the horizon, though. Scotland have appointed a new manager in Gordon Strachan and it is time to seek yet more positivity, to look for further optimism. It is the moment to call on John Collins, who is about to celebrate his first year as director of football at Livingston.
The former Scotland internationalist is confident, certain of purpose and always refreshing. "I do not ask my youth coaches for the results of their games," he says. "I ask them about how their teams played."
Loading article content
There are interminable downbeat stories about Scottish football but Collins is reluctant to buy into them. One of the most insistent is that there are no good youngsters any more. Collins, a realist and idealist, addresses this briskly: "There is no doubt that less football is being played on the playground. But there are some good little footballers out there."
His approach is simple but it has to be robust. He preaches the basics of control, pass, move. It is a mantra that can be recited easily in practice matches but sometimes goes unheard in the tumult after the whistle begins a competitive match. "That is the test," he says. "There are coaches who say they would like to play passing football but they do not have the players. That is a flawed statement. We coach players from the very beginning to be constructive, do things the right way and to not be scared on the ball."
He is keen to make more demands on his players but only in regards to technique. "No coach at Livingston will shout at a player if he makes a mistake while trying to be constructive. Yes, there is a danger in passing it out from the back but that is where we must become stronger, that is where the best teams in the world begin their moves."
Collins does not just talk a good game, he is messianic about the proof being on the pitch. Another anniversary approaches for him. In March, it will be six years since a vibrant Hibernian, under the tutelage of Collins, romped to a 5-1 league cup final victory over Kilmarnock. The Hibs team, featuring such as Steven Whittaker, Scott Brown, Steven Fletcher, Guillaume Beuzelin and Abdessalam Benjelloun, gave a performance of such irresistible pace and technique that they seemed to be auditioning for further glory. Instead, only Lewis Stevenson remains at the club, with Collins leaving Easter Road just nine months after the triumph. A brief spell at Charleroi, when he kept the Belgian side in the first division, followed before Collins came to Livingston with a remit to produce players and attractive football.
"I know that success for us is to coach players who can move on to bigger clubs," he says. "I know that financially we cannot compete with Celtic or Rangers, I know we are bottom of the food chain but I believe we can play in the proper way. If we aim for perfection, we can sometimes find excellence."
Livingston are fourth in the Irn-Bru first division but with three games in hand over leaders Morton. Given the volatility of the division, the club could be involved in a tight battle for the title. Collins, effusive about the need to play with style, is more restrained on the prospects for his club. "We look to make sure, steady progress," he says. "There is a danger we can be bullied by more physical teams but we're happy at how we're playing."
Livingston have a fine heritage of producing top-class players such as Robert Snodgrass and Graham Dorrans, now at Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion respectively. The present crop includes two 20-year-olds – midfielder Stefan Scougall and forward Marc McNulty – who have impressed this season, the former watched by scouts from Manchester United, Arsenal and Swansea City during a win over Raith Rovers on Saturday. "We have to produce technically better players so that the national team progresses," he says, "and I have been very impressed with Mark Wotte [performance director at the Scottish Football Association]. I see a way forward."
He maintains the confidence needed to play possession football comes from two sources. "The players must be well-prepared and the coaches must offer supportive advice. I only shout at them when they lump the ball forward," he says.
The SFA is in the final stages of planning and building a national academy and Collins points to two areas where the national game can be improved. "We need more experienced coaches at youth level and, personally, I would love to have indoor facilities available to clubs, particularly this one," he says.