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Collins the crusader

In considering a job, most prospective managers would be deterred by the knowledge that the chairman's wife does the laundry and the chairman himself drives the under-19 team's minibus.

John Collins blames the failure of the national team on a football culture that has held Scotland back. Picture: SNS
John Collins blames the failure of the national team on a football culture that has held Scotland back. Picture: SNS

There seems a small scale to such humble initiatives. Orthodox thinking has never appealed to John Collins, though, and to him the quirks of Livingston were an opportunity. He has always been searching for a place to house his principles.

The image of the conventional footballer could never be applied to Collins. It seemed like a restriction. He was a rare example of a British player who thrived abroad, but the refinement of life in Monaco was only an ancillary benefit. It was the approach of his team-mates, the focus on diet, fitness and a certain style of football that resonated with Collins. If he then became a crusader, it was out of a sense of duty.

A 14-month spell in charge of Hibernian brought a League Cup triumph and stories of player unrest. In attempting to change the habits of the first-team squad, he provoked a backlash. The attraction of Livingston was the opportunity to adapt the culture of the entire club, and his remit as director of football is constrained only by the extent of his ambition. This is Collins at his most engaged: driven, adamant, idealistic.

He was never in exile from the game, but his return had to be on his own terms. After a second bout of administration in 2009, Livingston were demoted to the third division and although their climb back up the leagues has been steady, the club still wants to adopt a radical approach. The sacking of Gary Bollan seemed abrupt, but the willingness to embrace a different philosophy was just as bold. In Livingston, Collins found a club that wanted to be changed.

"The directors asked me to come in and write my job description, so it's a unique position," Collins says. "I'm not just sitting in my office, I'm on the training pitch most days and nights. Part of what I do is coach education, how I want the teams to play and what messages I want the coaches telling them. It's getting players to play football the right way, which is passing and moving. It won't just fall into place, but slowly and surely we'll develop players who are comfortable on the ball all over the pitch."

His first act was to appoint John Hughes, an old friend, as manager. British football is traditionalist in nature, and the relationship between director of football and first-team manager is usually one of suspicion. There is little chance of a misunderstanding between Collins and Hughes, though. They have spent almost every day in each other's company since Hughes was sacked by Hibernian in October 2010, with the golf course standing in for a boot room, where the pair talked tactics and the standards they would demand from youth development.

Their remit is to establish Livingston as a club devoted to the nurturing of young players, but also a particular style of football. Collins has already identified Barcelona as the epitome of what they are trying to achieve. "Culture is the word," Collins says. "We want to be a club that children want to go to, where parents recognise that their kids are going to get great coaching and also be taught discipline, manners, respect. We don't want them talking back to referees or swearing. We want them to be good human beings.

"Every manager wants to win, but there won't be pressure on [Hughes] to win at all costs. If we see that he's trying to play the right way, develop players in the right way, then our relationship will be fine. I've been on the training pitch most days and there have been no problems. There is a right way to lose a game, which is when the players have tried to do everything you've asked of them and they've shown a good attitude. We've got to be realistic, it's one step at a time."

After a six-month spell at Charleroi, it seemed as though Collins was estranged from management. He only signed a six-month contract with the Belgian club, and saved them from relegation, but felt that it would be unfair to move his family abroad when his daughters were sitting their exams. His role at Livingston is part-time, and allows Collins to do media work and spend time with his wife and children, but already he is immersed in every aspect of the club. It feels to him like essential work.

"We've had a number of years in Scottish football when it's been back to front, fighting and challenging for second balls. I don't think that's the way forward and it is why we've not been doing so well at international level," Collins says. "We've got what we believe about how players should train, session content, a philosophy and method."

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