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When put on the spot it came down to mind over matter . . .

IT is Paris in June.

 John Collins would imagine taking a penalty the night before Scotland faced Brazil in 1998 so that he would be better prepared. Picture: SNS
John Collins would imagine taking a penalty the night before Scotland faced Brazil in 1998 so that he would be better prepared. Picture: SNS

John Collins stands over the ball. The Stade de France is heaving and tens of millions watch on television but the Scotland midfielder is free of tension, free of fear. He moves with relaxed fluidity, puffs out his cheeks and strikes a penalty low past Claudio Taffarel. It is the first match of the 1998 World Cup and Scotland have just equalised against Brazil.

Collins has taken a stressful moment and made it joyous. His celebration was not that of a man released but that of player who is acknowledging the happy meeting of talent, confidence and consequence.

"I knew I was on penalties," says Collins, 16 years on. "I had dreamt about it the night before and I had visualised the eventuality from the moment I rose. As soon as I got the penalty my mind was focused: stay calm, concentrate on where the ball was going, try not to tense up."

But surely the consequences of a miss must have been somewhere in his mind?

"No," he says in that quiet rasp. "It is about scoring the penalty. As regards consequences, I just thought: 'This is an opportunity to get us back in the game. Just hit the back of the net and go and celebrate'."

There is a moment's pause. "I was prepared for it," he says. There is a suspicion that Collins, now 46, was born ready. He believes in certain football principles but these are underpinned by a faith in himself. The match against Brazil may ultimately have been lost narrowly but there was no danger of Collins being routed by the demon of self-doubt.

His specialist subject is confidence: how to achieve it and how to play with it. His playing career encompassed Hibernian, Celtic, Monaco, Everton and Fulham but was consistently marked with his eagerness to learn and a mental strength that both bolstered and helped to create an enviable physical fitness.

"My mindset was always to improve and never be satisfied with where I was," he says. "Confidence comes with being prepared physically and mentally. When you walk down that tunnel, you must believe there is nothing more you could have done to have prepared for that match."

He elaborates: "A good mindset guides everything, including the physical side. It tells you that you have to train more or you have to train less. The thought process dictates everything. Without the bit between you ears and that positive talk pushing you, you cannot control your thinking in high-profile, high-tempo situations."

The subject of mental strength is always relevant in sport but it is particularly apposite as Collins views modern Scottish football with a discerning eye. His reflection also comes as his friend and colleague, high-performance coach Donald MacNaughton, publishes a book entitled Talent Unlimited, that tracks the best ways to improve performance by improving mindset.

Collins, too, is working with the elite of Scottish football at under-19 and under-18 level and tries not only to create a collective calm but exude a personal stability.

"The players must look across and not see a manager shouting in an aggressive tone," says Collins who took Hibs to a League Cup final victory in 2007.

"You have to be calm if you want your players to be confident and calm," he says. The foundation for his football strategy is the necessity for defenders to be able to bring the ball out from the back with movement and passing key components.

"Sometimes you see players at the back physically seize up under pressure. You do not see that with the Spanish or the Germans," he says. "I say to the young players: 'I want you relaxed when the ball comes. I want you to concentrate, don't hide, want the ball no matter who is marking you, no matter how tight they are on you'."

He has a specific and consistent gripe: "Too often the players lump the ball up the pitch and that is where it all breaks down. I have seen too much of that in some under-20 games this season."

Yet he is optimistic about the state of Scottish football, praising the way such as Celtic, Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Mirren and Partick Thistle in particular go about their business.

The season is now reaching a stage where the mind is stretched and the body is fatigued. Celtic, of course, are over the line in the SPFL Premiership and Collins was admiring of how their players maintained motivation in a tournament they were always going to win. "They do have that competition within the squad and that will help Neil [Lennon] keep them sharp," he says, pointing out that the striking position alone has such as Leigh Griffiths, Anthony Stokes, Teemu Pukki, Amido Balde, Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras vying for a starting place.

But the William Hill Scottish Cup semi-finals await and the Rangers v Dundee United match has provoked a polarity of opinion over who will prevail. Some have suggested that the United flair players may freeze at a packed Ibrox.

"I believe in quality," he says. "Dundee United are young, enterprising, dynamic and confident. Rangers have hardly lost a game all season so there is sure to be confidence in their ranks. But they are playing at a lower level and this semi-final brings a test.

"The teams they have been playing against cannot string passes together and Rangers therefore do not have to chase the ball. They have not had a game where the opposition has controlled possession because these opponents are slower in mind, slower in body. United will have the ball in 10-12 pass sequences and that will be a test for Rangers and a test for the patience of their supporters."

He has special insight into two of the United talents. "I work with [Ryan] Gauld and [John] Souttar," he says of his duties as a Scotland coach. "Gauld has a terrific talent, he can spot a pass and then play it without looking, that disguised pass. He is only 17 so he has had his little dip but he has come out of it.

"Souttar? Now there is a young man with confidence. For such a young player he is so comfortable on the ball. He will have to work on the defensive side, smell danger a bit quicker, but I love to see defenders who want to pass it out when under pressure, which is what we lack in our country. Jackie [McNamara] has managed them well."

And speaking of management, will Collins return to club coaching after leaving Livingston as director of football in 2012? "I am enjoying media work and enjoying helping the youngsters, but I would not rule it out," he says.

It would, though, have to be a job with precise aims and a long-term strategy. "I am a builder," he says with the confidence he showed as a penalty taker on a foreign field back in the glory days.

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