Michael Collins: ‘They all hated me ... but they all wanted me in their team’
Michael Collins fears that the future of domestic football in Northern Ireland is bleak.
Now retired from senior football at the relatively young age of 33 after Crusaders terminated his contract in the summer, the former Cliftonville and Portadown midfielder has pointed the finger at those who run the game as being responsible for the perilous state that football in general and a number of clubs in particular currently find themselves in.
Never one who went out of his way to respect officialdom, in his first interview since quitting the game, Collins criticises the controversial sacking of former Irish FA chief executive Howard Wells, slams the century-long contract struck with Linfield for the hire of Windsor Park for international fixtures and claims that even when he won his first league title at Cliftonville that the Reds were battling against the authorities as well as their Premier League rivals.
Far from being the opinion of a bitter ex-player, Collins — who courted controversy on numerous occasions during a colourful career — is hoping to one day return to Irish League football as a manager, but is concerned that with standards slipping and budgets being cut the quality of the product is diminishing.
“It was a hard decision to quit, but it’s the way the league is going,” said Collins.
“The league isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.
“You look at a club like Glentoran. They have had to get rid of players and will probably have to get rid of more or else they’re snookered, more or less.
“The only team that has money is Linfield — and they’ll always have money because the Irish FA is backing them and it could end up as Linfield’s league every year.
“I think the league is going to go amateur. There is talk about big new stadiums and things, but you aren’t going to get people into them to fill the seats.
“Amateur players who aren’t worthy of playing in the league are coming in and the standard is dropping, but the IFA don’t really care about the league. All they care about is the international team.
“They signed a lease with Linfield — who in their right mind signs a 100-year lease?
“They need to clear everyone out, bring in fresh young people who know about football and who want to turn things in the right direction instead of fighting over their wee jobs and who gets what and getting each others’ mates to back them up so they get into certain positions.
“They did a horrible thing with Jim Boyce, they stitched him up doing a cloak and dagger thing, but he was a very good president.
“Raymond Kennedy (Boyce’s successor who recently resigned from the post of IFA president), what does he know about football?”
It’s all a far cry from 13 years ago when as a raw kid, not long back from being dumped by first Sheffield United and then Darlington, Collins’ Irish League career was about to began as a champion with Cliftonville.
Amazingly the Reds had flirted with relegation in the previous season and they had been widely tipped to struggle once again.
Marty Quinn and his men stuck a proverbial two-fingers up to those who wrote them off and, as Collins reveals, it was all done in the face of adversity.
“The best moments for me were being a young lad just home and winning the league with Cliftonville,” said Collins.
“They hadn’t won the league in 88 years and what a lot of people don’t know is that we’d nowhere to train for most of the season.
“We trained on the Bone hills under a street lamp with 12 first-team players
and a lot of kids. Again the organisers tried their best to stop us, with us having a 2pm kick-off against Glentoran and Linfield at 3pm in Coleraine — to see what our result was and give them every chance.
“That shows you what the people who run the game are like and why I have never had any respect for them.
Collins did approve of one man at the top of the local game — and claims that things would be in a better state if Howard Wells, the former chief executive of the IFA , had been allowed to bring about further changes, instead of being sacked two years ago.
“It just shows you with the Howard Wells thing. They got rid of him because he was doing things right,” said Collins.
“He brought in an audit and some people didn’t like to see what was going on.
“They still had the rules where every yellow card was accumulated and accumulated. Wells enforced the rule like in England that every five yellow cards was a suspension and then they were wiped out.
“I thought the best thing to do was stick with Howard Wells, but they all have their wee cliques, they talk behind each others’ backs and get people out, but ultimately it all blew up in Raymond Kennedy’s face.”
Nobody could doubt that when Collins was on his game that he was the best midfielder around.
He was good enough to be signed by Sheffield United as a youngster and had Dave Bassett stayed — or followed through with the offer of a contract when he took over at Crystal Palace — anything was possible for Collins.
His problem was that too many red cards meant that he didn’t play anything like the number of games that he should have. Collins once headbutted an opposition player after being sent off in a European game for Cliftonville — resulting in a five-match UEFA ban — was on the brink of walking away from football after another red card while playing for Portadown at Windsor Park and then pushed a referee when he was red-carded in the final months of his Shamrock Park career.
“I’m probably the most hated person in the Irish League, but every fan would have wanted me in their team,” claimed Collins.
“I won more games than I lost. The things I’ve had shouted at me over the years were unreal, but what they didn’t realise was that the more they shouted, the more I wanted to beat them.
“The best one ever was when I was at Portadown. Cullen Feeney got sent off when we were 3-1 down against Glentoran in an Irish Cup replay when one of their players (Pete Batey) said ‘right, let’s open the gates on them’ and as soon as he said that I saw red and we went on and beat them 4-3.
“I was delighted to see the look on their faces after that.
“Nobody was getting past me after he said that.”
Collins bowed out with a medal collection that includes Irish League title wins with both Cliftonville and Portadown, an Irish Cup triumph with the Ports and he even claimed a medal in his five months with the Crues, winning the County Antrim Shield last season.
“I always wanted to win medals, even when I went to Newry, they hadn’t been in a final for 15 or 20 years and I left just a few weeks before they played Portadown in the Co-operative Insurance Cup final.
“I think if I’d stayed I would have won a medal there.
“Other than that I won something everywhere, apart from the half a season I had at Dundalk, but they were second from bottom when I came into the team and ended up fifth and qualified for Europe.”
Bad boy still raging about his treatment at the hands of local officials
When Michael Collins called time on his playing career every senior referee breathed a sigh of relief.
Until now that is, as the midfielder decides to speak out against the men in black.
Collins fell foul of many an official during a number of controversial incidents over the years, but while he admits that there were times when he deserved to be sent off, there were other occasions when referees had it in for him.
“I don’t think I was hard for managers to control, it was more me not controlling myself,” said Collins.
“I knew what I needed to do, but once something happened to me and I saw the red mist that was it.
“The worst ones were when managers used to send monkeys who couldn’t even play football out to wind me up.
“These guys hardly knew what a pair of football boots looked like and they were coming on, jabbing me in the back, kicking me and that used to crack me up. It happened nearly every game,” he said.
“I hit the referee in my last season at Portadown.
“When I went to Newry City — who we’d played that day — Gerry Flynn told me that the whole team talk that day had been about winding Mickey Collins up.
“I cracked up because it was the same referee that had sent me off the last time for nothing. Stephen Parkhouse got his nose broke and it was his own player that did it, but the players surrounded the ref and told him that it was me and when he saw the blood he sent me off.
“Even my last sending off at Crusaders, I headed the ball and the next thing the referee gave a penalty and sent me off.
“People used to criticise Alan Snoddy and the older referees, but I tell you what, they were 200 million per cent better than those who are coming through now.”
There was one referee that Collins rated — mainly down to the fact that the particular official did his best to keep the midfielder on the pitch rather than taking the easy option of reaching for his red card.
One other — who ironically like Collins also retired at the end of last season — was at the opposite end of Collins’ popularity scale.
“The best referee was Leslie Irvine,” said Collins.
“He used to see that I was cracking up and he’d come up behind me and tell me to calm down and pull the horns in.
“I can’t say the same about Adrian McCourt, though. He sent me off at Distillery for what I felt was nothing.”
Don’t laugh ... ‘Mr Angry’ now believes he would make a good manager
Michael Collins’ name may not be appearing on an Irish League team sheet again, but he intends to be picking one in the future.
Collins the player is definitely gone as far as senior football is concerned. Down the line though it will be Collins the coach.
“My mind is made up and that’s it. When I make my mind up I don’t change it,” said Collins.
“I’m coaching an amateur league team and I’ll probably play a bit for them.
“I want to get my coaching badges — and people might think that’s unbelievable.
“I would like to go into management and I think I would make a good manager given my experiences as a player.”
Collins, however, expects his fiery reputation to make it difficult for him to get a job in management.
He would prefer that any prospective employers would get to know him properly, which Collins insists would make a difference.
“It’s all about getting a chance and a lot of people know me and might see me as the headcase on the pitch, but not know how I am off the pitch,” said Collins.
“I know the game. I know positions and I know quality.
“I played under good managers. Marty Quinn would have any player ready to run through a brick wall.
“I have always led a team. I know when to be hard on a player and when to give him a hug.
“I never wanted to be a captain because if I got sent-off I would be letting the team down.
“You don’t want a captain who is getting sent off once in 10 games.
“I got it once at Cliftonville and got sent off. I got it once at Portadown and got sent off. I didn’t need an armband to lead a team.”
‘I got a longer ban for giving fans the V-sign than for attacking a referee’
Of all the red cards during Michael Collins’ career there are two that stand out above the rest.
Not, however, for the offence that he committed which led to the sendings-off, but what happened immediately after.
There was never any love lost between Collins and the Glentoran fans and when he was dismissed at the Oval in September 2002, while playing for Portadown, a two-fingered salute towards the stand landed him a marathon suspension.
Amazingly, five years later when the fiery midfielder pushed referee Alan Black after being sent-off by the Antrim official, Collins received a shorter ban.
And he claims that prior to changes in disciplinary procedures at the Irish FA, committees who dealt with such matters could have been perceived as acting in their own interests when senior players stepped out of line. “I remember the day I stood and gave the fingers to the Glentoran fans,” said Collins.
“Herbie Barr had sent me off after I’d hit Paul Leeman in the back, so I deserved to go.
“I cracked up because of the the abuse I was getting from the Glentoran fans. I stood in the middle of the pitch and gave them the fingers and ended up in an IFA ‘court.’
“On the committee were people from Glentoran, Linfield and other senior clubs.
“I thought to myself: ‘I don’t have a hope in hell here.’ I thought they were going to ban me forever.
“How can you have a Portadown player in front of a committee where Linfield and Glentoran men do the judging?
“I was talking and one seemed to be looking the other way and not even listening. I wanted to just walk out there and then, but Ronnie McFall managed to get me calmed down.
“I was doing a lot of work with the IFA and Michael Boyd — the community relations officer — at the time about kicking sectarianism out of football and things like that.
“I was told I had got 14 games. That was enough. I wouldn’t do anything for the IFA again.
“I hit a referee a few years later and got six games, but got 14 for giving the fingers because they changed the whole thing around.
“Senior clubs aren’t allowed to do it now, so what does that tell you?”
Among all the controversies in his career, Collins looks back on the incident when he pushed Black in August 2007 as the worst and admits he wishes he had dealt with the situation differently.
It was the start of a downward spiral that led to the end of his Portadown career — which finished with another red card against Lisburn Distillery a couple of months later.
He had been a huge fan favourite at Shamrock Park, but later angered the supporters and never pulled on the red shirt again after that dismissal at Ballyskeagh.
“The only regret I really have is putting my hands on the referee,” said Collins.
“That was wrong, but apart from that there is no point in me regretting anything because that is the kind of player I was.
“I probably regret the day I took my shirt off and threw it on the ground at Portadown because the fans were having a go at me.
“I let Ronnie and the Portadown fans down that day, but that was me. Once I cracked up I didn’t see reason.
“Fans are die-hard and when they see someone throwing their shirt down it winds them up and they don’t like it.”