Collins can't wait

Friday 7 December 2001

Ian McCulloch reporting...

Forty-two games after his move from Everton, inspirational midfielder John Collins faces his old Club for the first time on Saturday. While many at the time questioned his judgement in stepping down a division, his bold decision has been vindicated many times over. After sweeping majestically to the First Division title last season, the Whites are now starting to show that they can be a major force in the Premiership.

Speaking at Fulham's training ground yesterday, the Scottish international looked forward to what should be a fascinating battle against his old teammates.

"I haven't really had a chance to see much of them this season," he said. "They've done pretty well, sitting just above us in the Championship, so it's not been a bad season so far for them. It will be a difficult game for us that's for sure, they won last week so they'll be quite confident after getting a home victory. But it's a game where it's vital we take the three points; we're at home, and as always we'll be attacking and going for the win.

"They've had a lot of problems with injuries. Duncan Ferguson's been out and Kevin Campbell's been out, so that's their two main strikers missing. But that gives an opportunity for other players to come in and they've got Radzinski who's very quick, Joe Max Moore, and I notice they've been playing Watson up front. But it doesn't matter who's in the team for them, it's how we play.

"I suppose it might change the way they approach the game - they like to play direct, back to front, when they've got their two big strikers Ferguson and Campbell, and fight for the bits and pieces from flick-ons. So they'll probably have to vary their game a little, play a bit more football, use the midfield a bit more. But it'll be a good game I'm sure."

Like a lot of things in life, Collins' move from Monaco to Everton didn't work out quite the way he planned. But despite the lack of success on the pitch, it's clear he has fond memories of his time there, and with the eagerly anticipated game fast approaching he has discovered more friends on Merseyside than he thought he had.

"I've had plenty of phone calls this week from people looking for tickets!" he laughed. "I had two great years up there, thoroughly enjoyed it, even though the football itself didn't go as well as I had hoped. But that's all in the past now, I've got good memories, they're nice people up there, and I've still got lots of friends.

"When I signed for them, the manager, Walter Smith, was promised money by the Chairman to build a team, and I signed on the basis that I was to be the first of many players coming in. It turned out that wasn't the case and the manager ended up after a few months having to sell players. The Club was heavily in debt and never made the strides forward that I'd hoped. And we had big strikers, played a lot of back to front football, which never really suited my game to be honest. But my second season was great. We had a terrific home record - I don't think we lost at home until March. We were hard to beat and played some good football."

Accounts released last week showed that Everton, despite selling off many of their best players, are still running at a huge loss. It's not a situation that gives Collins any pleasure.

"It's a big problem for them; they're still heavily in debt, so they can't invest in the team, and that's difficult for the supporters. They've got a tremendous fan base, they're very, very loyal and have stuck with the team through thick and thin, although it's all been thin these last seven years. But they're away from relegation at the moment and I think they'll be happy with a mid-table finish.

"They're one of England's big Clubs if you go by the size of their support and past history, but at this present time they don't have the finances to keep up with the big boys and invest in top international players."

Fulham fans have been dreaming of the Premiership and the opportunity to see the big stars grace the Cottage for years. None come bigger than Paul Gascoigne, and with the talented Geordie embarking on yet another come-back trail, the chances of the England man pitting his talents against Fulham's incredible midfield are high. Collins is obviously a big fan himself.

"I played against him a few times for Celtic and few times for Scotland, both at full international level and Under 21's. He's a top class player. I think the first year he had up at Rangers, he was absolutely magnificent, probably the best British midfielder I've played against in my career. He's got fantastic skills, can turn a game when he wants, can score goals, make goals and, above all, he's an entertainer. He's had his problems over the last few years, we all know that, so it was nice to see him come on in the second half last week. He played ever so well and turned the game apparently. If he's playing I'm sure the fans will enjoy it.

"One thing you never lose as a football player is your skill and your vision and your control. You might lose your legs and your fitness and sharpness, but not your ability. Gazza will never lose his skill and if he can get himself fit and stay fit, which unfortunately for him he's not been able to do for the last few years, then I'm sure he's got a major role to play at Everton."

After making Leeds look decidedly shaky last week, there's no reason for the White's to fear anyone at the moment, and Collins relishes the prospect of three points on Saturday and a climb into the top half of the table.

"Confidence is high, we're playing ever so well. We did excellently against Leeds without putting the ball in the net. Our big weakness was that we didn't have enough shots or crosses, but overall, from start to finish, I thought we dominated the game. You have to remember we were playing against last season's Champions League semi-finalists, so we must take the positives out of the game. We kept our unbeaten run going, but at the end of the day we were disappointed that we didn't win. It was two points dropped rather than one gained. But we've got to keep going. We've set ourselves high standards and we've got to keep playing like that every week, and if we do we'll be climbing up that league."

December is going to be a difficult month with games against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United coming up, but with confidence oozing out of the team what a mouth-watering prospect it is. One thing is for sure, Everton, with or without Paul Gascoigne, won't be relishing a visit to the on-form Whites.