Raring to go

Thursday 7 February 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch

John Collins was missing from the goaless draw with Aston Villa, an ankle injury keeping him sidelined from a game crying out for his guile and invention. After coming through a very hard full-scale practice match on Wednesday, Collins was optimistic that he would be fit and ready for Saturday's crucial game against Blackburn.

"The day after the Ipswich game I picked up an ankle injury in training," he said, speaking at Motspur Park, "Which meant I missed the weekend's game. I started back training with the first team today and it feels all right, although it's a bit sore when I kick the ball, but hopefully I should be available for Saturday.

"It was a good workout today. It was a tough game playing against the reserves, it's always very tough, the young players have lots to prove and they try their hardest, but it was good to come through that. It's not something we do every week, more of an occasional thing. It's too hard to do it more often!

"But on the injury front I'm happy, and fingers crossed everything should be ok for Blackburn."

This will be the first meeting between the Whites and the Rovers since that historic night at Ewood Park when ten man Fulham made Blackburn manager Graeme Souness choke on his proud boast that his team were the best in the division. The moment when Sean Davis scored his last gasp winner is one that Fulham fans, no matter where they were, will remember forever. Forget the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, where were you when Sean put the ball in the Blackburn net? And as Collins confirmed, it's something that meant as much to the players as it did to the fans,.

"That victory was one of the highlights of last season. Down to ten men, losing one-nil, away from home against our main rivals, to get a win out of that was incredible. Blackburn were a very good team, to get back to one-one and then get the late winning goal like we did that effectively won us the title, it was a special day. We played ever so well with ten men.

"It was a big, big game, it was really like the Cup Final of our season. We took a lot of support up there, they were on a good run, we'd had a little bit of a dip in form, and the pressure was on us to go out and try and get a result. As everybody knows we went down to ten men early doors and conceded a goal early as well. But we showed a lot of character that day.

"It epitomised our season for us, that one performance. It wasn't just the football we played; it was the team spirit, the determination to come back when things were going against us."

The downside of that game of course is that Blackburn will probably have as strong memories of the night as we do. They may be in the middle of an appalling run of form, but if there was ever a match that they will be up for it will be this one. Fulham will have to be at their very, very best on Saturday.

"I'm sure that they will think they will owe us one for that game," Collins said, "It was a hard one for them to take. They had lots of possession in the second half, and put us under all sorts of pressure without being able to put the ball in the back of the net. We kept trying to play even though we were down to ten and we always looked dangerous on the break. But there is no doubt that it hurts when you get beat in those circumstances, so I'm sure their players will remember it and want to put it right. It's going to be a very tough game for us."

Collins is clearly enjoying his time at the Cottage, and any doubts that he may have had about stepping down a division to join Fulham would have been quickly eradicated as the Whites romped to the First Division Title. In Collins' mind it ranks up there with everything else he has done in football.

"It's always a special occasion winning a League Championship. I've only won one before - the French Title with Monaco - although I came second on numerous occasions in Scotland. To win a Championship is the ultimate goal - at the start of every season that's the big prize that everyone wants to win. People say that it was only the First Division, it wasn't the Premiership, but it was still a great achievement and a terrific feeling, and I felt very proud. To get the Club back into the big time after being out of it for so long, and not just winning the title, but winning it with style and by playing entertaining football, was fantastic. Wherever we went we scored goals and we entertained; we played football the way it should be played.

"We've proved that we can do it in the Premiership, not as consistently as I hoped we would, but we've shown against some of the big boys that we can compete and that we can play well and on our day we can play them off the park. Our weakness is that we haven't been able to score enough goals this season, but as a collective we know that we've all got to work hard and put that right. We're not a million miles away from it."

It's very important that the team get back to winning ways on Saturday. It's important for a number of reasons: we need to put pressure on Villa in seventh place, we need to keep Rovers entrenched in the relegation dog-fight and ourselves out of it, and we need to emphasise to Graeme Souness that the right team won the Championship last season. The question is, are the boys up for it? Collins has no doubts.

"Saturday is a very important game for us," he said, "Blackburn are right down there fighting relegation and we're not that far away from the pack down there, but then again we're not too far away from that European spot. So it's a game that can kick us on again; we need the three points, we're at home so we can take the game to Blackburn and go for goal right from the kick-off. We're very determined and very optimistic that we can get the result we want."