AFTER a year out of the game, the much-travelled Scot feels right at home at Charleroi, finds Andrew Smith
AT 7.30 ON Monday evening, Royal Charleroi SC owner Abbas Bayat led John Collins into a room at the club's stadium where the players had been summoned. "This is your new coach," the Iranian-born businessman told the squad, before each of their names was called out and they stepped forward to shake hands with the Scot tasked with rousing a sleeper of an establishment Belgian side currently lying 11th in an 18-team top flight.
Formal and yet also endearingly friendly, "this is a new way of doing things", Collins thought as his heart pumped and he pressed the flesh to end, officially, almost exactly a year out of the game that followed his resignation as Hibernian manager over the Leith club's failure to "match" his ambitions.
"It was a classy way for the president to take care of the introductions and said to me I was right to be impressed by him the instant we discussed the job," the 40-year-old says. "As soon as we had agreed on a deal to the end of the season late on Monday, he told me the players would be brought in to see me immediately. I said I was happy to wait and speak to them in the dressing room the next day but he insisted they should find out first hand rather than hear about the appointment in the media. That told me he cared about the players and gave me a good feeling."
It also gave Collins a chuckle that one player who needed no introduction was left slack-jawed by the scene. "It was a big shock for Benji (Abdessalam Benjelloun, on loan from Hibs] to see me walking through the door, but I was sort of shocked myself that it was happening. Everything came together in a matter of days."
Bayat's pursuit of Collins was straightforward enough. He called the "resting" coach's agent at representatives IMG and arranged a meeting. In the meantime, the former Monaco midfielder used his fluent French to gen up on the multi-millionaire and multi-faceted Charleroi benefactor on the club's website. Bayat, he discovered, was educated in an English boarding school. He travelled to America and took a degree in political science at Pittsburgh, before completing a masters in international affairs and a doctorate in management at New York's Columbia University. He then set up various food businesses in Iran ahead of establishing a base in New Jersey from where he spread his interests across Europe. Just your typical football fan then, as Collins found out.
"Everything that I had read about him didn't prepare me for a guy who was nutty about the game and knew it inside out," he says. "He said he was a big Man United fan but had Setanta as well as Sky, and really liked what he had seen me doing at Hibs."
Collins' unwillingness to uproot his three children from Edinburgh midway through a school year meant he only felt able to commit to a five-month sample-it-and-see stint with his new employers. If the club are happy with his progress, in the summer he will review whether to move his family permanently to Brussels. Even in agreeing to decamp there himself, he admits he wasn't entirely sure if he had done the right thing.
"I was apprehensive about leaving my wife and kids behind for the first time in my football travels and did turn over some doubts in my mind. Do I really want to go back in? Do I miss it? But as soon as I took my first training session they disappeared and I realised that this is what I'm made for."
Collins' confidence in his abilities is such that he is convinced he is made to manage in the English Premier League one day. Turning down offers from two Championship clubs shortly after quitting Easter Road, it wasn't until he was the only British coach on the four-man short list in September for the West Ham vacancy snared by Gianfranco Zola that he seriously considered a return to the game. In between, he seriously enjoyed being master of his own time. The wealth he accumulated across a playing career that in 1996 saw him become Scotland's first high-profile Bosman in moving from Celtic to Monaco placed him under no pressure to work again.
He packed in "bags of quality time" with his family, was able to pay regular visits to a mother not in the best of health and work on his golf handicap as a member of Gleneagles. He also explored beyond his own borders and took a fishing trip to Alaska – "it was amazing catching salmon every day in a place that made you feel like you were on another planet," he says – trekked across the Atlas mountains in Morocco, attended the African Cup of Nations in Ghana and holidayed in New York, Italy and France.
Little wonder he was in little hurry for the sort of "new football adventure" that he is sure coaching in French for the first time will provide him. On that front, having employed his trusty Easter Road assistant Tommy Craig as his right-hand man for a second crack at coaching, he is currently being tickled by Craig's adventures in speed-learning game terms, Gallic style. The three years the 58-times capped Scotland international spent living in Monte Carlo on retiring from playing is about to serve Collins well in the communication stakes.
"I have spoken French regularly in the past year, and even at home my teenage daughters and I have days at home when that is all we will speak, just to keep brushed up on it. My son was much younger when we were at Monaco and he has a teacher who comes in so that he remains bilingual."
Despite a 14-month spell at Hibs, during which he led the club to a CIS Cup triumph that represents the only trophy success down Leith way since 1991, raked in 9m in player sales, recorded wins over both halves of the Old Firm and guided the club to an 11-game unbeaten run, a very public revolt by players over his pure football and – some would say – pure-living philosophies brought concerns over whether he could speak footballers' language. His belief in his methods is predictably unshakeable enough for him to give no thought to modifying his approach as he seeks to lift Charleroi out of an alarming slump in form.
"It is going to be difficult but I have assessed the squad in training this week and reckon we have a few diamonds we can buff up," he says of a squad that contains seven Frenchman, four Moroccans and a number of Africans.
Collins got off to a fine start with a 2-0 home win over Dender last night and is relishing a crack at Belgian football.
"I have a bigger budget than at Hibs and will be able to buy a better standard of player, while requiring to be open, like every manager, to selling for the right price.
"But the way I want my players to perform and look after themselves won't change from a year ago. They are low in confidence and have been playing box-to-box, but that will stop. My goalkeeper won't be punting the ball upfield any more, that's for sure.
"No-one who came to watch my Hibs team was anything other than impressed with our ability to pass and entertain, so I don't see why I should compromise on that. I don't think it can be debated that I got the best out of Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson, Steven Fletcher, Ivan Sproule and Chris Killen. Are these players performing better now? That is up to others to decide.
"And I don't see any reason to question my man-management instincts. I wasn't a shouter, a bawler or a swearer. I put in place rules and conditions at Hibs only to make my players fitter and stronger and ensure they maximised their talents.
"If I learned any lesson it is that you cannot keep more than the 11 players who are playing happy. No matter what club you coach and how you coach it, that will be the case. Those who don't make the first-team cut will always be grumpy. But if they are good players, they will be grumpy but remain professional."
The Belgian league now breaks till mid-January, while the hard work will begin when he takes his players to a training camp in Turkey on January 2. When the season resumes, a last 16 cup tie against Cercle Brugge awaits. "I said when I joined Hibs I was only three victories away from getting my hands on a trophy," he says. "At Charleroi, that figure is only four. I'm looking at that as an omen."
If it is, and a forever aiming high Collins has a miraculous personal cup double to savour by the season's end, then just maybe he could begin to think about possible English Premier League portents. Charleroi's current struggles are so acute, however, his new adventure could as easily bring him no closer to that promised land than the football life he left behind in Leith.
FIVE FAMOUS BELGIANS (who played football)
Journeyman player with Liege whose groundbreaking judicial challenge to the football transfer rules allowed footballers to leave clubs for free when their contracts expired. The so-called 'Bosman ruling' gave players unprecedented power, allowing many to negotiate extraordinarily lucrative contracts. Money that had previously been spent on transfer fees was now lavished on wages, turning thousands of average footballers into millionaires.
Bearded bulwark of the Belgian national side during the 1980s and 90s. Won the European Cup with PSV in 1988. Vastly experience coach now in charge of Marseille.
Gifted attacking midfielder who appeared in four World Cup finals, one of only three Belgians to do so. Began career with Anderlecht but his talents took him to Italy, for spells with Inter and Torino, and France, where he played for Bordeaux, Auxerre and Monaco. Wound up back at Anderlecht and finished his career with John Collins' new club, Charleroi, whom he also coached for a short, unsuccessful spell.
Towering centre-back who was Martin O'Neill's first major signing as Celtic manager when he moved to Scotland from Dutch side Roda JC for 3m in 2000. A cornerstone of O'Neill's trophy-winning side until injuries took their toll. Released by Gordon Strachan in 2005 and currently with Dutch side Emmen.
Big-haired Everton midfielder who moved to England from Standard Liege this season for an initial 4m which could rise to 15m, which would be a Belgian record transfer. Born to Moroccan parents from Tangier but raised in Brussels, his performances in the Belgian top flight won him the Ebony Shoe, an award given to the best player of the season of African descent.