FROM Gretna to Kansas, it has been an eventful journey for Aurelien Collin.
Back in the days when Gretna were on the crest of a wave under the ownership of Brooks Mileson, Collin was one of their many recruits as they tried to turn fantasy into reality. The club went bust a year after the Frenchman’s arrival in 2007, but after stops in Greece, Wales and Portugal, the 27-year-old defender is now a household name in American soccer, and tonight he will play for Sporting Kansas City against Real Salt Lake in the showpiece MLS Cup final.
As an accomplished centre-back Collin attributes his well-rounded style to the football education he received as a young player in Scotland. The romance of the Gretna story isn’t lost on him. “Something like that will probably never happen again,” he enthuses. “So even if it was just for one year, I think the fans and everyone involved with the club will tell you it was a great experience.”
Having swapped the sunshine and sands of Spanish side Mallorca, where he had been playing in the club’s reserves, for a town of just 3,000 inhabitants Collin was an integral part of the Gretna side that started its first and only season in the top flight.
His stay in Scottish football was short, comprising just 19 games over five months. Collin never even played at the club’s home ground of Raydale Park, instead making the 160-mile round trip from his home in Carlisle to Fir Park in Motherwell, Gretna’s temporary home for the 2007-08 season.
“We used to train at the stadium [Raydale] sometimes,” he said. “But it was like training in the park. With no fans and small stands it didn’t feel like a stadium. I was surprised by just how small the place was. It was amazing that they had a team in the SPL. The club was full of eccentric people so it was an entertaining place to be at the time. The players would even know the fans. But the club gave me the chance to play in a good league against big teams like Celtic and Rangers, even if the circumstances were a little different.”
The club’s meteoric rise was, sadly, heading for burnout. First, the relationship between Mileson and manager Rowan Alexander began to fragment. Davie Irons was placed in charge of the team, with Alexander suspended. “That situation was a little confusing,” said Collin.
Then Mileson fell ill and became reclusive, and without his backing Gretna began their slide into extinction. “It did feel unstable and I think it was about December during that season that I became aware of the troubles,” says Collin.
“Obviously it wasn’t great news when the owner pulled out but he had put so much into that club. He grew that club from the bottom by himself. I’d left the club by the time he died, but that saddened me greatly. He was at every game and although he had his health problems he was always full of life.
“We were told quite early on [in the season] that we wouldn’t be receiving our salaries,” Collin added. “They got all the players together and told us we could stay at the club but if we did we wouldn’t receive any money. People think ‘oh he’s a football player, they’ll be fine’ but I had rent and bills to pay so at that point it became about finding a new club.”
Collin spent the final three months of his contract at Gretna on trial with several English clubs, including Preston North End and Wolves, before joining Greek side Panserraikos. But familiar problems arose for Collin, as his new team fell into bankruptcy and were demoted seven divisions as punishment.
“It certainly felt like my luck was out at that point,” he said. “Just like at Gretna I didn’t play any football after about March as I looked for another team.”
Collin returned to Britain with Wrexham, before joining Vitoria Setubal in Portugal, where he impressed, even prompting reports that he could return to Scotland with Celtic.
“They followed me while I was at Gretna and then continued watching me when I played in Portugal. I’d have loved that move. In Portugal transfers are always complicated, so in the end I’m not sure what happened but there was a definite approach from Celtic,” he said.
Instead, Collin made the move across the Atlantic to Major League Soccer with Sporting Kansas City, where he has since excelled. And tonight against Real Salt Lake he can cap his two-and-a half-year spell in the States with the one title that has eluded him. “Everything is so big in America,” he added. “This is a big football city and I’m not sure if there’s another place like it in the US, in that sense. The stadium is full every week and it’s going to be crazy [for the MLS Cup final].
“If I win the MLS Cup I’ll have accomplished everything. Best defender, best XI, twice All-Star and we won the US Open Cup last year, so I think I’ve proven how good I am and how I can make the move to a European team at the top level. That’s what I work hard every day for.”
The Parisian is a stylish operator on and off the pitch, designing his own line of clothing out of a fashion studio he has a partnership with in Kansas City. His signature style is coupling anything with a suit jacket and a fedora, perched slightly off centre on his shaven head. “Carlisle had no good stores,” he said about his home town while at Gretna. “Glasgow was a bit better.”
Every morning he makes a point of reading as many newspapers as he can so he can talk finances with a stockbroker friend of his. He fronts a video-advice column called ‘Collin’s Corner,’ where he mentors team-mates on life, fashion and woman. Collin is a colourful character, to say the least. You had to be to fit in at Gretna.