JOHN Collins recalls vividly the heady days of Scotland emerging from qualifying campaigns with a World Cup or European Championships to look forward to, and curses the acceptance across the nation that the world’s major tournaments now appear out of reach.
It does not have to be this way, he says. Mark McGhee, Scotland’s current assistant manager, spoke similarly this week of his disappointment at the Hampden faithful shrugging their collective shoulders at the defeats in the current qualifying campaign and how he and Strachan wanted to drive a fresh expectation.
But how? Collins has been a student of the game from his early days with Hibernian and Celtic, but his education moved on to a new level at Monaco and then with Everton and Fulham. After spells in management with Hibs, Charleroi and Livingston, he has stepped back into coaching, as opposed to managerial or director roles, in an effort to take a deeper look at where Scottish football is falling behind.
In the past year he has spent time in the company of leading coaches around the world, including Johan Cruyff, who explained to him his new approach at Ajax, and was invited to join the SFA in the summer by performance director Mark Wotte, as a part-time skills coach, available to all age-grade squads.
His desire and ambition remain as visible as when he started out as a creative midfielder in the professional game, and his belief that there is only one way to develop football has survived through the rocky periods in management, the brickbats thrown by Scottish players angered by alcohol bans and new fitness, conditioning and nutrition regimes.
“I tell you why it has survived,” he says. “Because I keep going back to Spain, Italy, Germany, meeting with players and coaches who have been among the best in the game, and we talk football and we’re on the same page.
“We talk about wanting to see football played the right way - passing and moving through the team. People might say that that’s just my opinion on how to play the game, but no, no, sorry. There are different ways to win games, yes, but there is only one proper way to teach players how to play football. It is called foot-ball, so we use the foot and players should know how to pass the ball and receive it.
“I won’t change certain people’s beliefs on the game, but I was fortunate enough to play in some good teams, with some phenomenal players, and the more my career moved on the more I saw a common link between the best players. They all played the game the same way, and it’s what I see when I watch Barcelona now. It’s fun, enjoyable.
“What I see here too often is a different style of football that does not involve every player on the park, and is not as enjoyable, either to play or watch. Still, we have too much ‘route one’ football; ‘keeper gets it and kicks it up the pitch, centre-forward wins a flick-on and the team might score a goal, or he knocks it down and everybody fights for the second ball. That’s what’s called a game of chance. A game of percentages. ‘Put it in there and there’s a chance it might fall to us’. That’s an uneducated, unentertaining way of playing football.
“When there’s a kick from the ‘keeper to the striker, the ball’s knocked down etc, your back four have not contributed once to that move. So there’s no development of those players, and they will never become top-class players because they’re simply not on the ball to be able to improve their skills and become comfortable on the ball, certainly if that’s the style of game they have played from a young age.”
As we discuss players from teams across the globe, Collins speaks of ‘footballer’, not ‘defender’, ‘midfielder’ or ‘striker’, insisting that that is also a difference in our approach to that in leading countries.
“We box players very early in this country. The big boys are centre-halves at the back, from a young, and aren’t supposed to take it on their chest, control it, play a one-two round the centre-forward, play it into midfield and take it back. Because they’re not being coached. Full stop. They are not being coached to develop as football players comfortable on the ball.”
Coaches will throw their hands up in horror at the suggestion they are not teaching the beautiful game the right way, but many will be. However, many are not, and those guilty of the long-ball can be seen as clearly on local council pitches as they can in the SPFL.
Having studied myself for SFA coaching badges and enjoyed it, with coaches from Germany, Italy, France and Spain alongside as students and teachers, what surprised me was the number of fellow Scots on the course, including high-profile ex-internationals and now well-known managers, who would laugh off the day’s lessons with the immortal line: ‘I’d like to see him try that with Scottish footballers’.
In truth, it was embarrassing. But, how do we change that? Collins possesses an alert mind and remains in good, physical shape for a man in his mid-40s, but that will come as no surprise to players at Easter Road who bemoaned challenges to beat him in training. Those that know him will not be surprised either to hear he has clear ideas on how Scottish football could change to get back on track with the development of the game in Spain, starting with new pitch zones for youth football and stricter assessment of coaches after their receive their licences.
“What I’d like to see probably from seven to 12-year-old, is a pitch split into three zones. It’s pretty straightforward. The ball has to go through each zone for you to score. It happens naturally abroad, but we could make it happen here.
“When the ball goes out for a bye-kick, the goalkeeper can’t kick the ball straight to the last zone where his strikers are. He has to start the game again with a pass to his defenders, and they have to find midfielders. It’s a simple rule change, but it would improve our game fundamentally by changing the outlook of coaches and players, who would need to learn how to pass and move, pass and receive.
“I see a lot of passion in our game, but not the technique; a lot of kicking and rushing, chasing and tackling, things that are never going to develop top-class footballers. Can we be bold enough to change the rules and try to change our approach to the game? Can we afford not to?”
But what if coaches do not want to change? Some will dismiss Collins as he has not made a success of himself as a top-level manager, but he works with coaches now for the SFA and through his long-standing commitment to the Coerver programme, launched by the late Dutch master Wiel Coerver, a UEFA Cup winner with Feyenoord who was nicknamed the ‘Einstein of football’.
At a recent conference, Collins showed match footage from Barcelona, Spain under-21s and the last full Spain match with Scotland, stopping it regularly to point out how the Spanish players created space, and played the ball out from the back.
“We have to educate. I was lucky. I learned as I grew up and from players at Hibs, Celtic, Monaco, Everton and Fulham about how to play with your brain. Football is a combination of brain, heart and legs working together. We all watch Barcelona and Spain, and the next morning everyone says ‘oh, did you Barca last night? Amazing eh? As if they’ve been born football Gods.
“I give them the same answer. Well, let’s try and copy them. How do they do it? And it’s actually pretty straightforward. They don’t kick the ball up the pitch when they’ve got it. They keep it. They all move because they all want the ball. When they go on the training pitch that’s all they do for ages, pass and move, pass and move, high work-rate, high tempo, looking for space, good attitudes.
“How many coaches have watched Barcelona and gone into work the next day and said ‘we’re going to play like Barcelona’ or ‘we’re going to try and play like Barcelona’?
“Well, if coaches don’t believe they can or won’t change we have to change them. They are developing our future. Assess every coach with an A or B licence coaching at their club and challenge them if their team is lumping the ball from the ‘keeper to the striker.
“If a coach is not practising what he or she has been taught through the licences, how to play proper football, their licence should be removed until they change their approach or are told ‘this job isn’t for you’. ‘We’ve assessed you, we’ve watched your team and you’re encouraging your ‘keeper to kick the ball up the pitch; there’s no development, and you’re not playing football. You’re playing ‘air-ball’ or ‘head-ball’, and so you’re no longer an A or B licence coach. Sorry.’
“Some might say that’s radical, but it has to happen. There has to be more rigorous assessment, because there’s not one module in any coaching course in Scotland that shows how to develop his team to kick balls up the pitch and coach his players to fight for the second ball, and ignore half of his team.
“That doesn’t exist on any of the courses, but go and watch a lot of Scottish football up and down the country and that’s how it starts. So we know that these coaches are not practising what they’ve been taught.
“People might disagree with me but we’re not qualifying for World Cups and European Championships for a reason, because we’re not doing the right work with kids and we’re not developing them as football players. And until we change and do that, across the country, we’re always going to be sitting, hoping that we might do it this time, we might get a lucky bounce of the ball or a referee’s decision, and sneak into a play-off. Or, which I hear a lot, we wait for the ‘golden generation’ to come through.”
Collins will not talk about the troubles he had at Hibs, but it is well documented that his beliefs were not shared by a core of influential players nor, ultimately, chairman Rod Petrie. And that may be Scotland’s problem, a belief that we are ‘not far away’, despite the evidence of failed qualifying campaigns and a domestic game regularly rubbished on the continent.
“We have some great coaches and some excellent young talent,” insists Collins, “but we have not qualified for a major championships for 15 years for a reason. It’s not bad luck.
“When Johann Cruyff returned to Ajax, the first thing he advised the board was that the club had to be taken over by ex-football players that were masters of their profession; guys who were educated and had the experience and skills to help every player develop.
“They now have ten ex-Ajax players coaching right through the club - Edwin van der Saar working with the goalkeepers, Jaap Stam with defenders, Brian Roy with wingers, Ronald and Frank de Boer, Marc Overmars and others are all involved. Do our clubs have the same approach?”
It is clear what he thinks. Collins is encouraged by the national team, however, and is looking forward to Tuesday’s Croatia match, believing that good foundations are being put in place by Strachan’s team for the next Euro qualifying campaign.
“The national team is the role model for our game, our kids, players and coaches, and Gordon is working hard to change the approach. The first half we saw in the win over Macedonia was the best they have played in a long time.
“Gordon picked the players who were the most skilful and comfortable on the ball. Little [Shaun] Maloney is outstanding, playing with confidence, wanting the ball, Steven Naismith has great skills, [Barry] Bannan and [Ikechi] Anya the same.
“We never had any big strikers, so we kept the ball on the grass, the movement was good and the man on the ball had lots of options, so there was a lack of tension in the bodies, which hasn’t been the case for a long time.
“I’ve watched, and played with, Scottish defenders for years getting nervous when the ball comes their way so hoofing it up the pitch. Coaches have told them to. Coaches give players confidence. Rather than saying ‘hey, you’ve got to clear your lines; what are you doing playing with the ball back there?’ encourage them to go and take a pass, show them how to make an angle, and how to find teammates, every week. They all then develop and become players.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s how football should be played. I’m not being negative.”
He adds: “I’m excited about what the future could hold for us. We can emulate Spain, and we can qualify for World Cups again, if we are prepared to change.
“I love coaching, coaching players and coaching coaches, and that, to me, is what will ultimately turn around Scottish football and get us back into World Cups. Gordon [Strachan] and Mark [McGhee] are great for Scotland and they are bringing a refreshing approach to the national side, but if we don’t change our culture below that it will count for nothing.”