JOHN Collins knows from personal and painful experience that the delivery of exciting football is not automatically rewarded with silverware.
In 1995-96, his final season as a Celtic player, he was a key performer in a team which was lauded for the often scintillating quality of their performances under Tommy Burns. They lost just one league game in the whole campaign, yet still missed out on the title to Rangers.
That left Collins with just one winners’ medal – the 1995 Scottish Cup – to show for his six years at the club. Now he has returned as assistant manager to Ronny Deila, he knows a far higher ratio of success must be achieved if their tenure is to be a lengthy one. But Collins is not about to sacrifice the footballing principles to which he has always held firm as he and Deila look to maintain and extend the recent levels of domestic success Celtic have enjoyed. “Everyone knows at Celtic that you have to win, that’s what is expected of you,” said Collins. “But the target for the manager and myself is ‘can we win in style?’. That’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it? You want to win, but you want to win in style and entertain.
“It’s an entertainment business. We have a beautiful stadium and you want to fill it, you want the fans to come and see not just winning football, but attacking football with lots of goals.
“We couldn’t have played any better as a group of players for Celtic in that 95-96 season. That was probably our maximum. We were just unfortunate that Rangers were flying high and their goalkeeper [Andy Goram] was brilliant that season. That was hugely frustrating at that time for me, to only win one trophy as a Celtic player. Rangers were signing players from English Premier League clubs and from all over Europe. They were strong and we were always the chasing team.
“But the tide has turned now. Celtic are strong, very strong, and the secret is to try to keep us in that number one spot.”
Collins freely admits he was as much in the dark as anyone else when the news first broke two weeks ago that Deila was the man Celtic wanted to succeed Neil Lennon as manager. A quick Google search got him up to speed on the man who led unfashionable Stromsgodset to the Norwegian League title last year.
Collins then received a call from Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell to ask if he would be interested in being Deila’s No 2. After a couple of lengthy dinner meetings with Deila, there was no doubt in Collins’ mind.
“We had a long chat about Ronny’s football philosophy and we discovered we are very similar indeed,” added Collins. “It was a case of moving the salt and pepper pots around the table, that kind of stuff – I think the forks were involved as well! We met twice, once in Glasgow and once in Edinburgh, and got on so well he offered me the job.
“I didn’t know him at all beforehand. Like you guys, I went onto my computer and did my research. I watched his team playing and was impressed by what he had achieved at a small club with a small budget. He had taken on the big boys and been successful, which is the hardest thing to do in football. To have success that way, well it tells you he knows what he is doing.
“I was even more impressed when I met him. You can tell he’s motivated, he’s hungry and he knows what he’s talking about.”
Former Hibs manager Collins, who has most recently been coaching some of the Scotland youth international teams, has no qualms about stepping into an assistant’s role. He intends to freely offer his opinions to Deila.
Collins added: “Ronny is the manager and he’ll pick the team and systems. I’ll assist him but I’ll always give my opinion, and it will be an honest opinion. He will take it on board, but ultimately make the decisions.
“That’s how it should be. That was part of our discussion. It’s important we have that relationship. He’ll ask me questions and he’ll want my response and it might not necessarily be the response he wants to hear.
“When he makes the decision I’ll be assisting him and supporting his decision 100 per cent. Once the decisions are made, then we go as a team.
“I’ve had other offers to come back into club management but it’s never been right. My kids have been at important stages at school in the past five years, that’s probably one of the reasons I’ve stayed out of this side of the game. But this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I don’t need to move the family from home. I’ve got a nice drive through to a great training complex at a great club which runs smoothly.”
Although Collins’ departure from Celtic as a player 18 years ago was contentious, with club owner Fergus McCann infuriated by his Bosman move to Monaco, the former Scotland midfielder was always comfortable with his relationship with the club. “I’ve never spoken to Fergus since then but I like to think I gave Celtic good value as a player,” reflected Collins.
“I don’t think there was any acrimony. When I left here I was 28 and I’d had six years at the club. They were tough years as Rangers were flying high and spending fortunes. It was a tough time to be a Celtic player in those days – a tremendously challenging time – and it was a stage in my life where I needed a new challenge.
“Everywhere I go, I’ve always had a great rapport with the Celtic fans and, since the day I left, I have been treated wonderfully well by them. I think you always hope as a player when you leave such a big club, and great club, that one day you’ll come back. So I’m delighted to be here again.”