EVEN in the dire times he endured as a player across six years at Celtic, John Collins was never daunted by any cross-border assignment.
His self belief could rarely make the difference in the early 1990s, however, because, aside from captain Paul McStay, there was a paucity of players who could cut it in Europe.
The difference in the club to which he has returned as assistant manager is that the assembled group of players have become adept at negotiating tricky early rounds in the Champions League. It is an environment that Collins never experienced in his playing days with a Celtic side who were domestic also-rans. Indeed, in two of his six seasons at Parkhead, Celtic did not play in Europe. So, while it may not be ideal that the first competitive games for the management team he will form with Ronny Deila are second round Champions League qualifiers, Collins is understandably not quaking at the prospect, and is convinced his new charges won’t be either.
“They have been over it before and have done very well as they have qualified. So they will be looking forward to it as well,” said Collins, a Champions League semi-finalist with Monaco in 1998. “It’s a challenge early in the season but they have done it before so they can do it again. It’s a challenge also for myself and the manager, we need to get them ready but we have a terrific squad. They are at a good age, there are experienced boys aged around 28 and 29 so they are at the peak of their careers. We also have a good group of young players. So there’s a good blend in the dressing room.”
At the draw in Nyon, Switzerland, tomorrow Celtic – one of the top seeds – will discover who they will meet. The first leg is scheduled for 15/16 July, with the return the following midweek. In order to minimise travel costs for some of the smaller clubs, UEFA loosely regionalises draws for the earlier rounds. This format accounted for Celtic being paired with Cliftonville last year. They could return to Belfast next month, while other “local” opponents are The New Saints from Wales and Republic of Ireland champions St Patrick’s Athletic. Of the three, St Pat’s would be the trickiest opponent as they operate in a summer league that will resume this weekend after a short World Cup break. TNS would tickle because they play in green and white hoops.
The Nordic nations are also likely to be possibles, which sets up the delicious prospect of Deila’s first match being a return to former club Stromsgodset. The Norwegian champions, currently lying second in their summer league, would be preferable to Swedish title holders Malmö. In terms of degree of difficulty, this match-up would be the one Celtic would most hope to avoid.
They have made a storming opening to the defence of their summer title. Only one defeat in their first 12 matches has allowed them to build-up a six-point lead over second-placed Elfsborg. Malmö, who eliminated Rangers from the Champions League in 2011, boast Markus Rosenberg. The 31-year-old former Ajax, Werder Bremen and West Bromwich Albion striker has 33 caps and six goals for Sweden, and would pose an obvious threat.
Collins, whose new-old club could draw Icelandic side Reykjavik, isn’t devoting any headroom to draw-guessing. “We will just have to wait to see who we are going to face but like every football match, it’ll be what we do that counts. If we play well and, hopefully, get the breaks then we will qualify,” he says. “It’s early in the season so there’s not a lot of preparation. But that has been the case for the last few years so we know what’s coming. We just have to make sure that on Tuesday [when the players return to pre-season training] we get the work started and be ready for the big games. These are massive games even though they might not be against massive clubs. They are massive games for us to win and it’s vitally important that we do.”
Collins, who says it is a “regret” he didn’t play in the Champions League with Celtic, is energised by the prospect of being a coach in such a domain. The former Hibernian manager appears to be a like mind with his manager Deila in so far as both appear idealistic in their desire to play open football. Yet, Celtic’s last-16 success two seasons ago – especially the win over Barcelona – was built on defence. Collins has no concerns about the club’s management team requiring to compromise on their principles.
“When you lose the ball then you need to get behind it and defend deep. You need to realise that you won’t have the ball for periods of the game. I would never want to sit back for 90 minutes and see my team have no possession. [But] if you are 1-0 up with five minutes to go, then you’ll park the bus to get the result. I’m not naïve enough to think that you are going to be running the show from start to finish. You need to realise who the opponents are and be realistic.
“[When it comes to Barcelona] you are talking about an exceptional team. No team had a lot of possession against them, never mind Celtic. Barcelona in the last few years were from another planet. To go to the Nou Camp and nearly get a point is pretty special, defensively. It was a gutsy performance defensively. It was incredible, but not too many teams play like Barcelona.
“[If you are asking if I am still an idealist] I’ll always want my teams to dominate the game and control the ball. That’ll never change. I’ll always want that and I’ll always work towards that on the training pitch. The reality is that in some games you won’t be able to do that. You go up against better teams and better players and they will have more of the ball. But we will try to create chances and score goals. My mindset and methods in training and coaching will never change.”