Down defender Gerard Collins looks forward to Mournemen's clash with Tipperary
GERARD Collins’ fledgling inter-county career epitomises the often topsy-turvy 21st century world of Down football.
The Downpatrick defender made his debut in 2015 and, despite missing last season, he has already played in three divisions under three different managers.
First called up by Jim McCorry, he fell out of favour under Eamonn Burns and departed the scene in the second of his three years in charge. When Burns stepped down Collins was brought in from the cold by Paddy Tally who has since slotted him back into a defence that was crying out for his man-marking quality.
“In the second year when Eamonn was manager I wasn’t getting much game-time – for one reason or another – and after the Ulster final I left the panel,” he explains.
“Paddy rang me in October and said he wanted me to come back in for trials. He had scanned around a lot of the county, Benny Coulter is in with him and he has the inside scoop on Down football so there was quite a few players trialled over the winter months.
“I was away in Australia for a month and I told Paddy that when he rang but he was very understanding, he just told me to give him a call when I got back.
“I came back in December and started training and I’ve got on well. I played the majority of the League and things are going well. I got a few games and got to stay in the squad.”
Stability, on the pitch and off it, is what Down need now. There are some promising youngsters emerging and it is vital that Tally, who has made good progress in his first six months at the helm, keeps them together as he builds for the future.
“The management team are very down-to-earth,” says Collins and there are echoes of the late John Morrison’s axiom ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ as he touches on Tally’s man-management style.
“The way they’ve managed the players has been refreshing because man-management is an important part of it and they have it in abundance. After training or matches, Paddy or one of the other boys would strike up a conversation with you and it mightn’t even be about football. You wouldn’t always have got that in the past.”
In the Ulster quarter-final on May 12, Tally was minus 14 of the players who had beaten Armagh two years previously. With fresh faces throughout the squad, the Down manager has been careful to keep the experienced backbone of the team intact.
“There is a team building there and in this first year it’s critical to get a few wins going in the Qualifiers and see where it takes us,” said Collins.
“The young boys who have come in have been very, very impressive – even from a physical aspect. Boys like Daniel Guinness and Pierce Laverty… They’re athletes as well as footballers.
“There’s a squad there to build with and there’s a good blend with the likes of Kevin McKernan, Benny McArdle and Conor Maginn who have been around and the younger generation coming through.”
Employed by Newry-based First Derivatives, Collins is currently working for AIB in Dublin. His team-mates on the bank’s star-studded football team include Galway’s Ian Burke, Eoghan McHugh (Donegal) and Stephen O’Brien, the Tipperary star who’ll be in the away changing rooms at Pairc Esler on Sunday when Down meet Tipp in the first round of the Qualifiers.
The Mournemen will be desperate to claim a Championship win that will put some meat on the bones of a season that, to put it a little bluntly, has promised more than it has delivered.
“Stephen’s a big, powerful lad, he can kick with both feet and he can takes scores so we’ll have to watch him,” said Collins who is unlikely to come into direct contact with his work colleague on the pitch on Sunday.
O’Brien operates around midfield while Collins is certain to be handed a man-marking role on one of the Tipp dangermen: maybe Michael Quinlivan, or perhaps Conor Sweeney?
He picked up Jamie Clarke in Down’s Ulster opener against Armagh and tenaciously restricted the Crossmaglen native to two points – one early, the other late – in a nail-biting, extra-time thriller.
“I knew in the week running up to the game that I’d be marking him,” he explains.
“Everybody was given their own jobs and the way the game went, with Caolan (Mooney) getting sent off, it changed everything about because I thought we were comfortable at that stage.
“These things happen and you have to learn to adjust. You can take positives but we’re out of the Ulster Championship, we’re watching it on TV instead of playing in it, which is disappointing.
“We showed the fighting spirit to get back into the game against Armagh but we were three points up in extra-time and we have to learn how to close games out too.
“There were a lot of boys in the team who were making their debuts so we can take positives from there but the main thing now is to beat Tipp and get a bit of a run going in the Qualifiers, get a bit of momentum going. That will be important for this young team.”
He says there was “doom and gloom” in the Down dressingroom after that loss to Armagh but it was tempered by a sense of pride and optimism. The Mournemen had been five points behind with red-carded Mooney watching from the stand and their fans must have had one eye on the exits before Down produced a stirring comeback that took them to the brink of victory.
“It was doom and gloom afterwards,” says Collins.
“There was a huge effort over the 90-100 minutes but it didn’t go our way in the end. On another day we could have been sitting in an Ulster semi-final.
“We got the Monday off and we were back at it on the Tuesday night, we were back out on the pitch, training away and there was no let-up. There’s no point sitting dwelling on your past performances, we knew there was a Qualifier coming up and training has been full speed since the Armagh match.
“We’ve got a couple of boys back who weren’t involved in the Armagh game – Benny McArdle and Johnny Flynn and young Kieran Harney is back and playing well – so there are more options and a bit more strength-in-depth so things are going in the right way.”