'I was young and naive but I am a different player to six years ago' - Collins

WAITING GAME: James Collins at squad training. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Aidan Fitzmaurice

It took a mere nine years after he scored a rare hat-trick for the Ireland U21 side but international football should, finally, take off for striker James Collins in Dublin tomorrow.

And even with struggles on and off the field, including a potentially career-damaging incident at a race course involving a pint glass full of urine, the 28-year-old says he never abandoned hope that a spell in the green shirt could come his way.

With three goals from six league games for Championship side Luton Town this season, Collins is the most in-form Irish striker in England (bar Paddy Madden, in a league below).

That form alone may not have been enough to get him a cap but last week's withdrawal of Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick from the Irish squad leaves Mick McCarthy with only two recognised forwards, Collins and Scott Hogan, and while Stoke player Hogan is expected to start at home to Bulgaria tomorrow, Collins should get a run at some point.

The squad for tomorrow has a batch of players who are late starters in international football and Collins says even in hard times, he never gave up hope.

"I never thought it was completely gone," says Collins, who has not played for Ireland at any level since he won his last U21 cap, alongside the likes of Shane Duffy, Robbie Brady and John Egan at home to Turkey, back in 2012.

"I did know myself that I'd have to play at a higher level to be recognised and I've worked my way up really hard to get myself back to where I am today.

"I believe that getting into the Ireland squad has been repayment for working hard and doing well over the years.

"The way I play at club level has got me my call-up and hopefully it will get me my chance.

"Obviously that's what the gaffer wants from me and I'm sure if I was to make my debut he would tell me what he wants from me.

"I'm the type of player that whatever he wants from me, I'll do it.

"So, I think I've just got to play my normal game, do what he wants from me, what's required, and hopefully that will be enough."

His club career dipped at stages after he left Aston Villa but he found himself in real trouble in 2016 when Collins and Samir Carruthers, also a former Ireland underage cap, were photographed urinating into a pint glass while on a balcony at Cheltenham race course.

The pair apologised, were fined by their clubs and also banned from all UK race courses for two years, an incident which hung over Collins for a long time.

"I think a lot of players get a bad reputation in the media," he said in Dublin yesterday.

"When you are young you do silly things, but I've worked really hard over the years to make sure my stuff on the pitch was really good, so people would forget about that side.

"I was maybe young and naive, but now it's a completely different James Collins to what you would have seen five or six years ago."

He battled through in the lower leagues, helped Luton get promoted last season and also played a role as they took well to life in England's second tier.

Now, he is on the verge of becoming the first Luton Town player to win a senior cap for Ireland since Ashley Grimes played in a friendly against Romania in the build-up to Euro 88.

"If it does happen, it would be a massive honour, a massive thing in my career, to get a cap for the first team.

"It's been a while since I scored for Ireland, back with the 21s," he says of a hat-trick against Liechtenstein in 2011, when Collins scored three and Shane Duffy scored one, an outcome he'd relish tomorrow night.