Sunday 19 November 2017

Innocence lost in clubs' mad dash for next star

Eamonn Collins recalls the day when at only 14 he stepped into the shoes of Sir Stanley Matthews

Football has always been in too big a hurry to resist hopping the turnstile out of adolescence. Patience is death in the game. As soon as a gifted kid outgrows his first bike, clubs begin thinking of him in a different way.

Childhoods end overnight, sometimes painfully. This week, the flashbulbs blazed around a 15-year-old south London schoolboy who's just made his debut for Crystal Palace.

John Bostock is, reputedly, attracting the interest of Barcelona and Manchester United. He is described as Palace's brightest prospect in the 102-year history of their academy.

Bostock's appearance at the weekend, as a second-half substitute against Watford, has, predictably, drawn comparisons with the great Duncan Edwards who was 16 when he first made it onto a Matt Busby team sheet. You see, Bostock took the leap to manhood at 15 years and 289 days.

The headlines, needless to say, imply a golden future. But headlines guarantee nothing.

Eamonn Collins, staggeringly, was almost a year younger than Bostock when thrown into an Anglo-Scottish Cup quarter-final for Blackpool 27 years ago. Collins was actually 14 years and 323 days the night World Cup winner Alan Ball used him as a second-half substitute against Kilmarnock.

Unlike Bostock, he wasn't in the comfortable bosom of family, let alone the familiar surrounds of home.

Collins recalls: "I was living in digs on my own, which was the most difficult thing. But I can't honestly say it was daunting. In many ways, I was living the dream. Playing football and being paid for it. At that stage, I was getting £8 a week as a 14-year-old. I wasn't used to having eight pence a week, let alone £8 in Dublin."

A child of Inchicore, Collins too walked into a blizzard of media attention as Ball's plans to use him that night began to seep out of Bloomfield Road. To begin with, the Dubliner suspected it to be an elaborate prank. He remembers: "I was playing in the under-18 league and doing quite well. On the Saturday, I played against Manchester United and scored two. That Monday I was just back to my normal jobs, getting all the coaches' kit ready, cleaning the players' boots. From eight till ten, I did all my jobs.

"After that I was going out to train with the youth team and some of the reserves. Then the first team coach, Ted McDougal, came over to me and said 'Eamonn, you're training with the first team today.'

"I honestly thought it was a wind-up. They were playing a lot of practical jokes on me at the time, with me having just arrived over from Ireland at 14. Doing a lot of silly stuff. So I just kept on walking over towards the youth team. Then Alan Ball shouted across 'Come over Eamonn, you're training with us.' Only then did I realise it was serious."

The attendant media focus took his breath away. Collins had a routine of phoning his Da just once a week. The call would usually be put through to either Slatterys or McDowells in Inchicore as there was no phone in the family home. So, every Sunday evening at six, regular as clock-work: "Could I speak to Michael Collins please..."

When father and son spoke that Sunday, there had been no mention of the Kilmarnock game. Usually they chatted as much about St Patrick's Athletic as they did about Blackpool. And anyway, Eamonn had little reason to anticipate what was coming.

"Rumours started to break on the Monday afternoon that I was going to be involved," he remembers. "A lot of media people seemed to have heard that. My landlady, Mrs Thompson, was getting numerous phone calls from people looking for interviews.

"By Tuesday, RTE, the Evening Herald and the Evening Press had begun to take an interest. I was live on John Craven's Newsround on the BBC. Lots of stuff happened before the game. It was all new to me. I had just left school and I wasn't getting a lot of guidance because I didn't have my family with me."

Collins' debut would carry a special resonance on Bloomfield Road. Until then, the youngest player to play for the club had been Sir Stanley Matthews. This Irish kid was, in other words, walking in the footprints of a God.

He remembers the dressing-room beforehand, the sense of mischief and banter flying many miles above his head. "It was different," he chuckles. "Certainly, there were things going on in there, things being said that I didn't know a lot about. But they were really good to me, good guys, good professionals.

"I mean they were taking the mickey. When I put on the jersey, I tucked it in and it was coming out the bottom of my shorts. I was getting a little bit of a ribbing for that."

Ball threw him in for the last half-hour and he acquitted himself well. "Should have scored," he chides himself. The year was 1980. Eamonn Collins, at just 14, had stepped into the shoes of Stanley Matthews. He stood 5ft 6 in height and weighed 8 stone 2.pounds A nipper.

"People ask me now do I think it was good or bad for me," he says. "I don't think it was either. I mean, it was great to break the record and play at such a young age, but it also raised expectations. People expect you to go on and, possibly, be something ridiculous. The next George Best, that sort of thing.

"But, at that age, nobody really knows how good a player you can be."

As it happened, Collins developed a deep affinity with Ball and would follow him to Southampton, Portsmouth, Colchester (where Ball was assistant manager to Jock Wallace) and, finally, Exeter City.

Superstardom never came his way, but he did make a decent living in the game. Indeed, Collins' own 16-year-old son, Joe, is now on the books of Portsmouth and a member of Sean McCaffrey's Irish youths team heading for Germany later this month. "I'm ribbing him that I was nearly getting my pension at that age."

Eamonn reflects: "There's a lot more to professional football than just being a very good, technical player. It's about how you get on mentally. How you develop physically. What type of coach you get, what type of people are around you.

"The biggest danger is the expectation can become unreasonable. People sometimes can hype you up a little bit before you're ready to really kick on. They expect you at 15 and 16 to be an absolute world beater when you're probably not even ready to be playing first-team football."

John Bostock is expected to travel as a member of the Crystal Palace squad for tomorrow's Championship game at Scunthorpe. Beyond that?

Anyone's guess.

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