'I had one chance to make a positive first impression'- James Collins determined to make most of late Ireland shot
James Collins needed a moment to convince himself that he was not living through a dream as walked the doors of the Ireland team hotel for the first time in March.
A little over seven years after this late-blooming striker created his first headlines in a green Ireland jersey wit a hat-trick for the nation’s under-21 side in a European Championships qualifier against Liechtenstein, 28-year-old Collins had belatedly come of age.
Stellar performances leading the line for Luton Town in their effort to clamber out of the third tier of English football had attracted the attention of new Ireland boss Mick McCarthy and after he despatched his assistant Robbie Keane (inset) on a scouting mission to Kenilworth Road in February, Collins was given the seal of approval as he was called up for Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia.
Having spent his career in the lower leagues of English football playing for Shrewsbury, Swindon and Crawley, international recognition was a prospect that thrilled and daunted Collins in equal measure as he was handed his Ireland training kit and prepared for what felt like a trial to prove he was worthy of selection.
"Some of the lads in the squad would have had every right to look at a League One player and question whether he should be there," begins Collins, speaking exclusively to the Sunday World at Luton’s training base.
"It was a surreal experience walking into the Ireland hotel and being handed a training kit. You look around at all these familiar Premier League players and you have to convince yourself that you deserve to be there.
"I knew I had one chance to make a positive first impression in our training sessions and, thankfully, it went well for me. I didn’t play in the games, but I came away feeling I could play at that level and the fact that the manager has picked me for this upcoming squad suggests I must have done something right.
"It was a different world compared to what I am used to with my club each week. No disrespect to Luton, but you are treated like royalty when you turn up at the Ireland team hotel and it was a very special feeling.
"Seeing how these top Premier League players go about their business every day was a real eye-opener and guys like Seamus Coleman and Harry Arter were really helping in making me feel very much at home as part if the Ireland set-up.
"It was helpful that my first call-up came at a moment that was a new start for everybody. Mick McCarthy and his coaching team were making their introductions to the players and it was great to be there at the start of a new chapter for Ireland."
League One managers picked Collins as the division’s Player of the Year a few days before he helped Luton finish top.
It was a fifth promotion triumph for Collins and a good news story for a town that has become synonymous with negativity in recent years, with the positivity flowing in the direction of their star striker also welcome after his brush with infamy three years ago.
Collins hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons back in 2016 when he was at the centre of a boozy day out at the Cheltenham Festival with footballer pals, with videos of him urinating into a beer cup and throwing the contents over the balcony of their corporate box quickly going viral on social media.
Admitting he has struggled to erase the images of a day he will always regret, Collins hopes the interviews he conducts from this point forward will not be focused around the darkest day of his career.
"It gets a bit annoying when every reporter turns up to talk to me and wants to focus the story around that incident," states Coventry-born Collins, who qualifies to play for Ireland via Mullingar-born mother Rose.
"It’s probably the easy topic for journalists to talk about and I understand why they do it, but it would be nice to think that I’m creating headlines for the right reason now and the fact that you are here talking to me primarily about football confirms that.
"You learn from your mistakes and maybe what has happened to be in the past has helped me to become a better person and better footballer.
I’ve got a young family now and you have to grow up when that change comes into your life. Others are looking up to you for guidance and I" need to support them in the best way I can, so I have done a lot of growing up in the last few years.
"I don’t use social media anymore to ensure I didn’t get drawn into doing anything that would reflect badly on me and I have focused on what is important in my life and my career.
"Maybe the mistakes I made in the past helped me to realise what I needed to do. I’m probably fitter than I’ve ever been and that started last when I really looked after myself and came back from pre-season training in good shape and ready to go again.
"That helped me to have the best season of my career, winning the League One title with Luton and getting the Ireland call-up. Now I want to complete the story by winning my first senior Ireland cap."
Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick is likely to take the lone striker’s role as Ireland try to continue their unbeaten start to Euro 2020 qualifying with a challenging away game against Denmark on June 7th, but additional striking options will be needed for the home game against Gibraltar three days later.
That could be the night that sees Collins realise his dream of becoming a fully fledged Ireland international at last.