Football: Collins adds a dash more culture to the Caledonian force

In elegant surroundings far from home, a Scotsman is successfully playing the locals at their own game. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE A Provencal primary school, a Scotsman who could land a football on a five-franc piece from 30 yards is attempting to flight a metal ball over a rather shorter distance so that it nestles near to a smaller wooden one. In France, mad dogs and petanque players go out in the mid-day sun.

John Collins has immersed himself whole-heartedly in French culture since joining Monaco under the Bosman ruling two summers ago. So it comes as a mild surprise to find that the Scotland vice captain's foray into the sedately compulsive local sport, also known as boule, is for the benefit of a phalanx of photographers rather than part of a new passion.

This evening, at St Etienne, Collins will exchange the gravel for the grass of the Stade Geoffroy Guichard. The aim will be the same - metronomic precision with a spherical object - but the stakes will be the highest for which the 30-year-old former Celtic and Hibernian midfielder has ever played.

Victory over Morocco in their last group match would take Scotland into the second phase of a major tournament for the first time, provided Brazil do not throw Norway a lifeline. A draw might even suffice, although Collins' characteristically positive attitude does not allow for such thinking.

"Morocco are a good team and they also have everything to play for," he reasons. "It's going to take an excellent performance to beat them. I don't believe an average one or a good one will win this game. But we've studied them closely on video, we've prepared well in training and we're up for it."

Collins played against two of the Moroccans, Moustafa Hadji and Abdelilah Saber, when Monaco met Sporting Lisbon in the Champions' League last season. Hadji, the scorer of a stunning goal against Norway on the first night of the finals, particularly impressed him.

"He's the guy Morocco look to find whenever they get the ball. He has the licence to go wherever he wants, and he's got skill and pace, so we'll have to watch him closely. But they're a gifted team, very comfortable on the ball, who'll play a totally different game from the one we encountered last week. Morocco push it around on the ground, whereas Norway like to play it in the air."

There is no doubt which style the quick-footed Collins favours. Happily, in Craig Brown he has a manager who shares his preference for passing the ball rather than launching it. Brown, moreover, has achieved the best record of any Scotland manager by marrying the "British" and "Continental" approaches.

"It's round, it's meant to roll on the ground, not fly through the air," argues the 5ft 8in Collins, echoing Brian Clough's dictum that if God had meant football to be played in the air, he would have put grass in the sky. "That's the way I was brought up anyway, and that's how the top clubs in Europe play."

He speaks from experience, having won the French championship with Monaco in his first season and knocked Manchester United out of the European Cup en route to the semi-finals this year. Collins was always an oasis of calm amid the frenzy of an Old Firm derby. Now, in tandem with Paul Lambert, who is with Celtic after winning Europe's Premier prize with Borussia Dortmund, he is helping to confront deep-rooted perceptions "back home".

"The style of football Paul played in Germany and I play here is like international football. There's a slow build up at the back, and nine times out of 10 the ball goes through midfield. The Celtic boys in this squad played a lot of good stuff on the deck last season too.

"The emphasis has to be on possession. The ball is a precious thing. If we've got it, the other team can't score. If we are moving it about, they're chasing it and running in the heat.

"The reason the Norwegians were going down with cramp was that we were making them run. When sides tire in the last 20 minutes of a match, that's when you cut them open and get your goals."

Collins was conducting interviews in French within weeks of moving to Monte Carlo and has been monitoring reaction to Scotland's displays in his adopted country. Brown's team are viewed, he says, as less typiquement Brittanique than Glenn Hoddle's England. "People have been pleasantly surprised by how we've knocked the ball about. They expected us to be more up-and-at-them, though I'd like to think those days have gone."

Like petanque, Scotland are playing a whole new ball game. However, the pride with which Collins recalls how they were still "going at" Norway in stoppage time shows that he understands the need for a balance between keeping position and the Scots' natural aggression. He is still embarrassed that their crudest performance of recent years came in the 0-0 draw with Estonia on Monaco's ground.

That night they seemed fixated by the height of Duncan Ferguson, who will be conspicuous by his absence in St Etienne. Instead, Collins and Lambert will seek to thread passes into the channels for their strikers; to pick our Craig Burley as he makes his David Platt-style surges from midfield; to execute the free-kick routines they rehearse so diligently; and to work the ball wide in order to exploit the Moroccan goalkeeper's reputed vulnerability on crosses.

The latest issue of France Football reports that Collins is coveted by Paris St-Germain. Any such talk, he insists, is "for the future, to be sorted out after the World Cup". Right now he is looking no further than Scotland's date with destiny and Morocco, although wherever he reports for pre-season training he expects to do so "with my head held high, knowing that we surprised everyone".