Football: Collins relishing the derby delirium

Phil Shaw finds Everton's midfield maestro delighted to be involved in the thick of a full-blooded local spat

JOHN COLLINS has heard a lot about the friendly rivalry Everton and Liverpool fans reputedly enjoy, and would like to believe that the couples who arrive together for derby games decked out in opposing colours are no mere Merseyside myth. "If you did that in Glasgow," the Scot says, "you'd get lynched."

Collins, who plays for Everton in today's head-to-head at Goodison Park, speaks from experience, having represented Celtic in some two -dozen high- octane affairs against Rangers. The 30-year-old midfielder is also steeped in Edinburgh's little local difficulty and has even sampled the French variety.

This afternoon's collision of the blue and the red is the first since Walter Smith, himself a former Rangers manager, paid pounds 2.5m to bring Collins from Monaco in July. Everton and Liverpool have been meeting for more than a century - only the Old Firm go back further - but Collins is expecting, well, the unexpected.

"A derby is unique and totally unpredictable," he explains. "You can be on the worst run possible, with all your key players off form. But if you score first, especially early on, the crowd responds and confidence floods through you."

Another characteristic, notes Collins, is the "frenzied" tempo. A past Everton manager and player, Joe Royle, once summed up what the game with Liverpool was like. For the first 20 minutes the teams went at each other, hammer and tongs. Then someone threw the ball on.

The Glaswegian contest, with its sectarian overtones, is, if anything, more explosive. The ball shoots around at pinball pace and neither side takes any prisoners. An unsuitable context, it might seem, for Collins to assert his subtle skills. However, it was in the epic battles with Rangers, as much as in Scotland's colours, that he established his reputation as a big-game player.

"The atmosphere is the most intense I've ever known. The build-up starts days, often weeks before, with the fans and the media all asking you about it. When you finally go up the tunnel, the volume of noise that hits you is unbelievable. Some players thrive on it, others are intimidated by it. I always loved it.

"The games fly by in a blur. At Ibrox there's an electronic clock. You'd look up and see there was 43 minutes gone when you thought you'd only just started. But that was also a sign of how much you were enjoying it."

Any striker would be proud to claim Collins' scoring record in the fixture. His first goal against Rangers, in 1993, helped to end Smith's staggering 44-match unbeaten run. "We ran over to celebrate in front of the Jungle (the terrace where Celtic's most fervent followers massed)," Collins recalls. "Rangers quickly got the ball to the centre spot and kicked off before we were all back in place. There would have been a riot if they'd scored."

He struck again later that year when Celtic won at Ibrox in Lou Macari's first match in charge, and repeated the feat on Tommy Burns' managerial derby debut. In between came a meeting that remains unique because Rangers, taking a stand in a dispute over damaged seats, refused Celtic a single ticket. Collins beat both the ban and the home goalkeeper.

"There were supposed to be 45,000 Rangers fans and none from Celtic. I helped a friend get a seat but when I scored from a free-kick he didn't dare jump up. It was weird. All you could hear was our players screaming `Yesssss!' I didn't know where to run because there was no Celtic end, so I sprinted towards the dug-out. That goal will stay with me the rest of my life."

All the more so because Collins bent in an eerily similar set-piece - from exactly the same spot on the pitch - when the rivals next convened. He has a sequence of pictures of the goal, taken from the opposite end, illustrating the ball's cunning trajectory and the reactions of the Rangers faithful.

In the first, when the ball appears to be drifting wide, the faces betray no more than wariness. In the next, as it starts to curl in, mouths open and eyebrows rise. When it hits the net (and here, Collins' description becomes particularly animated), heads lurch back in horror or are buried in hands.

Squeezing a shot past Andy Goram was an achievement in itself. Collins cites the former Rangers goalkeeper as the ultimate example of the player inspired to superhuman heights by the parochial nature of the conflict. "He could be having a bad spell by his own standards, but the only way to describe some of his point-blank saves against Celtic was miraculous."

Goram's equivalent in the Edinburgh spat was the diminutive Hearts forward, John Robertson. "What a record he had against us," Collins says, donning his Hibernian hat. "Again, it didn't matter whether he'd been having a barren run and was down as substitute. He'd come on and score off his shin or his backside. He was brought up a Hibs supporter but always saved his best for when he played against them."

In Collins' time, Hearts enjoyed an extraordinary ascendancy over their neighbours. "They went something like 20 derbies unbeaten. We'd always say: `This is going to be the one we win'. But they kept coming out on top."

When his contract with Hibs was up in 1990, Collins had to choose between Celtic and Rangers. At 9am one day he met Ibrox officials. By 10.30am he was in talks at Parkhead. "Playing for Celtic was my boyhood dream. I'm always asked if I could have played for Rangers. It would have been difficult but I like to think the answer is yes, because I'm a pro."

After six years at Celtic he joined Monaco under the Bosman ruling. His first season brought a championship medal. The second saw them reach the semi-finals of the European Cup. But while the emphasis on technique suited Collins, and his family loved the Monte Carlo lifestyle, there was something missing.

Monaco's crowds rarely rose above four figures and there was no local enmity to stir the principality's residents. "We did play Nice and Cannes in Cote d'Azure derbies," Collins recounts, "but there was no passion. It was different against Marseilles. We were seen as the rich man's team and they were the working man's club, so there was a full house when they came."

The decibel level should be to his liking today. One theory suggests that Liverpool, with more Merseysiders in a relatively settled line-up, will respond better to the clamour. Everton, after all, are in transition, their side containing one player, the debutant Ivory Coast striker Ibrahim Bakayoko, who can barely speak English, let alone Scouse.

Collins disagrees. "If you've been brought up in the area you feel you've let down your family and friends if you lose. From my experience at Celtic I'd say there's more pressure on the local lads.

"Everywhere I've gone in the last few weeks, the Liverpool fans have told me what they're going to do to us and the Evertonians have been saying: `You've got to beat them'."

The sense of anticipation, the jokes and the jibes are all signs, according to Collins, the derby connoisseur, of "a real football city".

THE WORLD'S GREAT DERBIES

FLAMENGO v FLUMINESE Rio de Janeiro

In Rio de Janeiro, football rivalries are drawn along battle lines of wealth and poverty - the team of the slum-dwellers, Flamengo, have a vulture as their club symbol, while Fluminese, traditionally the side of the rich, are known as "white powder" - a nickname gained when they started throwing white powder at Flamengo's darker-skinned players. Fluminese fans are also touchy about the fact that Flamengo's football tradition is more glamorous, having fielded players such as Zico, Socrates and, more recently, Romario.

BOCA JUNIORS v RIVER PLATE Buenos Aires

Similar to the Rio derby in so far as River Plate, founded by English immigrants, are seen as the "rich" club, while Boca represent the slum districts. Boca are renowned for their tough, uncompromising style both on and off the pitch (their brava brava fans are the most notorious in Argentina), while River Plate fans demand style from their team. Think Wimbledon against Tottenham in front of 100,000 fans.

FENERBAHCE v GALATASARAY Istanbul

Graeme Souness clearly underestimated the level of feeling for this match when, as manager, he planted a Fenerbahce flag in the Galatasaray centre- circle - an act which led to much slaughtering of goats around Istanbul. The British influence clearly rubbed off, however. The opportunity to study the technique of Barry Venison and Dean Saunders at Fenerbahce helped results improve at both club and international level.

CELTIC v RANGERS Glasgow

Arguably Britain's biggest derby, if only because both teams are perennial title contenders. Political and religious backgrounds separate the supporters as much as football: Celtic's Catholics versus Rangers' Protestants. The atmosphere is always highly charged despite the teams meeting at least four times a season and now fielding as many foreigners as Scots.

REAL v ATLETICO Madrid

Real Madrid are one of the aristocrats of European football and cast a giant shadow over their neighbours, Atletico. The Bernabeu stadium is situated in the middle of Madrid's thriving financial district while Atletico play in less impressive surroundings near the local prison. Real's seven European Cup final victories do not impress the Atletico chairman, Jesus Gil, though. The man who practically owns Marbella has put billions of pesetas into knocking Real off their perch. His finest hour came when Atletico won the league and cup double in 1996.

LAZIO v ROMA Rome

The Roman clubs may not have quite the glamour of the Milanese duo, but they have more passion. Between them they can boast only three Scudetti (Italian championships) - two for Roma and one for Lazio, and their relative lack of success has made results in the derby all the more important. Roma's high point came in the European Cup final in 1984, but it proved a crushing disappointment when they lost to Liverpool on penalties in their own Stadio Olimpico. Lazio clearly feel their best is yet to come, having recruited Vieri, Salas, De la Pena and more over the summer.

AMERICA v UNAM (PUMAS) Mexico City

A good example of a city derby that does not breed overwhelming animosity. America are one of Mexico's two biggest teams, and their fans direct most of their ill-feeling towards the other big club, Guadalajara. The atmosphere is at its best when the match is played at the Azteca stadium, scene of the 1970 and 1986 World Cup finals, and normally provokes a riot of flag- waving and colour among a good-natured crowd. However, Puma's 3-1 win over America last Monday may change that.

CSKA v LEVSKI SOFIA Sofia

In a Bulgarian league a little short of glamour, the people of Sofia have to make do with one of Europe's fiercest derbies. CSKA were originally the Communist army team and Levski have great support among the city's police, making the game an opportunity for settling scores. However, with Hristo Stoichkov now playing in Japan, his former club CSKA are faring about as well as the Communist army as they languish in mid-table - all the more embarrassing as Levski are top of the league.

BENFICA v SPORTING LISBON Lisbon

Graeme Souness's Benfica are a club in financial crisis and, with past glories now very distant, fans are desperate for a return to the European Cup-winning days of the early 1960s. Whether Scott Minto and Mark Pembridge are really the players to do that remains doubtful but, for now, Benfica are battling for leadership of the league. In recent years Porto have dominated Portuguese football, but Benfica do have the satisfaction, of playing in the Stadium of Light, one of Europe's premier grounds. Not to be confused with Sunderland's equally magnificent facility, of course.

Compiled by Piers Newbery

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