Football / FA Cup Countdown: Collymore's climb gathering pace: Southend's herculean striker has his sights set on Sheffield Wednesday. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
ON the last FA Cup Saturday morning Stan Collymore enjoyed a lie-in, a read of the papers and a giggle. Most of all he enjoyed a giggle.

There, shouting out at him from the daily prints, was the suggestion that he should be chosen to answer England's demand for goals in next week's turkey-shoot of a World Cup qualifying tie against defenceless San Marino. The same Stan Collymore of Southend United, 14 appearances and eight goals, and before that of Crystal Palace reserves and Stafford Rangers of the Vauxhall Conference.

Titter ye not. The young man who talks in the same Black Country tones as Steve Bull also shares the same menacing, marauding presence on the football field as his hero, the Wolves No 9, and is clearly destined for a bigger stage.

Give him the ball, point him towards goal and it is collywobbles among opposition defenders. And while a place at Wembley a week tomorrow is not on his itinerary, Hillsborough - and Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday - certainly is as the lads from the First Division basement dream of denying the Premier League form horses a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, hallowed ground on which Southend have never set foot in all their 87 years.

'We were up in Huddersfield for the last round when the lad I was rooming with threw me the paper and said: 'Have a look, they're saying you should be in the England team',' Collymore recalls. 'My reaction was to laugh. Not because I thought it was ridiculous but because it is something I have always hoped and believed might happen since I was grasshopper-high and to see it in black and white, albeit as speculation, seemed like an important milestone.

'It was a similar feeling when I scored my first goal in the First Division last season for Crystal Palace against QPR. The ball went in and suddenly everything exploded in my head. It's a moment you think about from the time you begin kicking a ball around in the school-yard with your mates and for it to come true is an unbelievable feeling.'

There were not too many 'unbelievable' feelings for him in an unhappy two years at Selhurst Park in which he made only four 'starts', although what takes most believing, in view of the progress he has since made, is that he was passed over when Palace were looking for replacements for Ian Wright and Mark Bright. Difficult to overlook you would think at 6ft 3in and 14 1/2 st.

'The problem was that Palace saw my future as a wide man while I wanted to play in my normal position of centre-forward,' he said. 'I tried to explain this to them but it didn't seem to make any difference. I was in a trough and had to get away.'

Wimbledon offered him an alternative long-ball escape route from his frustrations but a 'gut feeling' suggested he would be no better off. Southend had a more welcoming ring, their manager, the verbose Colin Murphy, proved a persuasive salesman, and a pounds 150,000 transfer was quickly struck. Two net-shakers on his debut last November against Notts County established a trend Collymore has been able to maintain and so far he has bagged all the goals on their FA Cup journey.

'Colin Murphy impressed me as an honest manager with a good knowledge of the game and I liked the plans he had for me. I just needed to feel wanted and this was my chance to make a name for myself. I thought I had that chance at Palace but it turned out to be no chance at all. I was told I had great ability but that I had to apply myself. The way I saw it was that if I got my chance I could apply myself.

'Now I have regular first-team football I'm thriving on it. All round I'm a much better player. It's 100 per cent commitment and you have to think all the time about how to get the better of an opponent and how to exploit a situation.

'I learned a lot about myself in the Huddersfield tie. On the coach to the ground I read the article again and my heart was pounding more than usual because I was aware people might have seen it and would expect something spectacular. When the game started I was able to put those thoughts out of my head and I scored both goals.

'Afterwards I remember feeling pleased that I was able to concentrate on my game and it showed I could handle the extra attention which is important if I am to go higher.'

Murphy was at Lincoln when he first caught sight of Collymore, and picked up his career with Stafford after his apprenticeship with Wolves came to an end - 'They had Steve Bull and Andy Mutch and there didn't seem much future for me'.

Life in the lower leagues provided more character enhancement - 'At 22 I've had my fair share of ups and downs' - and hard lessons were learned at the hard school where tough centre- halves show little mercy and even less understanding for the ambitions of young centre-forwards.

An appearance in a non-League representative XI helped earn him the invitation to the Palace. Coppell was at the game. Collymore knows that because his mates spotted him and approached him for an autograph.

'Who have you come to watch?' they asked. 'Never you mind,' was the guarded reply from Coppell, who then enquired of them who were the best players on view, little realising they had a special interest. 'The No 9, Collymore,' chorused the match-makers and before long the local hero was bound for South London.

Now he is bound for who knows where. The England team? Murphy for one is a believer and has told Collymore of his conviction. He was similarly convinced about the prospects for two other young and thrusting centre-forwards, Mick Harford and John Fashanu, who were under his wing at Lincoln and went on to serve their country.

'You say a lot of things to players at five to three to wind them up and make them perform for you,' Murphy said. 'Telling them they will play for England one day is different because you are putting your credibility and a personal relationship on the line.

'It was a mucky morning and the tide was going out of the Thames estuary when I pulled Stanley up in training and reminded him of one or two things and what he was capable of.

'I said the same to Fashanu, funnily enough in the grounds of a mental hospital where we were training. When he was capped he sent me his England shirt. I saw the postman coming up the path with this big parcel and I thought it was a bomb. I nearly sent it back but it was a lovely gesture. One day I will return it to him but just for the moment I prefer to keep it.

'Collymore can follow the same route. I don't see how anyone can keep up with him for pace or power. Added to that he has loads of natural ability. Who does he remind me of? Sammy Davis Jnr.'

This time it was safe to assume Murphy really was joking.

(Photograph omitted)

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