Nathan Collins was making his way towards the team bus in Lodz on Tuesday evening when a diversion to chat with Irish media allowed him to take a brief break from his exploding phone.
It’s smoking,” smiled Collins, who admitted that he was looking forward to a holiday after the busiest period of his professional life to date, with the stress and disappointment of falling through the Premier League trap door followed by his Irish promotion and that amazing goal against Ukraine which has confirmed the view he is a special talent.
It came on the day that Burnley announced Vincent Kompany as their new manager, an individual who knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a top class centre half.
The Belgian once wrapped up a title for Manchester City with a long range thunderbolt, but he might even have struggled to produce the solo run through the Ukrainian defence which highlighted the athleticism and technical ability of a 21-year-old defender that loves to dribble.
He was a midfielder as a kid before his father David, a top player in his youth who was desperately unlucky with injuries after joining Liverpool, relocated his son to centre half with Cherry Orchard. “I was 13, maybe 14,” said Collins. “It obviously helped technically but I was training four times a week with matches at weekend. I had a ball at my feet all the time and I think that helped me technically, more than anything else.
“People look at me and see I’m tall and assume I am slow and unagile. That’s the perspective from the outside but I am comfortable in midfield. If someone asked me to play midfield and do a job, I’d do my best.”
Kompany will likely be identifying Collins as a key defensive figure with James Tarkowski and Ben Mee having said their goodbyes.
However, it appears inevitable that Burnley will receive offers for a 21-year-old that was on the radar of bigger clubs – Arsenal and Manchester United have tracked him since his Stoke days – before his £12m switch last summer. The logic was that Burnley would be a sensible step up the ladder that facilitated regular football and the chance to work with the well regarded Sean Dyche.
He had to be patient, and was only starting to enjoy a prolonged run brought about the unavailability of Mee before Dyche departed. Collins will now have to wait and see if Burnley want to sell as a controversial takeover has complicated their financial future. He’s yet to hear from Kompany, and joked that his first instinct was to ask Josh Cullen if he was coming with him.
“Josh said he’s a good man and I’m looking forward to working with him,” he said. “He’s a natural leader isn’t he? He was a top player and has done it at the top level. He has done a really good job with Anderlecht and, from the outside anyway, I think he is a top guy.”
Collins still chose his words carefully when asked if he would definitely be there, stopping short of declaring it with certainty. It might all prove to be out of his hands.
“Who knows where I’ll be in ten days, I don’t know myself,” was as far as he would go. “We will see what happens.”
His representatives are entitled to ask questions about Burnley’s direction for the sake of their client. On the face of it, a year as the main man with a strong Championship team learning under a master in his trade Kompany would be no harm.
Momentum is a big thing in any career, though, and Collins improved with every passing week once he got his Burnley chance. There was a last day slip up with the needless concession of a penalty but otherwise the curve was upward and it’s clear he brought that into his Irish performances. Collins was the outstanding Irish player against the Ukrainians, and that makes sense because he was the only starter to see regular Premier League action this term. Cream rises to the top.
The Championship is a high level league, and he experienced it in a variety of positions with Stoke, but perhaps better habits would be maintained if he continues to be challenged by the world’s best.
Maybe he needs to approach any opportunities with the same mindset that tempted him to go for glory when he seized possession on Tuesday. “I just saw the chance and thought ‘listen, if I don’t take it now, I never will’” he explained.
Elite players can do that. What was just as impressive was his ability to come down to earth and keep performing. Perhaps the whole defensive unit switched off after the interval for the Ukrainian leveller, yet Collins made a string of important contributions in the pressure period that followed, and the timing of all his interventions was right on the money.
He’s created a healthy problem for Kenny who can clearly see the benefits of using him in that central position. In doing so, it places scrutiny on the standing of Shane Duffy and if there’s a temptation to switch Duffy to the right of the three then where does Seamus Coleman go if Matt Doherty is available? In every scenario, big characters miss out.
But Collins is graduating to that status now. There’s always a danger of a hype train gathering too much speed and that will need to be tempered, yet this is where Collins’ steady background in a football family stands to him.
His father knows the pitfalls of the gig with David and his wife Michelle managing their son’s money when he penned a first pro deal, putting a portion of his wage into a separate account so he would have security in his life in case England ended early.
Individuals who have worked with him closely do not anticipate a captain through various underage groups to lose the run of himself.
There is a confident and chirpy streak behind the professional gameface, with Collins quipping that he would be ‘top seven’ in the Ireland squad in terms of pace.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could end up plying his trade with a Premier League club ranked in that bracket. On his well earned rest, he should probably keep that phone close at hand.