INTERVIEW: The curious case of Roddy Collins

He’s as unpredictable as he is exciting, as controversial and divisive a figure to some as anyone there’s been in Irish football, says Ewan MacKenna.

He’s been called things you wouldn’t print in a family newspaper, but his colourful life is more about character and defiance than eccentricity.

The madness of Roddy Collins.

The first time you experience it is in the Newstalk studio during a panel debate, as the show cut to an ad break and he started to ask about work that was going in newspapers.

He mentioned his own column from the time, promoted and sold himself with the churn of a used-car salesman and even a return to air couldn’t stop him as he simply put his hand over the microphone and finished his spiel.

Seconds later, when he did get back onto the afternoon’s topic, his impeccably-dressed self was so animated that he left his chair to play out a story in actions as well as words, throwing gestures frantically while forgetting it was radio and the present audience was three, not thousands.

Whether he didn’t care about others and their opinions, or cared too much, he was still infectious, funny and hard not to like. For a man as divisive as he is energetic, it’s a summation that will surprise many and irk some.

Collins may not represent a more cautious and careful present for the League of Ireland, as this weekend it again responsibly tip-toes forward on more solid ground, yet he does represent so much of the weird, wacky and occasionally wonderful of its quicksand past.

But what perhaps sums up Collins better than any anecdote is that the first key to interviewing him is to make sure you don’t libel him and the second key is to make doubly sure that he doesn’t libel someone else.

Of course, you’d been told not to expect the norm long beforehand. Back in the days of the late Sunday Tribune, a former colleague, Malachy Clerkin, had gone to spend time with him at Carlisle United.

It was all-access with a manager who feeds on attention rather than scurries from it — that is until an away game at Oxford; Collins was worried about his players’ reaction to a journalist in the dressing room.

But he had a half-baked yet workable solution only he could come up with. Hide Clerkin in the toilets of the Kassam Stadium during the interval.

“You couldn’t let the players know, it’d break their concentration,” he laughs. “I just said to Malachy, before the half-time whistle goes, to head up the tunnel and get into a cubicle and stay there.

I said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll hear me,’ so I gave it an extra bit of volume. But you have to have a bit of craic. It’s a game, an entertainment business. I do take it seriously but you have to have a laugh at the right times and for the right reasons. That’s no harm. Life isn’t all serious, you know.”

It’s a mantra he repeats as you try to pin down his hyper mind. And he has plenty of anecdotes to back up his carefree attitude. He recalls his schooling of a journalist in a post-match interview for the amusement of a crowd as he started signing “I will survive” — one that’s worth a YouTube visit.

He recalls his slip-up when commentating on Sporting Fingal’s loss in the cup final on RTÉ, saying manager Paul Cook was probably going home to batter his missus — “What a mad thing to say. I could have said he’s going home to choke the daughter or put his head in an oven, but then that would have come back to suicide.”

He recalls a trip for TV3 to the Tallaght Stadium and a quick sojourn into the Maldron Hotel beforehand. There, he ran into hundreds of Shamrock Rovers supporters and before long the room was chanting “Roddy Collins, he’s a wanker, he’s a wanker.”

The same thing happened when watching a game in Drogheda with his wife. “My favourite song,” he told her.

Indeed as a curious onlooker at a Rovers-Bohemians game at Dalymount Park during your college years, it was no different. Standing with visiting fans that were spitting out the very same words, Collins turned and jokingly conducted their taunts with a smile.

“I love the supporters of all clubs,” he adds. “I’ve given them umbrellas when it rained, lifts in the car, bought them drinks in bars. There have never been a lot of problems, except up North in the Troubles really.

When I played up there, I took a lot of sectarian stick, which I can understand but I also took life threats down the phone. I was told I was getting a bullet on a few occasions and when I was getting it. I told a fella that called to make sure he gets me between the eyes and doesn’t leave me in a wheelchair. That didn’t go down well. I had the nuts taken off the car wheel and one came off on the motorway one day.

“But after all that political stuff, the only time it went too far really was a game in Sligo. I was coming out of the ground and there was a bus of Derry supporters and one threw a full can of beer and it whistled by my head.

"If it connected, that would have been difficult because I would have had to defend my title then and there would have been a row.”

That memory though is in the past, like so much else. Indeed given the hop-scotch of his management career, it’s no surprise those same fans were behind his most recent attempt at redemption that ended last May at the Brandywell.

However, the journey is always far more telling than the next destination and in that regard, it’s hard to know where to begin with Collins as there’s been so many starts and false starts, falls and climbs.

He reckons he could have been an excellent footballer for instance, but hated a month as a youth player at Arsenal, loved a summer tour with Wolves as an U21, signed for Bohemians with an understanding he’d go back and then broke his leg.

It took him two years to recover and by then, he’d been thrust into the journeyman career that soccer here provides.

“It was different alright. I remember I chinned a lad who was giving me a lot of abuse from behind the goal. Roaring all sorts — a gobshite. And the funny thing was I knew his father-in-law.

"I actually stopped during a game and said, ‘Show me who you are,’ and he didn’t. So I planted my uncle in the crowd the next day, he pointed him out after, and I gave him the right hand. I see him now and he’s okay but that time he was a bollocks.

“But those days were full of stories. With Athlone, we went to Liege for a European game and never touched the ball. I turned around to my strike partner and he says, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be out of here soon, it’s eight o’clock’.

"I said, ‘That’s the scoreboard you fucking eejit’. We were eight down. I was chasing their third central defender all night and when it ended, it was the closest I got to him and I asked to swap jerseys. He was about 6’3’’, chiselled, bronzed, big shock of oily, black hair.

"About 28,000 at the game and off came his shirt. I said, ‘Would you mind if I take mine off up the tunnel?’ My milk white body, no definition, coming off a building site in Dublin. For private viewing only.

“I remember going into the dressing room after, Turlough O’Connor was on a rant and he looked at me. ‘Where the fuck did you get the jersey?’

‘I swapped it.’

‘Well swap it back; we’ve only one set of kits.’

In fairness their lad let me keep it and they sent us over a skip full of kit. That was the level but before that, the broken leg and what might have been, it’s something you look back on.

I met Billy McNeill and he told me that he was going to sign me for Celtic. When you hear that, it kills you. Spurs, Man United and Celtic were the clubs talked about. You can’t go back though.”

You look at Collins and wonder about the experiences and maybes that make up a man. He says he didn’t let that affect him and you believe him. But other things did affect him and behind the occasional rent-a-quote facade, you want to know more about the real him.

So maybe the place to start with Roddy Collins is far more recently. After all, it’s then he realised that a brutal and sudden stop hurts most when you’re travelling good and fast.

Collins takes another sip from the mug in front of him and then insists on making something very clear.

“I’m exceptionally good at what I do, exceptionally good,” he says, before talking through the many wrongs of his management career, club by club. There’s a trend here though: in his eyes, he’s been the one who was wronged every time.

In fact as he speaks, it’s not clear what’s hyperbole, what’s not and what’s neither.

The truth is perhaps liberal on occasions and for each story, there’s another angle, so on that we’ll let you make up your own mind. What’s certain though is once he gets going, he’s a freight train. And those tracks lead straight to a dark moment in his life.

The year was 2008, and Collins stopped sweeping the floor of his small, cold gym and considered how he’d once been high and mighty. Peppering his mind were the highlights that made him a name in his game and a name about Dublin town.

He thought about how his family made it to the top as well and specifically about how brother, Steve, became the super-middleweight world champion and a national icon when beating Chris Eubank an unlucky 13 years earlier.

At the time, Roddy was manager of Bangor and because of a big game, getting to Millstreet was a struggle.

“I’d to find an alternative because I was working in Stephen’s corner. I booked a private airplane from Newtownards to Farranfore in Kerry. I timed it, the match was over 4.45, straight into a car, parked at 5.30, get to the arena 8.30, epic.

"Paid over £1,200. Sterling. We arrived at the airfield, there was this contraption like a Robin Reliant with two wings sticking out of it. I was expecting something like a government jet. Fuck sake. He took off in this yoke, it was like Dam Busters.

The wiper kept skipping a beat. Anyway we got there and the greatest night of my life. Pride. I never knew the meaning of it before. But that day, I was bursting with it. I wanted to tell everyone Stephen was my brother.”

Soon after his own sporting career was taking off and as he stood there in his pokey gym, brush in hand, he thought next about his time with Bohemians.

“I was in bed one night and got a call from Turlough O’Connor and Tony O’Connell. They were building a new stand at Dalymount, I was in the building game and they asked did I want to get involved. I thought here we go, cheap building job.

"Then they told me they wanted me to manage the club. I thought it was a wind-up, made arrangements to meet them in Brown Thomas the next day and lo and behold, they were there. At the time I was employing 27 people.

"By the time we won the double, I lost my company and a fortune. Gave my all to it and I was heartbroken when they got rid of me, the way they did it. I knew it was coming and I was in a bit of denial. That’s why, when we won the double, the relief — I beat the system and them.”

He thought about Carlisle United too, a case that’s well documented by now.

“That was my biggest achievement. I walked in and it was in absolute turmoil. Financially broke, morally broke, devoid of any character. Soulless club. But I got it really right, got tipped to take over Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton.

"It was all Roddy Collins at the time. Got recommended by Lawrie McMenemy on Five Live, plus the mad man who was at Peterborough, what was his name? Barry Fry.

"Then I remember meeting John Courtenay [who bought the club]. The most fateful, horrendous day of my life and that was the turning point. I ignored my instincts, ignored all logic and bought into the dream.

“We still reached the LDV Vans final. I remember we were staying in Celtic Manor prior to the game. I let the lads out for a few but they over-stepped the mark and one of them called me a wanker.

"So I told him to go up to his bed and on my way up after, I went to his room to confront him. He was asleep but his roommate let me in. I went in, tapped your man on the shoulder, told him to get up and said I expected an apology the next morning.

"He threw a punch so I took off my shirt, stripped to the waist and said, ‘If that’s the way you want it, let’s go’. A High Chaparral moment.

"The other lad was hiding in the bathroom, looking out, “Ah lads, stop it.” He punched himself into exhaustion and got on his knees and apologised. Crying and apologising. But even with that final, Courtenay, that fateful day when I met that man, that was the worst day of my life, when it all changed. Terrible.”

And he thought about Shamrock Rovers. “The day they handed me a brown envelope, a 40-page dossier of what I was doing wrong, splitting hairs, saying I wasn’t wanted.

"I’d been suspended because of nit-picking and because I went to a charity fundraiser, and suspended due to an internal investigation which can make people think all sorts and that was a low blow. I had a company car and was contesting that I was entitled to hold onto it.

They suspended me indefinitely and I remember my wife going shopping, she bought a load of stuff for Christmas, had the boot full, went in to buy a few other bits and pieces and she came out and the car was gone.

She rang and said it had been robbed. I said, ‘No, it hasn’t.’ I knew. Fifteen minutes later I got a call from a member of the board and he was laughing down the phone.”

And that day in the gym, after all those thoughts had pulsed by, Collins continued his sweeping. Out of football for three years, he’d opened a small bunker with a broken heating system for fighting men in Coolmine Industrial Estate to keep himself sane.

Amidst the silence there, what he wouldn’t have given at that moment to hear an entire terrace chant, “Roddy Collins, he’s a wanker, he’s a wanker”.

ost would have thought it too good to be true, but men like Roddy Collins don’t think in such terms. The way he saw it, a phone call in 2009 from Malta and a job managing Floriana on a stunning Mediterranean island was something he deserved after the penance.

When he speaks about the dark days, it makes you think maybe he did deserve a little brightness. After all, the lowest of all came not long before when his wife Caroline pulled him aside for a quiet chat and ended up using words like frustration, anger, resentment and depression.

“All the bad things I never had in my life and I’ve always been a very positive person, very helpful I think. And all those negative things crept in and then hatred crept into my kids and that’s when my wife said we’ve to sort this out.

"One of my kids came out with a comment about somebody and it wasn’t conducive to our way of rearing them and my wife didn’t like it and said, ‘Rod, we have to sit down and sort this because this is destroying our home and what we are’. I was hurt and they were hurting for me and financially we were badly hurt. So six-and-a-half years of absolute hell.”

Collins says that when he did job interviews in that time, club websites were bombarded with negatives about him and he couldn’t overcome it.

He says he had three meetings in England and even had a sponsor to pay his wages in one role but it all collapsed because of agendas against him. He says he was laughed at when he went for a Leinster Senior League job.

He says he went to manage the U16 team of the League of Ireland club, went to training one day and was told he wasn’t needed anymore, he reckons because the first-team manager was insecure with him being around. “I felt like fucking crying,” he sighs.

“I applied for assistant manager’s jobs, everything, I was getting ridiculed. I wanted to do what I loved doing and wanted to provide for my family.”

Then he got that call about a new life in Malta. He’d gotten plenty of pranks in his time, but soon after he was meeting with Floriana’s benefactors and soon after that was managing the club. But if one call was a dream, the next was a nightmare.

“Everything was great, great salary, about three weeks in the job and I was summoned to the president’s office. He said, ‘I need to talk to you, we’re after getting some very disturbing news’. I thought one of the players wasn’t well but he said, ‘Rod, we’re after having someone from Ireland contact us to say you trousered money from two football clubs’.

"What do you do? You are sitting with a man that lived his life thousands of miles away and I just said, ‘Look, how can I answer that?’ I paid money, in my management career I actually paid player’s wages and I was hit like a sledgehammer with that and just didn’t know what to do. I said I can only tell you it’s not true.

“He told me the source it came from and I have it in writing as well. That’s in my folder. He just said this is the information I have and I am concerned. I said I worked for the national broadcasting company, my youngest child is adopted, I’ve never had a police conviction.

"I just left his office, I was afraid to ring Caroline and the kids. It was like there was a vendetta to keep me out of work. I knew where it was coming from but look, I’ve moved on and all of that stuff makes me stronger and more determined now.”

And regardless of what you think of him, and regardless of whether you believe him, there’s no denying he’s kept getting up from what should have been knockout blow after knockout blow.

“I got back and went to Monaghan,” he recalls.

“I didn’t like the facilities, but I liked the people. You’d go for a game and there’d be a silage bed on the hill behind you and by jaysus, it’d bring tears to your eyes. You’d put on a gas mask to go out and play.

"People would be saying it’s a great little place and I’d be laughing. But the thing I liked was the honesty of the people. I was sad what happened to the club and them going out of business, but you have to move on.”

He did, as he’s always done, and since then there’s been a First Division title with Athlone before a brief stint back in the relatively big time with Derry City.

That didn’t end well but he’s used to the downs and the lows as much as the ups and the highs.

That’s what makes him a representation of the League of Ireland’s past.

What makes him unpredictable and exciting.

That’s what makes for the madness of Roddy Collins.

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