Conor Hourihane, Greg Cunningham, and Enda Stevens were teammates in the same Ireland U21 side when James Collins hit a hat-trick on his debut against Liechtenstein.
Had circumstances gone differently since, Collins might have already joinedthat trio in the senior caps club, instead of waiting until tomorrow’s friendly against Bulgaria.
Back in October 2011, just about around the stage when the scramble for Robbie Keane’s naturalsuccessor, Collins sent out a message with his trio.
“I still have the match ball in my mum’s house,” he said of his Mullingar-born mother Rose. “That game will always stay with me.”
He was in flying form, having just scored against Arsenal in the League Cup. Collins had opted to join Shrewsbury Town after failing to break into the Aston Villa team.
All changed ten days after his international blitz. Collins and his former Villa teammate Barry Bannon were arrested following an early-morning car crash. Although no charges eventually followed, Shrewsbury suspended their striker and, as he admitted yesterday, his reputation suffered.
There would be no linear elevation to compete for an Ireland squad place at Euro 2012. None even by Euro 2016.
Only since then has a consistent run of form for Luton Town shuttled him into contention; his goals a major influence on their successive promotions to the Championship.
Mick McCarthy is a known fan of rescuing lost causes. His first friendly since his second stint at the helm began last November offers a showcase to blood some of those he’s integrated into his squad.
Collins, due to turn 29 in eight weeks, is in better nick to kick on after his second Ireland debut.
“You do silly things when you’re young,” he says of his off-field blemishes. “I was young and naïve. Now, it’s a completely different James Collins to what you would have seen five or six years ago.
“I’ve worked really hard over the years to make sure my stuff on the pitch was really good, so people would forget about that side.“My goals have helped.
“I’m used to people questioning me, ‘Can he do it in League One? Can he do it in the Championship?’ It’s nice to prove them wrong.”
On the international stage too, there’s been doubters. Shane Long is out of McCarthy’s plans, his status as Premier League striker undermined by just 30 minutes of game-time at the level this term.
“It’s a confidence booster to be picked ahead of Shane,” said Collins.
“Shane has done far more than me in his club and Ireland career but Mick didn’t bring me in if he didn’t think about giving me the chance of being involved.
“It’s a massive opportunity for players like myself who’ve not got minutes on the pitch so far.”
John Egan, also on media duty yesterday, is backing Collins to take his chance.
“James scored against me when I was playing for Gillingham,” recalled the Cork centre-back.
“He’s a real handful to mark and is capable of hitting the back of the net if he gets his debut.”