Starting a promotion party for Cardiff City and ruining Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebrations in Portugal are the twin targets for James Collins over the next month.
The striker has been reunited with the manager who handed him his Ireland debut, Mick McCarthy, ahead of the Championship season kicking off on Friday before a full crowd at home to Barnsley.
At 30, with his contract at Luton Town expiring earlier this year, Collins wanted to give himself the best and perhaps final chance of reaching the Premier League, a stage he first yearned for as an apprentice at Aston Villa.
Cardiff’s pedigree, along with McCarthy’s record as a promotion specialist, provided the ideal recipe he could gorge on to achieve his ambition.
McCarthy lifted the Bluebirds from 15th to a final place of eighth over four months last season, and has tweaked his squad for his first full campaign at the helm.
More than the two promotions and four play-off finishes his former Ireland boss has clinched over his career, it is the directness of his manager’s approach which appealed most to the free agent.
“Mick makes high demands of his players, and if you don’t do it, then you won’t play,” said the Coventry-born forward. “I knew what Mick was about from Ireland and he’s been everything I expected now that we’re working together over a longer period.
“He was a big part of the whole package that made my mind up to join Cardiff. No disrespect to Luton because we stayed up and reached the top half in our first two Championship seasons, but it was time for a fresh challenge.
The goal throughout my career has been to become a Premier League player, and I feel we’ve the right blend in the squad to challenge for promotion.
Collins, with 28 Championship goals for Luton over the past two seasons, was recruited to partner Kieffer Moore, the Welsh international who bagged 20 during McCarthy’s maiden campaign.
Concerns about the duo’s similar target-man characteristics have been dismissed by McCarthy, a view Collins agrees with.
Moore’s participation at the Euros — where his equaliser snatched a point against Switzerland — delayed his return for pre-season, and that was before he became one of four Cardiff players diagnosed with Covid-19 a fortnight ago.
“I know what a great striker Kieffer is from playing against him over the years, and I wasn’t signed to replace him,” said Collins.
“We can definitely play together in the same team and be a handful for defences. Thankfully, all lads affected by Covid are back training, and are hopefully in contention for Saturday’s big game.”
A fellow addition and compatriot, Mark McGuinness, is also pushing for inclusion.
McCarthy liked what he saw of the Ireland U21 centre-back on loan at Ipswich Town last season, enticing him from Arsenal on a three-year deal. Three could now be a magic number for the 20-year-old.
“Mick favours a formation with three centre-backs and, for a big lad, Mark is very comfortable coming out of defence in possession,” said Collins.
“I don’t see any reason why he’s not ready for Championship level.”
While McGuinness has time to break into the Ireland squad and reach a major tournament, the clock is ticking on Collins’s World Cup destiny.
During the March international window he scored in Serbia but missed a sitter against Luxembourg, two defeats leaving a trip to Qatar next year all the more difficult to negotiate.
Collins has six club games before the first of Ireland’s triple-header looms in Portugal on September 1. Awaiting them in Faro will be Cristiano Ronaldo chasing his world-record-breaking 110th international goal.
“I watched Portugal at the Euros, and they’re a world-class side, but we’re got to try to spoil their party,” said Collins, who declared for Ireland at 17 through his Mullingar-born mother Rose.
“There’s nobody else to blame for our bad start but us players. I know that I should have scored against Luxembourg and they hit us on the counter-attack with the winner. There’s huge games to come after Portugal at home against Azerbaijan and Serbia. People will forget the Luxembourg defeat if we manage to qualify.
“The June camp in Spain went well, and we’re getting there slowly but surely. We just need to start winning some qualifiers.”