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FWA Interview: Patrick Collins

Patrick Collins thinks the game is better than ever but…

SUMMER OF TRANSFER SAGAS LEAVES PEOPLE DISILLUSIONED

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

In Patrick Collins’ ideal summer his beloved Charlton Athletic would have signed Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, perhaps Bastien Schweinsteiger, Andrea Pirlo and Robert Lewandowski. With that front six Chris Powell’s defence could stay intact.

Sadly for the Mail On Sunday’s award-winning sports columnist, other non-transfer activity has made tedious inroads into a glorious summer of British sport, which started with Justin Rose winning the US Open, the British and Irish Lions’ success in Australia, Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon triumph, retaining the Ashes and more recently Mo Farah and Christine Ohuruogu at the World Championships. Our Paralympians also gave us a reminder of London 2012.

Cesc Fabregas to  – or rather, not to – Manchester United has been put to bed, but the Mousetrap-proportion sagas involving Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale show little sign of slowing down. For many, September 2 cannot come soon – or, as the tabloids would say, Roon – enough.

“The game is better now than it has ever been,” said Collins. “I’ve never seen it played as well as this in more than 40 years. Not with such pace and technique. And yet I think people have never been so disillusioned. If there is a gap between players and the media, the gap between players and the public is even larger.

“Newspapers over-estimate the public’s appetite for such transfer stories. I could not even begin to guess how many Rooney stories I’ve seen, yet he’s either going to go or he isn’t. It’s like the Kennedy assassination, everyone has a theory. It’s been a fantastic summer of sport, but instead of being quietly ignored until it all starts again football’s given us these will-he, won’t-he sagas.”

Of course, it could be that Suarez, Rooney and Bale will remain with Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham. “If that happens it makes even more of a nonsense what’s been going on. I think it’s had an alienating factor. It’s partly the media’s fault, clearly.”

If a newspaper is fed a story about a big name it is hardly likely to not use it on grounds of boredom. “Agents engineer stories to the extent they are controlling the media which is not healthy,” said Collins.

The Barclays Premier League kicks-off this weekend, but Collins has not been counting the days, largely because the beautiful game is so over-hyped. He said: “I don’t start looking forward to the season until it starts. Everything is overblown. Sky Sports’ coverage is wonderful, but the trumpeting of games means there is absolutely no sense of proportion. Everything is better, bigger and louder. That’s how the game is now. It’s divorced from any kind of reality.”

Collins is one of the minority of FWA members who reported on United pre-Alex (as he was then) Ferguson. For the first time since November 1986, the Champions have a new manager in David Moyes and while many football writers have been the recipient of the famous hairdryer, Ferguson gave us some of the finest sides of all-time to watch and report.

“For what he did, he was a genius, an extraordinarily talented man. I loved watching his teams. There would be a tight game, United would score a late goal and you’d see him on the touchline waving them forward. United always went for it.

“People have drawn comparisons between Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, but Mourinho would always opt for a ‘protect what you have’ with little sense of duty to entertain. Ferguson wanted his team to go forward, not in a naive manner, but he felt the best way to defend a 1-0 lead was to score a second goal.”

The self-styled Special One is back at Chelsea, a move which has not seen Collins putting out the bunting. He said: “Am I glad he’s returned? Not at all. He’s a major part of the over-hyping and personalising of the game. Towards the end of last season when it looked like he was coming back, someone on Sky Sports said he couldn’t wait for next season to see Mourinho versus someone or other on the touchline.

“Nobody I know pays money to see managers on the touchline. It seems bizarre he can dominate the attention in this way. There were a couple of times at Real Madrid when he left the team-talk at half-time to sit in the dug-out. It was like ‘look at me.’”

While club rivalries will be renewed in the Barclays Premier League, a cloud remains over the national team with England’s qualification for Brazil 2014 in the balance. If England win their remaining four ties they will qualify. Beating Moldova at home should present few problems, but Ukraine in Kyiv and the visits of Montenegro and Poland to Wembley for a team who have only beaten San Marino and Moldova to date seems to guarantee a photo-finish for England.

Collins said: “For obvious reason I’d love to see England qualify, as much as anything for Roy Hodgson who is a decent man and a talented man. While media-friendly, he is not self-promoting in the way that Mourinho is and I don’t think he’s given the credit he deserves. I can see us being in the playoffs and then, of course, it depends who you play.”

Fabio Capello’s Russia would be the most newsworthy clash, though there is a Sod’s Law feeling about such a draw. Other playoff opponents could be France or even World Champions Spain – “you wouldn’t want that” – Croatia, Austria or Sweden, Greece, a rejuvenated Hungary or Romania, Bulgaria or the Czech Republic. The best hope would be the runners-up from Group E, probably Albania, Iceland or Norway, but then we thought Algeria would be a pushover in South Africa.

“The reaction if England didn’t qualify would be interesting. There is a complete dominance of the clubs in English football and they admit no responsibility or obligation to the national team. Given the quality of the Premier League we ought to be qualifying, but then the quality is due to the number of foreign players.”

Domestically, it will be the usual suspects battling it out for the title – “a consequence of how the Premier League is structured,” said Collins. “The only way to break into this exclusive club is to find an owner like Manchester City did in the Middle East. Otherwise it is almost impossible to join the elite.”

When Blackburn, bankrolled by Jack Warner, won the Premier League they were not up against the riches of City or Chelsea while the days of Derby, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich or Queens Park Rangers making a significant impact in the top league have all but gone.

“I used to love looking at the old First Division pre-season and thinking to myself if this team continue their progress or that side sign so-and-so they have a chance. When you think of what [Brian] Clough did, or Bobby [Robson] at Ipswich or Dave Sexton’s very good QPR…that’s not possible any longer, which is a pity. There is a danger of people becoming disaffected by the same-old, same-old.

“I’d love someone to break into that magic circle and the fact there are four, maybe five clubs who can be champions is not good for the wider health of the game. It’s still a marvellous sport though it doesn’t always show itself in the best light.”

As 2013/14 gets up and running Collins hopes young players who the press have been praising for the past couple of years reach the next level. When John Barnes retired we were still writing about his potential and Collins said: “The likes of Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones…I hope they become the players we’ve been hoping they do.

“We hear what Wilshere is capable of and I’d really like to see him deliver. We’ve been patient with a lot of them so let’s hope this is the season.”

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