Neill Collins packed more into his time at Bramall Lane than some do in an entire career. But the Scottish defender leaves for the sunnier climes of Florida with one sense of burning sorrow - not helping his beloved Sheffield United back into the Championship.
“This club means a massive amount to me,” the Scottish defender, who terminated his United contract yesterday to move to North American Soccer League side Tampa Bay Rowdies, told The Star last night.
“I don’t look back with many regrets because I’ve always given everything, and I certainly did that at United. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen for us but it definitely wasn’t for the lack of effort. There are so many variables in a football team and so many instances when the players on the pitch couldn’t affect everything that went on.
“But I go away knowing that I couldn’t do any more, so I can look myself in the mirror. Sometimes you go into a football club on the up, but I went into one that was on the way down and, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get them back up.
“But, I’m sure someone will do before long and, when they do, there’ll be no-one more pleased than me.”
Born and bred in Troon, Collins established his reputation at Queen’s Park and Dumbarton before winning promotions with Sunderland, Wolves and Leeds United. But it was in South Yorkshire where he truly felt at home.
“Both my kids have been born while I’ve been at United, and they love coming to Bramall Lane,” the 32-year-old, who has a house in Tampa after routinely visiting Florida on holiday, said.
“So they’ll be confused watching matches in the sun, rather than the freezing cold at places like Fleetwood. We’ll certainly come back in the future and I’m sure the kids will have a major soft spot for Sheffield United. I played for some great clubs but I have the greatest affinity with United, without a doubt.”
Collins was 28, and a regular in the Leeds team, when then-United boss Micky Adams made his move to bring him to Bramall Lane. By then, it was January and United - on their fourth manager of the season after Kevin Blackwell, Gary Speed and John Carver left or were sacked - were deep in relegation trouble. Collins remembers thinking that United were a huge club, would be fine and move on to bigger and better things.
It never quite worked out that way. On his debut, United lost 3-0 at Ipswich and finished the game with nine men.
“You had a feeling that the vibe around the dressing room wasn’t good,” Collins said.
“Michael Doyle and I found it very tough, coming into what was a sinking ship.
“We had some good players and the spirit wasn’t right, so we could tell early on that it was going to be hard work.”
United duly went down, Danny Wilson replaced Adams - to a mixed reception, at best - and his side scored 92 goals and amassed 90 points the following season.
Incredibly, they failed to win promotion. United lost 8-7 on penalties to Huddersfield Town in the play-off final at Wembley, after 35-goal striker Ched Evans was jailed for rape.
“Danny was, for me, far and away the best manager I had the pleasure of working with, alongside Mick McCarthy,” Collins remembers.
“Danny was a man’s man, he got the best out of me as a player and he was so unlucky. People talk about Ched and how unfortunate we were, but we had bad luck with injuries at bad times and any other year, we’d have been promoted.
“I struggled to watch the play-off final back... it was the toughest game of my career, probably. Maybe if Ched was there, we’d have scored the goals we needed to go up and I remember the game at MK Dons, just after he’d been sentenced. You can only imagine what the bus journey down there was like - it was difficult to see someone you’d played with all season, and knew so well, go to jail.”
Less than two years later, Collins and United were back at Wembley - this time, under Nigel Clough - after battling their way to the semi-final of the FA Cup, where Premier League side Hull City eventually prevailed 5-3 after the League One side twice went ahead.
“The quarter-final win against Charlton was probably the best day of my career,” Collins says.
“The noise when John Brayford scored the second... Bramall Lane was rocking and when it’s like that, not many stadiums in world football can compare.
“The boys still talk about the semi-final now. At 2-1 up at half time, I would have backed us against any team in the country because we were so good at defending leads; soaking up pressure, and then hitting teams on the break with top players like Harry Maguire, Jamie Murphy and Ryan Flynn.
“But the message was to keep attacking and play the way we had in the first half, and I think we all regret not staying true to what had got us to that stage in the first place.”
United, again in deep relegation trouble when Clough took over, narrowly failed to seal a fairytale play-off place that season but did so the following season. Collins played no part as his teammates lost 7-6 on aggregate to Swindon, after being banished from the side.
“I’ve never experienced anything tougher,” the Scotland B international admits.
“I don’t ever mind anyone questioning my footballing ability, but I will take umbrage with anyone who questions my work ethic or professionalism or attitude because, as anyone who knows me will testify, I only ever had the best interests of the club at heart.
“Still, to this day, I don’t know why it happened; the only person who does is Nigel Clough.
“It wasn’t just not being picked, the treatment behind the scenes was hard, too. But what kept me going was the thought of playing for this club again, and I eventually managed to do that.”
Collins’ first game back was a 4-0 away defeat at Gillingham. But, in a game of ups and downs, the next game - at Morecombe, saw him score the last-minute winner and celebrate like a man possessed in front of 785 travelling fans.
“Feelings like that kept me going through the bad times,” he says.
“And despite all that, I still take away some really good memories from Bramall Lane.”