This time last year, Sheffield United were preparing for a Boxing Day fixture at Port Vale.
But Neill Collins, whose relationship with Nigel Clough had turned sourer than a rotten tangerine, found himself organising a journey to Elland Road.
The centre-half, having lost his starting place two months earlier before being jettisoned completely from the first-team squad, was out in the cold and in desperate need of a footballing fix.
“I went to see Leeds face Wigan 12 months ago,” Collins revealed. “I was so used to being involved with football and still felt the need to see a game. It was very, very hard. Hopefully, though, things are going to be a lot better now and I can play Wigan rather than watch them.”
Clough’s departure during the close season, followed by Nigel Adkins’ arrival at Bramall Lane, presented Collins with the opportunity to resurrect his career. And, as United steel themselves for Saturday’s meeting with the Lancastrians, begin reliving some boyhood dreams.
“Off the top of my head, it was the first time I wasn’t involved,” the Scot, speaking earlier this week, said. “Apart from a few cancellations when I was young at Dumbarton. I’ve always been involved in the eleven or off the bench. As a wee kid, I used to go and watch Kilmarnock on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Christmas football was fantastic and when you get to play it, there’s an extra buzz about everything out there.”
“I think the lads had Christmas Day off back then, so I was off as well,” Collins added. “I just had a normal Christmas Day. Even with Christmas Day, if you have children, you still have to make the most of the moment. But in the back of your head, you are always preparing for a game of football the next day.
“Funnily enough, I am not really a big drinker, so I didn’t anyway. But I had a few more Yorkshire puddings. It was like when you are looking to the future and you are not maybe playing and you retire. As much as people moan about having to train Christmas Day, you miss more playing on Boxing Day as it is such a great experience. (Professional Development coach Chris Morgan) Morgs says that in pre-season, you don’t look forward to the running, but that you will miss it when you can’t do it. I won’t be complaining about working on Christmas Day this year.”
Collins, aged 32, has featured in 24 of United’s 29 outings since Adkins’ appointment and, together with fellow defender David Edgar, forms one half of a partnership the manager believes will be of critical importance against Gary Caldwell’s free-scoring side.
United head to the DW Stadium searching for a fourth straight victory in all competitions having completed a hat-trick of clean sheets and Collins said: “I don’t ever take it for granted and know, as a footballer, things can change in a second. You can be out one week, in the next week, then be out once more. But I do get a good feeling around the place now with recent results. I still think there’s big room for improvement though with people to come back such as (Jamal) Campbell-Ryce, who are really exciting players. There’s lots to look forward to.
“We have to keep picking up results and Wigan is probably one of the toughest games in the league, but it’s a good one on the back of our recent form.”