The Worcester City side which arrives at Bramall Lane tomorrow will not, Neill Collins suspects, be the same as the one that faces Stalybridge Celtic next weekend.
“Don’t think for one minute the mindset of teams who play us will be anything like the game after. It doesn’t work like that because they get so pumped-up. It comes with the territory and you have to accept it and embrace it. Take it as a compliment but make sure you match them in terms of attitude too.”
A first round tie against opponents three leagues below them on the footballing pyramid should, Collins conceded earlier this month, guarantee Nigel Adkins’ squad safe passage through to the second round. But in FA Cup competition, as United demonstrated themselves by beating Aston Villa, Fulham and Nottingham Forest en route to the semi-finals 19 months ago, things are seldom as straight forward as that. City, managed by club legend Carl Heeley and with experienced players like Deon Burton and Lee Hughes at their disposal, know they have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Which, Collins acknowledged, makes them dangerous opponents.
“I try to make the young lads aware of it here,” he said. “We did exactly the same against the Premier League clubs in the FA Cup ourselves. That highlights what I’m on about. That’s shown, with the results we got, what an effect that mindset can have. Knowing you can just ‘go for it’ and, to some degree, throw caution to the wind.”
United do not enjoy the same luxury after seeing their bid for the Championship falter in recent weeks. Defeats to Millwall and most recently Crewe Alexandra has prompted some observers to question whether Adkins’ team is capable of justifying their pre-season billing as promotion favourites. Collins, the former Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds centre-half, has a crucial role to play as they look to survive the most difficult period of Adkins’ reign so far.
“When I was younger, I played with Jackie McNamara at Wolves. He always explained how if you drew a game at Celtic it was like the world has ended and that really opened my eyes. Having played for some big clubs myself, I understand the pressure. I understand what the demands and the expectations are. At smaller clubs, you might get away with the odd bad result or a draw here and there. That’s not the case elsewhere but it’s better to have the pressure which comes with being somewhere like this because it makes the highs even more worthwhile.”
“You don’t realise it at the time but it was great to hear the stories Jackie used to tell,” Collins added. “Looking back it was absolutely invaluable to me and I was so fortunate to play with people like him and Gary Breen at a young age. I remember once, at Stoke, we’d drawn 0-0 and some of us came in thinking it was a really good result. It was but Gary said ‘no, if we want to get promoted, we’ve got to come to places like this and win.’ It’s moments like that when you really learn the mentality it takes to play for a big club”
Collins, who has made nearly 200 appearances for United since leaving Elland Road in 2011, believes the visit of opponents ranked 20th in National League North, can mark the start of the healing process.
“Being at a big club with big support isn’t always easy, especially when the fans are getting on top of you. But if you keep a steady head then you’ll come through because football can change so quickly. We went to Crewe a year ago, got beat and were in relegation trouble. Then we went on an amazing run to put ourselves in play-off contention and get to the semi-finals of the cup. Who would have predicted that? At one stage, it looked as if the world was going to cave in. That’s one of the things Jackie and Gary taught me. That you’ve got to block everything else out and just stay focused on your job because, if you don’t, then the chances of you turning something around become slimmer.”
Nevertheless, as Collins acknowledged, that can be easier said that done.
“I can understand the fans’ frustration because, when I go home, I’m the same. Nobody here likes losing and we want to be flying up at the top because, if we are, there won’t be a sight like our ground in this division. Things might not always be nice but, if you come through, then it’s something to thrive on. It makes all the tough times worthwhile and the great ones even sweeter.”