Sheffield United: Wembley veterans give Blades a cutting edge

Neill Collins (right) celebrates with Jose Baxter and Matt Hill � BLADES SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
Neill Collins (right) celebrates with Jose Baxter and Matt Hill � BLADES SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
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Neill Collins believes Sheffield United’s Wembley experience could prove invaluable during tomorrow’s FA Cup semi-final against Hull City, writes James Shield.

Although Steve Bruce’s side are strong favourites to progress by virtue of their top-flight status, the former Leeds and Sunderland centre-half is adamant United possess the knowledge and strength of character to help them upset the odds.

Collins, a member of the squad which reached the League One play-off final in 2012, said: “It could help us because we’ve been there before. Me, Harry (Maguire), Michael (Doyle), Chris (Porter) and Flynny (Ryan Flynn) included.

“How much of a part that might play, we don’t know. But it can only help surely?

“Say, we had been to Crawley one year for the first time. Well, that helps the second year because it means we know about the place already. You have learned things about it.

“You know the smells, how small the dressing room is, what the tunnel is like. All little things but it means you aren’t wondering about anything. It is the same with Wembley.

“That means you can concentrate on your job. I am sure there are even international players who go there and are a bit in awe first time.

“It will only be my second visit but it is still a place I now know a little about.”

United’s previous visit to the national stadium ended in heartbreak when they were beaten 8-7 on penalties by Huddersfield Town.

But Collins insisted: “This time it feels very, very different because the play-offs basically boil your entire season down to one game. “Before that final, I had a feeling in my stomach that was a mixture of excitement and fear of failure. We had worked all season long and yet it all came down to 90 minutes or two hours as it turned out, because of penalties.

“We will have butterflies in the stomach for this one but, let’s be honest, no-one thought we would be in the semi-final of the FA Cup this season. We still want to win but the pressure is very different in the play-offs.”

Nigel Clough, the United manager, revealed during Thursday’s media briefing at the Redtooth Academy that, win or lose, his team must have no regrets following their meeting with City.

Echoing those sentiments, Collins said: “The play-off final was horrible. Probably the biggest disappointment of my career.

“Having said that, maybe Yeovil last year was even more of a disappointment because we were in a great position after the first leg of the (play-off semi-final) and then lost at Huish Park.

“Against Huddersfield, we got ourselves in a good position. We gave ourselves the best possible chance by being so solid.

“We didn’t have a lot of goals in that team once we lost Ched (Evans). But we gave ourselves a great opportunity of winning by getting to penalties.

“But it didn’t quite happen. There were still things we could take from that disappointment. But it is still something we want to make amends for. Hopefully, the lads who are still here can use that experience to drive us on now.”

“I was punching the ground in frustration after the Huddersfield match,” Collins continued. “We had it in the palm of our hands after they missed the third penalty.

“I had just scored the second one and I really thought it was going to be our day. But then it all went wrong. That shows how quickly things can change in a Wembley one-off game.

“We all went our separate ways afterwards. Everyone has families and all that. They were emotional, too. So, we got the bus back to Sheffield, went home and started thinking about another season in League One.

“Because the play-offs had eaten into our summer holidays, we all went our separate ways straight away. We went on holiday and, personally speaking, re-lived it over and over again in my mind. Not the best summer.”

“It was the scene of our biggest disappointment and now we want it to be the total opposite. Wembley is the sort of place where you can’t have an ‘okay’ memory at. It is either elation or despair. Nothing in between, because so much is at stake. We want to put a performance on.”

United, who entered the competition at the first round stage, dispatched the likes of Aston Villa, Fulham and Nottingham Forest en route to last month’s quarter-final against Charlton Athletic.

“When we beat Charlton I looked at the fixture list and said to my wife, ‘We’ve got eight games to play before Wembley, that is an awful lot’,” Collins said. “But it did help, in a funny way, as it allowed us to focus on our league form again straight away. We did that pretty well but now the semi-final is here, it is great. Especially as we are safe in the league.”

Collins was rested for Tuesday’s South Yorkshire derby against Rotherham which saw United, now 11th in the table, secure their 12th victory in 17 games.

“Before this season, my best cup memory was when I scored in the last minute for Wolves against Cambridge,” Collins said. “It was in the third round and we had to win for the manager.

“My first game was against Palace for Sunderland. They were in the Premier League at the time and I marked Andy Johnson. We had a right ding-dong battle.

“That was a massive thrill but nothing to compare to this season’s memories.”

“As a kid, I would watch the finals on TV,” Collins added. “I loved it.

“Two moments stand out. (Eric) Cantona’s volley for Manchester United against Liverpool that won the double. And then, in 1999, Ryan Giggs’s incredible goal against Arsenal.

“I watched it with my dad, John. He was caning him before going to the toilet. Then, he came back and Giggs went on that run.

“We gave him some stick over that. He will probably be caning me at Wembley on Sunday.

“Maybe I can score a goal. I don’t imagine it will be like Giggsy’s. More likely a header but I’d take that.

“I loved the build-up as a kid. I bought the Manchester United CD with all the songs. If we get through, I don’t think I will sing but we have a song ready. I’ll tell you what it is on Sunday night if we have won.”

*Twitter: @JamesShield1