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From the Pitch – "Unsung Heroes"

By NEILL COLLINS, Tampa Bay Rowdies, 05/17/18, 12:30PM EDT

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After 18 years between the lines, Collins shines a light on the team behind the scenes

The famous saying goes, “Behind every great man there is a great woman.

I am not sure who coined the phrase, but my wife tells me they were definitely on to something.

For footballers, I think a more appropriate saying, though not quite as snappy or catchy, should be, “Behind every football player there is a fantastic family.”

Now I appreciate everyone has different circumstances and there is occasionally the odd case of someone forging their path to the top all by themselves, in spite of their circumstances and not because of them, but it is a rarity.

Throughout my career I couldn’t help but notice almost every player I have played with has been able to rely on unconditional love and support whether it be from a girlfriend, fiancée, wife, brother, sister, mother, father, aunt or uncle, or in some case all of the above.

In a sport where the ups and downs are so frequent and can be emotionally challenging, this type of support group is vital.

These people are the real unsung heroes.


The unsung heroes behind my career

When fans turn up to watch a football match, all they are focused on are the twenty-two men chasing after the ball. The spotlight is firmly on us. If we score the winning goal, we take all the adulation or if we make a last minute mistake, we have to shoulder all the blame.

No one stops for a minute to think about the family that may be sitting in the stands watching on as their son/husband/father is subjected to abuse for an honest mistake. Whether you are the hero or the villain to the thousands watching in the stands, to someone sitting quietly, you are still just their “little boy,” annoying  brother or dutiful husband.

The emotional rollercoaster is a well-documented part of the sport, but people can’t possibly appreciate how much the nearest and dearest have to suffer during the ride as well.

They may not be out on the field, but they kick and head every ball, praying that things go as planned. They know all too well that it is them that will have to provide the sympathy and encouragement long after the match is finished if things take a turn for the worse.

The support groups around players do an amazing job at playing the role of psychologist/psychiatrist and listening while we pour our hearts out. It is them that have to suffer the after match postmortem analysing every mistake and deliberating on what could or should have been done better (my phone bill after the 5-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls II earlier this season was a big one!). It is those that you love most that see the agony and frustration after every disappointment and it is only them that know how much sacrifice and work goes in to try and achieve even just a modicum of success.

The inspiration for this article came from my fellow teammate Leo Fernandes. In our second game of the season, Leo received the ball deep in the penalty area, faced up the right back and brushed past him like he wasn’t there before sending a low shot across the goalkeeper to put us in complete control of the match. Leo didn’t then make a beeline to celebrate with Ralph’s Mob — the Rowdies famous band of supporters behind the goal — he headed straight for his family, who just happened to be standing on the near touchline.

"They may not be out on the field, but they kick and head every ball, praying that things go as planned. They know all too well that it is them that will have to provide the sympathy and encouragement long after the match is finished if things take a turn for the worse."


Leo and his proud father after scoring at Al Lang Stadium

As if it was pre-rehearsed, Leo’s dad was standing in the perfect spot holding his grandson while Leo ran over arms outstretched and got to celebrate a fantastic moment with his dad and his son.

I haven’t asked Leo, but I can imagine the moment was a special one for a variety of reasons. Last year, he missed more than half the season with a serious knee injury.

Being injured for an extended period can be a dark and lonely time for any professional player. As much as the coaching staff and your teammates try to keep your spirits up, you feel so far removed from the team. While they go out to train or leave for away matches, you are left behind on your own.You have to just sit and watch as everyone around you gets to do what you love. During those tough times, it is your family that you turn to. It is them that you pour your heart out to about all your fears, insecurities and frustrations. They sit and listen and support you unconditionally, always wanting the best for you.

At times last year, Leo may have questioned where his Rowdies career was headed as he watched from the sidelines. After bouncing back to perform well early in the season, who better to share the moment with than one of the people that supported him through his entire career?

There are plenty of disappointments and setbacks that we can all sharply recall but it is moments like this that make it all worthwhile.  

"During those tough times, it is your family that you turn to. It is them that you pour your heart out to about all your fears, insecurities and frustrations. They sit and listen and support you unconditionally, always wanting the best for you."

My Mum and Dad have travelled the length and breadth of the UK supporting me, sometimes driving eight hours from my seaside home town of Troon, Scotland, all the way to somewhere like Ipswich, Southend or Norwich at the other end of England and then getting in the car and driving another eight hours straight home immediately after. All in the name of being there to watch me play football and more importantly offer me support.


My Parents after a good night for the Rowdies. There have plenty of nights that have not been as happy.

Just mention the name of a football stadium and more often than not it will evoke some type of emotion and bring back a distinct memory for everyone in my family.

The Emirates = disappointment.

Pride Park = debut delight.

Wembley = complete and utter dejection.

There are stories behind all these games and places that not only I can recollect, but also my family that were to share the agony and sometimes ecstasy.

Far too often for my liking, I have exited a stadium feeling despondent to be met by parents, my sister or my wife, who I know all too well they will have to suffer the same disappointment I’m feeling.

In some cases, it is just a bad result or a poor performance that quickly gets put in perspective the following day. Then there are times when you don’t even get selected in the squad. This can end up in a whole weekend ruined while we all sit and discuss what I need to do to get back in the team.

Even when they aren’t able to travel to watch in person, the rollercoaster doesn’t stop. My Dad sits glued to Sky Sports watching the results come in. His heart skips a beat as the presenter exclaims “there has been a late goal at (insert stadium I am playing at here)."


Utter dejection after losing in the FA Cup Semifinal.

My Dad then has to wait with baited breath to find out if it is one for the good guys or one for the bad guys. I know there has been occasions where the news has almost been met with a foot through the television.

In professional sports, the disappointments always seem to outweigh the successes. I am not sure this is actually the case. I just think the setbacks seem to live with us all for longer. Now and again though, a moment comes along that you can all truly enjoy and makes it worthwhile.

The worst period of my career, and one of the most testing times for not just me but my family, was being frozen out of the team and the squad completely during the 2015 season at Sheffield United under Nigel Clough.

I didn’t even have the opportunity to battle for my place in the team, but instead I was forced to train with the youth team and could see no light at the end of the tunnel.

If you ask any of my family about that period of time, you will hear the frustration and anger in their voice as they describe how they had to sit by and watch someone they love get mistreated and held back from doing what they love. They were subjected to questions from friends and the general public on what was going on when none of us knew the answer.

When you get prevented from doing something you love, the frustration can build quickly and more often than not, it is those closest to you that have to deal with the consequences. At a time when I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, it was my family that kept me sane. They sympathized with me at times when I felt sorry for myself and, most importantly, showed belief in me at a time when I couldn’t help but doubt myself.

My poor wife must have felt she was living with a bear with a sore head and after a couple of Saturdays off, she would have done anything to have me back on the field instead of skulking around a shopping mall.  

My parents’ car enjoyed a well-earned rest during this period, but I know they would have much preferred to be making the 250-mile journey down the M6 to watch me than sitting at home.

"When you get prevented from doing something you love, the frustration can build quickly and more often than not, it is those closest to you that have to deal with the consequences. At a time when I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, it was my family that kept me sane." 

Thanks to their support, and my own perseverance, I came through this excruciating time in my career. I managed to forge my way back into the Sheffield United squad under a new manager and found myself on the bench for the second game of the season after starting the first.

With five minutes left on the clock, I entered the game with the score at a 0-0 stalemate.

My Dad had been keen to make the trip but I had warned him against it as I was not playing and I was unlikely to make an appearance. With one minute left in injury time, we won a corner. The ball was delivered perfectly right in to the centre and I met it with a bullet header into the top corner.

“We are going over to the Globe Arena there has been a late goal.” After what probably seemed like an eternity, my Mum and Dad were met with the news that their son had just headed in a last-minute winner to send Sheffield United through to the next round of the cup.


After the goal at Morecambe all my emotion came pouring out.

Instead of a foot through the television, this time it was a case of peeling them both off the ceiling. The emotion I felt after scoring that goal was second to none after months of frustration and I knew it was shared in Collins households back in Leeds and in Scotland hundreds of miles away.

As a player growing, up you need someone to drive you to practice, pick you up, take you home, buy you boots, wash your kit, plus much, much more. As you get older, you may not need your Mum to pick you up or sign your permission slip, but the family that supported you from the beginning still play such an important supporting role and it should never be forgotten.

On a Saturday night while I am playing at Al Lang Stadium, I know that my wife is at home getting four kids to bed while keeping a close eye on the game and my parents across the other side of the world can’t get a good night’s sleep as they wake constantly to keep tabs on the Tampa Bay Rowdies result.

So the next time you are cheering a player for a great goal or giving him a standing ovation for a great performance, reserve a clap for the unsung heroes that are the team behind the team.


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