Roscommon kick off their 2017 championship campaign against Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final on Sunday. For Neil Collins, there was just something all too familiar about that, for this year anyway.
It’s not that he doesn’t love football, but he has other passions too. And as the Rossies ready themselves for the biggest weekend of their season so far, their former number three is focusing on those other passions.
Last November Collins told Kevin McStay of his intention. In April he was in New York, an international capital for an international man.
"It's funny because I really love playing football. Training. The competitive side, I really enjoy that," Collins told The Irish Times. "But I get the sense that . . . I enjoy other things more at the moment. I enjoy being in different places, I enjoy seeing different cultures. I really enjoy fashion, music. And I suppose at this stage those kind of interests are taking over a small bit.
“There was an element of boredom about facing into another season, I kind of knew that path, but I don’t know the path out here and I enjoy that. Finding that on a daily basis. I think I’m pretty adaptable and I like to connect with people from all different areas, with different interests, and different backgrounds. And the fact that this was a bit more exciting, a bit more unknown, it was something that really appealed to me.”
The 27-year-old moved to New York this year to pursue a career in the fashion industry, after five years as a mainstay in the Roscommon fullback line. From minding the house, to discovering a new territory.
“Especially when you’ve been playing a couple of years, you don’t see too many lads leave (county set-ups) . . . like I know I was away a few times, but I pretty much played all of every season for the last 10 years. From minor I didn’t miss one season I could play . . . you don’t really think anything else.
“But when the championship was over last year I started really questioning would I be back, or not. I had a feeling at that time, I kind of knew that I probably wouldn’t be playing this year. I had made a subconscious decision that I wanted to get out of Ireland for a while. To see and sample a different place and a different way of life. To focus on my career in fashion.
“So I met Kevin McStay around early November and pretty much told him then, I was seriously thinking of not committing to Roscommon for this season. And he gave me great breathing space and said just weigh it up, and spend a couple of weeks thinking about it. But I had already decided.”
In a place like New York I like being international, I like being in places that are international
Collins suffered a serious hamstring injury in the build up to last year’s Connacht final defeat, having impressed in the fullback position as Roscommon reached the Division One league semi-final. Before that he was in the corner as they won back to back league titles.
He made his name as the captain of the county’s minor and Under-21 teams, winning the Under-21 Connacht title in 2011 and between the two grades his teams competed in four out of five provincial finals. In his absence this season, Roscommon are not just missing a leader, a tough and talented defender, but also a unique personality in the dressing room.
“When I was in DCU I used to play a lot of football, and had a lot of friends in that sporting side of things. But then when I met other people and started exploring other things, a lot of my friends and a lot of the people I connected best with were probably interested in slightly different things.
“That’s when I started to realise that perhaps there were other things that I wanted to pursue, as a career. So I suppose the influence of other people helped me realise what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be around.
“Then from there, I had studied sport science in DCU, so I needed to re-skill myself. So I did a couple of things. I studied a post graduate in fashion and I took classes in design. And that brought me down a completely different route, which kind of brings me to now.
“In a place like New York I like being international, I like being in places that are international. I just really enjoy, and I get a really good sense, from travelling. I really enjoy being from a different place and immersing myself in a different way of life, and doing the different daily practises. Different conversations and I suppose it’s those sort of things that I get a kick out of.”
A Sigerson Cup winner with DCU in 2012, Collins went on to work as a welfare officer in the university’s student union. He has also set up his own clothing company, Cryptic Clique, still in its infancy, and the Castlerea native has a Masters in Fashion from DIT.
Success on and off the field, but his focus since departing these shores has been solely career focused.
“I’m definitely trying to prioritise my career. So at this stage I would consider myself as being someone who wants to pursue and achieve in the fashion industry rather than as a footballer. But I guess that could change, realistically I could be back playing next year, but at the moment that’s a long way away from me now.
“I thought there’d be better opportunities here, and I just like the vibe also.
“The biggest thing about New York is it is full of characters. People are really comfortable in expressing themselves here, more than at home. People pretty much do live the way they want to live. They can be extreme, they can do what makes them feel good, day-to-day, and I like that. It makes it very entertaining.
“And then in terms of opportunities, it is very high standard. The work that people do here is incredible. They take their work very seriously and they want to achieve big things, even internationally. There’s the events, talks that are on, exhibitions, it’s the best of the best worldwide and it’s nice to be around those standards and learn and gain experience from those standards.”
Since his departure, Roscommon have struggled through the 2017 season, without Collins and a number of other experienced players who were not included in this year’s panel. And others who declined late invitations to return.
"There have been significant changes in personnel from this time last year. And if I'm being honest, I thought that a lot of the changes and transition had been made with John Evans. And I think he guided us through a pretty smooth transition, and I thought that stability would be good then thereafter.
“Even though we did well with John, we had not been in a good place when he came in, and he helped us get back to, a higher standard, so when someone was coming in after him I would’ve thought that stability would’ve been the best plan generally. Because, as I said, that was the transition period.
If you're going to take them lads away there's going to be a lull
“So I guess the change that happened between the end of last season and the start of this season really unbalanced things. Obviously there were a lot of changes, between management and players.
“In terms of playing personnel, a lot of the more experienced lads and the main leaders, well a lot of them, are gone. And that probably led to a lot of the results we saw earlier in the season. But I suppose there’s a lot of younger lads now trying to step up. To become established players and leaders as well.
"But realistically if you're going to take Niall Daly, Conor Daly, Ronan Daly, then Donie Shine, Cathal Cregg, David Keenan. If you're going to take them lads away there's going to be a lull."
Collins has won plenty of silverware for the Rossies, and his age-group is sandwiched between the minor All-Ireland winners of 2006, and three Under-21 Connacht titles (two All-Ireland final defeats) in five years.
He has the highest of expectations for what this ‘golden generation’ still has the potential to achieve.
“I think we were in a position, it didn’t happen, but we were competitive last year in Connacht. We could’ve won the first final last year, and I suppose when you’re close to that, that’s where you want to be.
“Competitive for Connacht championships, and being capable of winning All-Ireland quarter-finals, semi finals and going on and pushing all the way. And being a Division One team is very important too. So that’s the way I would’ve seen it. Where we should be.
“If you can get consistency of personnel, and consistency of effort, then anything is possible in football. And there have been huge changes in the fortunes of teams after they make small positive changes.
“So I suppose Roscommon, if they can get back their key players, and get some of the other players to establish themselves, anything is possible . But you’ve got to have the best lads playing.”
An O’Neills is the last brand on Collins’ mind right now, but this Sunday he’ll be keen to see how his former teammates get on.
"Some of my good friends, that I've huge time and respect for, are lads I met playing football. Like Sean McDermott and Ian Kilbride would be two guys that I would really get on well with and have huge respect for, and really enjoy their company.
“I’ve hardly seen any football this year, I just think if you’re making a decision to step away for something you go all the way. You can’t still be half there. So I said when I stopped playing and came here, I would immerse myself with a different way of living.
“I have kept my eye on a few results but that’s been it. But look, championship is very different from league games, there’s more at stake.
“Will I be watching it? I’m sure I’ll watch the game. I’m still a Roscommon supporter and a lot of guys who I have a lot of respect for, and a lot of people who I’ve seen develop as players and people, are playing. So I’m interested in that and as much as anything. I’d love to see them getting on great.”
Collins was a rare commodity in a young, talented Roscommon team. A forward thinking defender, yes, but one who thrived in the physical stakes. He came up to kick two points in the league semi-final last year against Kerry, right and left footed, but he is also a tight marker, well acquainted with the darker arts when needs be.
Starting this Sunday, McStay and Roscommon need new leaders to stand up and take over. Nevertheless, all of the county will be hopeful of Neil Collins’ return, sooner rather than later.
“My decision to leave wasn’t based so much on football, or certainly it didn’t have anything to do with the current set up. I’d have big respect for Kevin and from my experience he’s treated me with huge respect and been very understanding of where I’m at.
He's had a tough couple of months, but I think he's a strong character that can keep going and turn it around
“While at the same time he told me that he wanted me to be involved, and I told him that I’d love to be involved, but I just felt that at this time I needed to step away and step into something else.
“I’ve respect for him and I know he’s had a tough couple of months, but I think he’s a strong character that can keep going and turn it around.”
Well wishes from New York, now back to exploring the unknown.