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Collins aiming to cement a place in starting XI

26 November 2015

One look at Lee Collins’ career stats tells you that he simply isn’t accustomed to being a substitute.

At the time of writing, the central defender has made just 16 appearances from the bench in a total of more than 300 senior games in all. 

So it was not in the script early this season that the man who arrived from Northampton amid much fanfare – and with an already healthy reputation enhanced by praise heaped on him by new boss Adam Murray – suddenly found himself confined to the bench. 

Collins looked set to lead the club into battle as captain, having settled in nicely at One Call Stadium and played his part in the Stags’ pre-season schedule. What he did not account for, however, was for an injury that had been some time in the making flaring up at just the wrong moment. 

A stress fracture of a metatarsal in his foot, which he first felt in the warm-up before the game against Premier League Leicester City, confined the 27-year-old to the treatment table on the eve of the season opener against Carlisle United, leaving Ryan Tafazolli and Krystian Pearce free to take on central defensive responsibilities. 

And though it was not long before the former Wolves trainee was back in contention – with the use of orthotics helping him to amend the way he was running – the form of his team mates was such that Collins simply had to bide his time. 

“When I first felt it, I wasn’t overly concerned because though it was a shooting pain that was new to me, it wasn’t as if I got kicked,” he explains, “I ran it off and just carried on playing. 

“But it turned out it wasn’t fine because I wasn’t running properly and it dated back to an injury I had sustained 18 months before. 

“I was unknowingly putting extra pressure on the metatarsal. 

“It could have come to light six months before that or six months after, but it was sod’s law that it just had to happen in the lead up to the new season. The club sent me away to see a foot specialist and he showed me how to manage it – and it was a relief that it wasn’t something worse and was something that could be fixed. 

“But at the same time I had wanted to hit the ground running after moving to a new club and I couldn’t get back in the side because Pearcey (Krystian Pearce) and Taff (Ryan Tafazolli) put together a great partnership and we were not conceding goals. I couldn’t argue.” 

Collins’ chance came when Mansfield took on Bristol Rovers on October 17 when Pearce was given his marching orders for an off-the-ball-clash. The Stags eventually lost 2-1 as they finished the game with nine men, with Nicky Hunt also seeing red after two bookings. 

Having returned to the side briefly when playing at right-back in the 0-0 draw with Plymouth as cover for Hunt, who was banned after picking up five bookings, this fresh opportunity was one the reliable stopper seized with both hands. 

While the Stags may have done better in front of goal in recent weeks, Collins has been consistently dependable to make a first-team place his own once more. 

In recent times, prior to Tuesday’s 2-0 FA Cup first round replay defeat at Oldham at any rate, it has been Pearce’s turn to take a spell on the sidelines. Collins admits: “I’ve been pleased with the way I have played since coming back. I was always confident I could step up and play my part once I was given the nod, but I was obviously glad it did go that way. 

“I was on the sidelines for about two months and you suddenly realise that you haven’t played a competitive match since the previous April because of the summer break. 

“Doubts do start to creep in and you wonder if you can still do it, but thankfully I was thrown in at the deep end when Pearcey was suspended and it’s gone okay.” 

With deadlines meaning this piece was penned prior to Mansfield’s home game with Hartlepool, Collins was desperately keen to see the team end a goal drought that had stretched to five matches, with the Stags’ last goal coming in the 1-0 victory at Yeovil, when Reggie Lambe struck late. 

The Telford-born player is convinced that his colleagues have not been doing all that much wrong.

“It’s strange how it has happened because I still think we have been a big threat to teams and they have shown respect by the way they have lined up against us,” insists Collins. 

“I think it’s just been the case during the dry spell that we haven’t had the rub of the green. 

“It’s true to say that we have probably lacked that little bit of quality in the final third that we had earlier in the season, but at the same time, sometimes you need a little bit of luck in front of goal and we haven’t 
had it. 

“I think it could be one of those times where we need it to go in off someone’s backside and then we will be up and running again because there’s no doubt that we have got goal-scorers and players who can do some real damage at this level.” 

Collins, who was picked up by Wolves as a 10-year-old playing as a striker in a seven-a-side tournament at Lilleshall, remains convinced Mansfield are well capable of challenging for promotion, either automatically or via the play-offs despite the recent blip. 

Going up is a joyous scenario he has already been a part of, playing for Hereford United during the run-in to their elevation to League One at the end of the 2007-08 season under Graham Turner.

At the same time as the Stags were doomed to the Conference for the first time in their history after a truly disastrous campaign, the Bulls were cracking open the Champagne bottles after finishing in third spot behind MK Dons and Peterborough. 

It was a side that featured the likes of former Stag John McCombe (now of York), ex-Derby man Theo Robinson (now of Motherwell), ex-Huddersfield winger Lionel Ainsworth (now of Motherwell), Toumani Diagouraga (now of Brentford), former Leicester target man Trevor Benjamin and, of course, Gary Hooper who has gone on to star for the likes of Scunthorpe, Glasgow Celtic and Norwich City before signing for Sheffield Wednesday last month. 

Collins says: “I went to Hereford on loan and it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I was used to training at Wolves with their amazing facilities and all of a sudden I was at a club where they didn’t have their own training ground and, no disrespect, had a ground that was quite run down in places. 

“Graham Turner gave me the chance to play, which I needed, and it was great to be part of something like that promotion, with a lot of good players in the side. 

“I remember making my debut in November at Stockport County. I had not trained with the side prior to playing and the manager told me not to do anything fancy as a right-back but instead just give the ball to Lionel Ainsworth playing in front of me. 

“I was a bit miffed that he didn’t want me to go and express myself, but by the end of the game I could see why those were the instructions – Lionel had scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 win! 

“I had hoped to build on that by going back to Wolves and forcing my way into the first team, but it didn’t work out that way.” 

Instead, Collins’ next departure from Molineux was a permanent one as he joined Port Vale, enjoying a three-and-a-half year stay under the leadership of Mickey Adams, clocking up 163 games in the process. 

A move to then-Championship club Barnsley followed, but opportunities at Oakwell were limited and a move to Northampton came next, where he became something of a fans’ favourite. 

Even so, being released at the end of last season did not come as a surprise. “It was a funny one in that even though I played most of the season, I knew I would probably not be retained and I would have to look elsewhere,” says Collins. 

“I wanted to stay living where I was because my family had already moved around quite a bit, living in lots of different houses and hotels. 

“My partner, Rachel, has been very supportive, but with my daughter Amelia-Grace, who’s four, starting school, I didn’t want to uproot again. It means a one hour 40 minutes commute each way, but I think it is worth it, especially as I am enjoying playing for Mansfield. 

“With other new lads having come to the club in the summer it’s been a breath of fresh air, and I only hope we can go on and achieve something at the end of the season.” 

It’s a final sentiment shared by Stags’ fans young and old. Another Collins’ promotion really would be most welcome!

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