Remembering Lee Collins – a natural leader on and off the pitch

Ask for a description of Lee Collins from those who knew him best and the same replies keep coming back.

Loyal. Strong. Respectful. A leader. A role model. A natural captain.

Qualities which defined him not just as a footballer - and a very successful one at that - but also as a man.

It is impossible to even begin to imagine what Collins’ family are currently going through after their heart-breaking loss last week.

It has been hard enough for what you might call his ‘football family’ to come to terms with, spanning as it does the nine clubs he represented, in doing so chalking up 470 senior appearances and scoring eight goals.

There will have been tributes paid, memories shared and tears shed across all the ports of call Collins stopped off at during his impressive career.

After Wolves that comprised Hereford, Port Vale, Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Northampton, Mansfield, Forest Green and Yeovil, where he made his most recent start in February and had returned from injury to be on the bench for the win over Barnet just a few days before his passing.

In an open letter to supporters, Yeovil’s manager Darren Sarll spoke of Collins as the ‘glue’ which held the team together, outlining his ‘strength of character, undeniable playing ability and his will to win’.

Whilst it may be way too soon and way too raw for the array of tributes to be fully digested by those closest to Collins amid their current grief, in time they will hopefully paint a picture of a footballer who inspired respect and admiration from so many of those he lined up alongside and worked for, and for the thousands of supporters who watched him.

And it all began at Wolves.

It was vastly experienced scout Les Green who first spotted Collins’ talent, at a seven-a-side tournament at Ercall School in his home town of Telford in May of 1999.

“Lee was at the back playing for Wrekin Colts, winning tackles and bringing the ball out like an old pro at school year six,” Green recalls.

“I called Tony Lacey (then Academy Head of Recruitment) over to watch him and invited him in to sign straightaway on the first available evening.”

Brought in to play at Under-11 level, training within the youth set-up at Wolves in Collins’ early years was at Aldersley Stadium, prior to the development of the current complex at Compton Park, and that meant travelling over from Shropshire several times a week.

He wasn’t alone however, and a friendship was soon struck up with fellow Telford residents Elliott Bennett and younger brother Kyle, with their respective mothers Tracey and Lynn sharing lift duties up and down the M54.

Collins and Elliott not only grew up together with those evening training sessions before becoming full-time scholars, they also shared a classroom at Thomas Telford School.

“As youngsters we were so close,” Bennett recalled this week.

“We spent many years together through all the ages at Wolves, we went to the same school and we lived our dream together.

“We signed our scholarships together and then the ultimate, both signing our first professional contracts.”

Two would regularly become three for Collins and Bennett senior, with another within their age group – Matt Bailey – joining up to form a trio of firm friends.

“The three of us all got on really well, and you can still see from so many photos from the time that we would often be next to each other,” says Bailey.

“We did the football thing together for so many years going through the Academy, getting our scholarships, and then a pro contract.

“All of us from that time were close though, and so many of us, Lee included, kept in touch to this day.

“Wolves was our second home and we were like brothers, training together, socialising together and travelling across Europe together.

“They really were the best times.”

Bennett, Collins and Bailey were all part of the Academy Under-12s team which won the Shizuoka World Junior tournament in Japan back in 2001, a victory still remembered with huge fondness by all who made the trip.

Even then, at such a young age, came a palpable sign of the drive and fearlessness which epitomised Collins’ approach.

“Lee got a proper knock in one of the games, a clash of heads, and had split his lip open and was struggling,” Bailey recalls.

“But he just carried on, that was Lee, and his attitude inspired the rest of the lads.

“Japan was massive for all of us, just 12 years of age, playing football together on the other side of the world and representing England to beat other countries like Brazil, Australia, Japan and China.

“That was one of the biggest moments of some of our careers, and we shared it all together.”

As Collins progressed through the ranks, his ability both on and off the pitch was evident to all who he worked with, and there remained an immense amount of mutual respect between him and Green.

“I got on really well with Lee, and only remember giving him two bits of advice,” Green explains.

“When he was around 13 he was a little bit off the pace so I asked him if he was carrying an injury – he nodded.

“Lee just wanted to play through it as he always did but I told him he needed to get it sorted or he would find himself being ‘rested’ for the wrong reasons.

“He could also play in different positions, and at times he found himself at left back which I didn’t think suited him as much as in the centre.

“But I suggested that irrespective of whether he was happy or not that he should be prepared to play in positions outside of his comfort zone.

“That way he would learn more about the game, and nobody ever gets the chance to impress sat in the dugout.

“He always listened, and I would say my influence was miniscule compared to so many other staff across the Academy, and you can see that the tributes about Lee say more and less the same thing from across the spectrum.

“Respect, work ethic, leadership, a good pro, a players’ player, a natural captain, and a top bloke off the pitch as well.”

Collins certainly retained so much gratitude and appreciation for so many of the Academy staff whom, as Green alludes to, played such a key role in his development.

There is a photo on Facebook featuring Green, his fellow long-serving and successful scout Bob Bennett, and former head of recruitment Lacey, in which Collins was one of many youngsters from the time expressing their thanks for the trio’s support.

“Lee was a born leader but also a really nice young man with that likeability factor and always well-mannered and smiling,” says Bennett.

“He was a really good character who competed well in training and games.”

Others who played an influential role in Collins’ development included Chris Evans, Academy director at the time who oversaw his arrival, Carlo (Chico) Federici, whose portfolio covered a range of areas within the youth set-up, his successor Glyn Harding, who also oversaw school liaison, and long-serving physio, Gavin Blackwell.

And perhaps in particular the late John Perkins, who when coaching Wolves' Under-19s became a mentor-type figure to Collins as well as his manager.

Nick Loftus headed up Wolves’ education programme during Collins’ latter stages within the Academy, and says he has ‘nothing but fond memories’ of his time at Wolves.

“With some players who come through the system sometimes you might have to think a bit about how to describe them but not Lee – he is one I have really good and strong memories of,” says Loftus.

“Lee was actually 15 when I joined the Academy, but I already knew him because my son was with him at Thomas Telford School so I had already seen him play.

“He was such a reliable, honest and sensible character, one of the really positive players who came through the system.

“John Perkins absolutely loved him, both as a player and his right hand man out on the pitch.

“Lee was very mature for his age and such an obvious choice to be captain.

“There was an edge to him which helped make him a leader, and all his team-mates respected him and the staff respected him as much - if not more - than the players did.

“I had that same level of respect for Lee, and it was no surprise to see him go on and have such a good career in the game.”

Collins made sufficient progress through the Academy to land his first professional contract at Molineux in February 2007, putting pen to paper at the same time as Bennett, Mark Salmon and Liam Hughes.

He was an unused substitute for the first team during Mick McCarthy’s first season at the helm around that same period, for the fixtures against Cardiff and Plymouth at home, and Preston away.

Ultimately he would temporarily move on loan to Hereford, helping them win promotion from League Two, then later to Port Vale where he would eventually complete a permanent switch, ending that lengthy and largely happy association with Wolves.

And even if he didn’t quite manage to make a first team breakthrough at Molineux, that’s not to say Collins hadn’t made an impression on the senior players.

Many tributes over the last week have come from those within Wolves’ first team ranks at the time Collins was emerging, including Carl Ikeme, Michael Kightly, Dave Edwards, Karl Henry, Stephen Ward, Matt Jarvis and Matt Murray, as well as one or two who followed him through the Academy, such as Danny Batth.

“Like all the lads who were linked to Wolves, you keep an eye on them as they go through their careers and we kept in touch a little bit over the years,” says Murray.

“And I remember Lee at Wolves as a young pro, always giving 100 per cent when he trained with the senior squad and lining up with us for a pre-season friendly at Doncaster.

“Everyone would say what a loyal and genuine guy that he was, with a good heart - a tough player on the pitch but always fair.

“It was just so sad and devastating to see the news, and all my thoughts are with his young family.”

The then captain Henry was another who can recollect Collins coming through the system, adding: “I remember Lee as a young player at Wolves - he was a good lad with a great attitude.”

It was that attitude that carried the ambitious character on through his career, along with his undoubted defensive ability, a powerful combination which made him popular at all the clubs he represented both among his team-mates and on the terraces.

That career included a winning return to Wolves with Northampton for a Capital One Cup tie which the Cobblers won 3-2, several appearances in the play-offs, a Player’s Player of the Year award at Port Vale as well as being named by Vale fans as the best left back of the 2010’s.

The highest level he reached was a short time spent in the Championship with Barnsley, but, for Loftus, he feels Collins would not have looked out of place even higher.

“I think for a lot of young players, along with their talent and application, a lot can depend on opportunity and whether things fall into place,” Loftus suggests, whilst also feeling Collins could have had all the attributes to move into coaching after his career.

“Lee never played in the Premier League but I believe that he could have done, if his pathway had just turned out differently.”

For all the consistency and success enjoyed at senior level by Collins, the main memory of his time at Wolves came courtesy of the dramatic FA Youth Cup run of 2004/05.

That was when the young defender, at the age of 16, was drafted into the two-legged semi-final with a star-studded Southampton team with one all-consuming task.

To stop Theo Walcott.

Evans and Perkins devised a masterplan, and spotted enough within Collins’ armoury to negate the threat of English football’s exciting fresh hope, who just a few months later would be making his first team debut – against Wolves – and just over a year later would be heading to the World Cup.

So Collins had to be granted a day off school for the away leg, before spending the morning of the return in the classroom at Thomas Telford before an evening chasing Walcott around Molineux in front of an expectant crowd of almost 9,000.

Wolves eventually lost on penalties, but Collins earned plenty of plaudits for his marshalling of Walcott.

Just a couple of months ago, while putting together a feature for the Express & Star about that big night at Molineux ahead of the first team’s FA Cup tie with the Saints, I managed to speak to Collins, whom, despite having been sent off the previous weekend for Yeovil, was only too happy to help.

“I thought I was going to get the ball,” he said with a chuckle about his sending-off against Stockport before taking a trip down Memory Lane and chatting about his Walcott assignment some 16 years earlier.

“I was only 16 so I was properly ******* it if I’m honest!” he recalled.

“One thing I was though – and people reading this now might not believe this – was fast!

“I used to be in the county running team and both myself and Elliott Bennett, who also played in that run, were at the same school and were pretty quick.

“Then in the first couple of minutes they put one down the channel and Walcott absolutely smoked me – fortunately it went out for a goal kick!

“Obviously it was tough given how good he was, but I think I did alright, and he actually got subbed in both games.

“I followed him everywhere, literally.

“At one stage in the second leg, he went over to his bench to get a drink, and I so I went over with him.

“He gave me some of his drink to be fair!

“To man mark a player as good as Walcott, and do o-k against him, is something I have always been really proud of.”

Collins was also at pains to highlight the influence exerted on his career by Perkins, who sadly passed away in 2016, and how they had stayed in close touch after both moving on from Wolves.

For Collins, that was just a part of such an enjoyable time spent at Wolves, which clearly laid the groundwork for his career which followed.

“I loved working with John, I stayed in touch with him after I left Wolves and when he phoned me he would always start off with ‘skippppperrr’, and we would chat about those times,” Collins added.

“I still think my days with that youth team are among the best of my career.

“That camaraderie you build with certain people, and how you develop together as players and people is something which is unmatchable.”

And that is a feeling shared by everyone within that squad, a special group of young players brought together at a special time for Wolves’ Academy.

It is why there has been such shock and devastation shared across social media and WhatsApp groups not just between those quoted in this piece but so many more who regarded Collins as not just a team-mate but also a friend.

For young players growing up, their parents, guardians, and staff, so many emotions and highs and lows are experienced, successes celebrated and defeats commiserated upon.

Unbreakable bonds are forged.

From those who shared the joys and despair of that dressing room together, a band of brothers who have now lost one of their own, those tributes and descriptions mentioned at the start of this article have offered up some powerful memories amid the grief and the sadness.

“You see people you just know are natural leaders don’t you, and Lee was a leader of men,” recalled Mark Little, who played alongside Collins in that Youth Cup run and later in Wolves Under-19s and reserves.

“He was a great all-round fella who you could hang your hat on.

“When you think back to that Youth Cup run, some of us earned contracts from that, players like Mark Davies really burst onto the scene, but Lee’s job in that semi-final where we ran Southampton so close might have been more important than anything.

“And Lee wouldn’t have made any fuss of it at the time, he was just doing his job and would have just come off the pitch after both games happy knowing that.

“When you are younger a lot of it is about whether you can step up and handle the physicality to play above your age, and he could definitely do that.

“When you walked out with Lee in the team he was just a pleasure to play alongside because you knew he would give you everything and put his body on the line for the team.

“For those of us who came through the ranks together, this has been such a shock, and has devastated so many people.”

“Lee was polite, always had time for people and was a great role model,” adds Bailey, who had been talking to Collins about doing a Q&A session for the young players he works with at West Bromwich Albion and at his First Touch Coaching (FTC) Football Academy.

“He was nice as pie off the pitch, but a centre back and a leader on it, and if you had any issues he would be right there with you.

“He was great fun as well and was never shy of getting involved in the dressing room banter or if we were on a night out.

“If he was first in from training, or had been in having treatment, by the time you got back to the dressing room you knew something would have ‘gone missing’.

“He was at the centre of everything, and was one of those in the dressing room who everyone looked up to.”

“Lee was a warrior of a player,” adds Bennett.

“He had everything and was always the captain and seen as a leader by the rest of the team.

“As a person he was a diamond who would do anything for anyone.

“I am just devastated for his mom Lynn who was amazing for us along with my parents in the relentless task of ferrying us around to make sure we could live our dreams.”

Lee Collins managed to live his dream, and his premature loss leaves that feeling of pain and devastation for so many with everyone’s thoughts with all of his family as they grieve at such a truly terrible time.

Yet within a football sense, his attitude, his approach, his loyalty and protection of his team-mates, and his sense of fun away from the football, leaves behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.

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