James Collins watched Terry Butcher turn Inverness Caley’s Billy McKay into one of the Scottish Premiership’s most feared strikers and believes the new Hibs boss can do exactly the same for him.
Inverness’ Northern Irish hitman claimed 27 goals last season and is already halfway to repeating that haul after just 19 games this time round, but, like Collins, he initially found goals hard to come by after moving north of the border.
Having made the switch from Northampton to the Highlands, McKay scored just three goals in his first season and came close to being axed by Butcher, only to make the most of that reprieve to now be averaging around a goal every other game.
Like McKay, Collins has found goals hard to come by since his £200,000 move from Swindon Town, the 22-year-old having found the net just twice, breaking a five match barren run with back-to-back strikes against St Johnstone and St Mirren. However, it’s now more than two months since the Republic of Ireland Under-21 hitman found the net, a record he’s naturally desperate to see improve – and quickly.
Collins, who scored 18 times for the Robins last season, has his fingers crossed Butcher and his assistant Maurice Malpas can weave the same magic for him, the early signs highly promising as the new management team demand their side play the game in and around the opposition penalty area as much as possible.
As he looked forward to tomorrow’s match with Partick Thistle, Collins said: “I just look at what they did with Billy McKay at Inverness. He was not really known when he went up there, but he’s firing on all cylinders this season, just as he did last year. The gaffer and Maurice have done really well with him and I don’t see any reason why it can’t be the same for me.
“When I scored in those successive games against St Johnstone and St Mirren I thought ‘This is it’, but perhaps that was the problem – maybe I thought I had arrived and it was going to happen for me. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that.”
The answer, as far as Collins is concerned, is simply to get back to basics, to work hard both in training and in games believing that the rewards will come. That is the mantra preached by both Butcher and Malpas since their arrival in Edinburgh, the pair demanding the very least they get from their players is a work ethic regardless of how well they might be playing.
To that end, Collins has earned the praise of Butcher for his efforts, particularly in last weekend’s Scottish Cup triumph over Ross County in Dingwall, describing his seemingly boundless reserves of stamina and strength as “phenomenal” and joking his striker must possess a third lung.
Collins, of course, has no such thing, insisting that his game is simply built on those self-same guidelines as espoused by Butcher and Malpas.
He said: “I don’t do anything special in training, just what the rest of the lads do in the week. I don’t know if it is just adrenalin during games or the fact I have come up here and feel I have something to prove. I want to do well and the base for that is working hard. I have always thought of myself as someone who tries to work hard for the team, even if the goals are not coming as is the case at the moment. I just try to work hard for the team and I believe if you do the right things the goals will come and that’s what I am trying to do at the minute.”
Collins also feels Butcher’s emphasis on having the game played in “enemy” territory can only help him hit the goal trail. He said: “As a striker you can’t ask for any more – he wants the ball put into the box as often as we can. Every time we get it wide it’s to be put in there, to be played in behind them more often. More crosses, more shots, more goals.
“If the ball is getting put into the box and we are not scoring, then it’s down to the strikers, but there’s not much you can do if the ball isn’t going in there. It’s worked well for them in Inverness. They’ve plucked players from the lower leagues, from non-league football and done really well. They did it last season and it’s been working again this season for Caley, which proves it has been no fluke.”
Collins agreed there seems to be a renewed vibrancy around the club following Butcher’s arrival, the former England captain immediately instilling a sense of self-belief and confidence which has been reflected in Hibs opening two games under his charge, a no-scoring draw in Paisley followed by a first win in seven attempts against Ross County.
Much was made of that particular “hoodoo” ahead of the Scottish Cup tie at Victoria Park, but again, Collins revealed, Butcher’s positivity shone through. He said: “I don’t really look at that sort of stuff myself, but we did have a meeting in the week beforehand and it was mentioned.
“I thought throughout the week as we prepared for the game it wasn’t about what had happened in the past, but what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t think there was any doubt about us winning and going into the next round. The gaffer gave us the confidence to go up there and put on a good performance. I think we did that and deserved our win.”
Now, Collins admitted it was a case of keeping the momentum which has been gained over the past couple of weeks going tomorrow when Butcher takes charge of the team for the first time at Easter Road against Partick Thistle. He said: “We are quite close in the table so it’s a vital three points but again I feel if we work as hard as we can as a unit then the result will look after itself.
“The travelling support we had at both St Mirren and Ross County was outstanding. To take more than 1000 to Dingwall was brilliant. The vast majority of our fans haven’t seen the team play under the new gaffer yet, so hopefully they’ll be there in their numbers tomorrow.
“Our home form hasn’t been great, but we’ll be applying the same attitude. Confidence is good, we’ve had two clean-sheets – two games in which we limited the opposition to very few chances and rarely looked like losing a goal – and with the fans right behind us then hopefully we’ll be more than okay.”