James Collins has been backed to banish a mentally-draining season at Hibs and prove that he’s no dud.
The striker arrived at Easter Road amid high expectations when the club pushed the boat out and paid Swindon Town a six-figure sum for his services last July after he had netted 18 goals for the Robins in the previous campaign.
But, with just six goals in 40 appearances and having been widely criticised and mocked as Hibs nosedived towards relegation, Collins has parted company with the Edinburgh club less than a year into a three-year contract to sign up for a second stint at Shrewsbury Town.
Rowan Vine, another striker who arrived at Hibs last summer to try and fill the goal-scoring void left by fans’ favourite Leigh Griffiths, is adamant that his friend and former colleague is a far better player than he was able to show at Hibs.
“James had a few options last summer and he chose to come to Hibs so it’s unfortunate that it ended for him the way it did, but he loves his football and I’d expect him to regroup and go again at Shrewsbury next season,” said Vine. “James had a lot more chances to play in the team than I did but even that won’t be much consolation to him because he was playing in a team that was struggling and not playing to his strengths, which makes you look a lot worse than what you are.”
Vine has been saddened to see his friend mocked and cast as a scapegoat for Hibs’ plight. He feels Collins would have prospered if Pat Fenlon, the man who signed the pair last summer, had remained in charge and blames Terry Butcher for not doing enough to get the best out of him.
“James is a totally different player to Leigh Griffiths and the fans were always going to be looking for someone to replace those goals, whether it was me, James or Heffs [Paul Heffernan]. James was the youngest of all three of us and had never really done badly anywhere he’s been. He came into a team where we were struggling to create chances and struggling to score goals. We were just starting to get it right when Pat was manager and James and Heffs were playing up front. Until the Aberdeen game [a 2-0 home defeat in September], we were looking like a team that could score goals, but since the change of management, I could never see Hibs scoring a goal apart from through set-pieces. I believe James is a good centre-forward who, if you give him six chances in a game, will always score one or two.
“Whenever I watched Hibs, the feeling I got was that James was only going to get one half-chance a game and he was going to have to take it. It was the same with Jason Cummings. He’s a goalscorer – in training and in the Under-20s, it was just goals, goals, goals. But you put him in the first team and he didn’t look like scoring until he scored the two really good goals against Hamilton. That kind of summed Hibs up at the end of the season – they just didn’t create chances.”
Collins’ last goal for Hibs came in mid-January and his woes in front of goal were symptomatic of Hibs’ remarkable slide down the league in the closing four months of the season. Vine believes the former Aston Villa youngster suffered a serious crisis of confidence under Butcher.
“I felt for James – he’s a friend of mine and he’s taken a lot of flak, but the tragedy that’s happened with Hibs getting relegated makes you look a little bit further than the playing staff. I left in January, so I can’t be sure exactly what’s gone on there, but, you have to ask, has James, or any of the players for that matter, had enough help to improve and has the team been set up in the way that suits them best?
“I picked up the paper and saw the manager saying we haven’t had a goalscorer and effectively pointing the finger at James. That’s poor management and it’s a poor assessment, in my opinion. I’d be looking at all the different sets of midfielders and all the sets of wide men he’s played and ask why they haven’t created chances for the strikers. That’s how a team works.
“You certainly shouldn’t come out in the press slaughtering your strikers. I don’t agree with other players and members of staff digging colleagues out and I got the feeling James was getting a lot of that at Hibs. It does nothing for your confidence and I know by the end James was going out on the pitch with no confidence. When that happens, it becomes really hard to recover from.
“For James, having been at Villa as a youngster, gone on loan and done well, then gone to Shrewsbury and Swindon and done well, this was the first time in his career that he really had to deal with that negativity. I spoke to him loads of times and I could detect 100 per cent that it was getting him down, getting criticised all the time and being cast as the scapegoat.
“No-one works harder than James, but you could see he was probably trying too hard in the end. That comes when you don’t have confidence. You need a run in the team, you need a goal and you need people to keep encouraging you when things are not going well, but it seemed to go the other way for James.”
In the end, it came as little surprise when Butcher informed Collins last week that Hibs wouldn’t stand in his way if he could fix himself up with a new club. Vine urged his friend to seize the opportunity of a fresh start.
“James rang me last week and asked what I thought he should do after the manager had told him that he didn’t see him as part of his plans,” he said. “I told him that if they didn’t really want to play him at Hibs, the best thing he could do was to make sure he gets out as quickly as possible and gets his name back on the map.”
Vine is currently trying to do the same after one of the worst years of his career. Following short and frustrating stints at Hibs and Morton, the 31-year-old former St Johnstone and Queens Park Rangers forward has returned south in the hope of getting himself fixed up with a club in the London area.
“The Hibs fans definitely didn’t see the best of myself. Nowhere near it,” he admitted. “I only played ten games and I only started four league games. I felt really good [fitness-wise] by the time the new manager came in but it was apparent pretty much from the second day that he was never going to give me a chance. That was disappointing because although my start at Hibs wasn’t good, I know if I was given a chance I would have turned it around.”