A meeting between Morton and Hibs will always conjure fond memories for Derek Collins. This weekend’s Cappielow combatants are, after all, the two clubs that defined his lengthy career in football.
Now 46, Collins remains Morton’s record appearance holder, with 534 league outings amassed during two spells. In between those fruitful stints at Cappielow, his lower-league professionalism was rewarded with an unlikely late chance to play for one of Scotland’s biggest clubs, when Alex McLeish paid Morton just over £100,000 to bring the little right-back to Hibs midway through their romp towards the old First Division title 17 seasons ago.
Collins, who was just five months shy of his 30th birthday at the time, made the most of an opportunity that he thought had passed him by and relished every moment of his two and a half years at Easter Road – albeit the closing months of his time in Edinburgh were spent out on loan – before returning to Morton in 2001.
“I remember my time at Hibs very well,” he said. “It feels like yesterday – good times. I’d been at Morton for 12 seasons almost, so that was my first move away from there. At Morton, I had team-mates who were getting big moves to the likes of Leeds, Newcastle, Chelsea and Nottingham Forest, then you had Brian Reid and Derek McInnes going to Rangers. I was probably starting to think that a move to a bigger club had passed me by. If I had stayed at Morton that would have been fine because you’re privileged to play at any football club. I went to Hibs in December 1998 and I was 29 by that time, but it was certainly worth the wait.”
Collins was signed to fill the void left by Barry Prenderville, who was returning to Coventry City at the end of his loan spell, and he found it an eye-opener going from Cappielow to sharing a dressing-room with European Cup winner Franck Sauzee. He wasn’t intimidated, however, and swiftly established himself in a Hibs team that won the First Division and then finished mid-table in the top flight the following year.
“If you’re there for a couple of seasons, you tend to grasp the stature of a football club and I felt Hibs was immense,” he explained. “It was a very exciting time to come to Hibs. At the time, Hibs and Falkirk were vying for the title. Falkirk had a very good side at the time but Alex McLeish had brought a lot of fresh new faces to the club. I’d gone from playing in front of just a few thousand to playing in front of 15,000 every week, so it was a big deal for me stepping into that environment.
“It was a fantastic side with incredible individuals like Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy, and you can’t forget Yogi [John] Hughes, who was a larger-than-life character. It was quite surreal to go from Morton at that stage of my career and end up playing beside so many good players. There was a real bond within the dressing-room, and I think that’s why we did so well.
“I was playing fairly consistently for a season or so for the first year and a half, but then Ulisses De La Cruz came in. When an internationalist like that comes in, you have to hold your hands up. Alex McLeish told me I’d done well to stick to my task when so many players had come and gone. I’ll always be thankful to him for allowing me to step up a level. It would have been nice if I was there a bit longer, but it was a privilege and a pleasure to be at Hibs.”
Collins feels the jolt of a spell in the second tier had a galvanising effect on Hibs 17 years ago, and he sees something similar happening now, with Alan Stubbs’ on-form side currently making an impressive fist of trying to pip Rangers to the Championship title. “Sometimes in football, clubs have to take a little step back to move forward and I think that’s what happened with Hibs at that time when they were in the First Division,” he said. “Alex McLeish came in at a time when it seemed the club’s fate was set regardless. When that happens, you have to accept that the club are going to go to a different environment and then restructure, rebuild and improve from there. That’s what happened at the time for Hibs, and it looks like something similar’s happening now.
“When your players are playing consistently at a good level, as Hibs are just now, it means the manager is doing something right on the training ground. Alan Stubbs seems a very positive guy and they’re obviously responding to him. They’ve got a real good mix of players who want to get the ball down and pass the ball, and they’ll certainly fancy their chances of getting automatic promotion. I think it will be a really close battle for the title.”
Collins has been out of football since a spell as assistant to Davie Irons at Morton in 2009. He keeps a close eye on the affairs of his former clubs, however, and knows that both are in excellent form ahead of Saturday’s Championship showdown in Greenock. Hibs have won 14 of their last 15 games and lurk within three points of Rangers, while Morton, who have won five of their last seven under former Hibs boss Jim Duffy, sit in fourth place. “Both teams are in fine form, so it should be a tight game,” said Collins. “Both sets of fans will turn out in good numbers because their teams are doing so well, but I think Morton will find it very difficult and Hibs will probably edge it.”