by JAKE NUTTING
When Neill Collins’ phone rang on Thursday morning to summon him to a meeting with Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, getting an offer to coach the team he’s played for since 2016 was not what he was expecting.
After roughly two and half seasons with Stuart Campbell at the helm and a mediocre start this year, though, Edwards was ready to head in a new direction and wanted to Collins for the job.
Collins accepted without much hesitation.
“I genuinely thought (the meeting) was to get my counsel how to take things forward, discuss perhaps what was happening and how we could improve things,” Collins said. “Within two or three hours I’m going to be the head coach. That’s just life in football. It’s ups and downs and roundabouts. You never know week to week what’s going to be happening. This is probably the biggest whirlwind I’ve had in my career, but it’s certainly and exciting chapter.”
Like many of Edwards’ decisions, the coaching shakeup is an unusual situation. Collins, 34, has been Tampa Bay’s best defender on the back line and arguably the best player overall through the first nine matches of the United Soccer League season. The Scotsman remains on the club’s active roster, but he’s not expected to suit up for the Rowdies again as he puts all his energy on the fulltime job of coaching.
It’s an abrupt end to an 18-year playing career for Collins, though he won’t have much time for reflection on the early retirement as he gets set for his first match as coach Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
“I’ve not had time to think about it yet,” he said. “It’s going to come at different points when I realize I’m not gonna be running out there to play and tackle and head and shout at people. But there’s gonna be other challenges that are exciting and I’m looking forward to having an influence on the bigger picture. I’m really excited about that.”
Veteran Joe Cole, who has already announced this will be his final season as a player, is grateful for the swiftness of the club’s actions after Campbell’s exit and also praised Collins as “hardworking” and “demanding” shortly after Friday’s training session.
“You don’t want to be left in limbo too long, so the fact that it happened quickly I thought was good for all concerned,” Cole said. “Obviously you’re sad with the ex-coach leaving because obviously you feel a degree of responsibility. You’re part of the problem, you know. Then the new guy comes in and all of a sudden there’s new ideas, so it’s a lift. There wasn’t a long time in that limbo zone where there’s maybe a caretaker manager. Bill’s been very astute and done everything quickly and made his decision. We’re ready to go.”
“I’ve been there plenty of time when managers change hands and new guys come in,’ Cole added. “Sometimes you have an immediate effect, sometimes you have a slow burner. I think he’ll just be looking to impose his personality and will on the team over a course of time. Hopefully it starts from the kick off tomorrow night.”
Collins, who holds a UEFA A Coaching License, has a tough task as a first-time coach being thrown into the job with about 75 percent of the season left to go. He’ll need to hit the ground running and learn on the job to meet the expectations of ownership and the supporters that had high hopes.
For the time being he’s focusing on getting the players — and the entire organization — in a better headspace following the recent four-match losing streak.
“I think there’s always changes that can be made in any team. For me the biggest thing is I want to try and get a really positive mindset. I want everyone at this club, from the owner Mr. Edwards, the kit man, to the people medical room, all pulling in one direction, helping each other out. There’s so many people willing to offer at this club that I’m really excited about working together.”
As for what changes supporters might expect to see Saturday when the Rowdies lineup against the Riverhounds?
“That would be telling. I might be young, but I’m not that wet behind the ears.”