THERE was a video uploaded to YouTube in 2018 called ‘The Best of Neil Collins. Down GAA Legend.’
For three minutes and 51 seconds we were presented with numerous examples as to why the Carryduff man is considered to be among the best goalkeepers – if not the very best – to wear the famous red and black jersey.
His two big hits from 1994 are there, of course.
In the famous Ulster Championship classic against Derry at Celtic Park, big Anthony Tohill raced through and drop-kicked a rocket towards goal. Collins had leaned slightly to his right but somehow readjusted his balance in order to get his left hand lifted to deflect the ball over the bar.
Then there was the 1994 All-Ireland final penalty save from Dublin’s Charlie Redmond, a stop that again needed some mid-air correction. That was Neil Collins’s moment in history and one he describes in detail later in this piece.
There is a theme running through the majority of the other saves in the compilation though, and it’s not that Meath’s Bernard Flynn was often the man losing out.
They’re not spectacular, and that’s because they didn’t need to be. Collins was one of the very best when it came to sniffing out danger. So many of his most important saves saw him out on top of the attacker before he even had his foot pulled back. So many saves came from him smothering the shot by making his body big. So many saves had big consequences for Down football.
As a massive Kopite, his idol growing up was Ray Clemence and the three-time European Cup winner once said this about his best save – against Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Uli Stielikein the ’77 final
“It wasn’t a spectacular save but just the time of the game and the importance of it.” Words that no doubt resonate with Collins every time he watches the goalkeeping on his regular visits to Anfield before the Covid-19 pandemic put a hold on that.
He actually spent his first few months as a new-born in Liverpool but it wouldn’t be the only time he lived in England. While at Queen’s he spent time working in the post office in Bolton with former Fermanagh footballer Marty Breslin.
Whilst there, the pair played with St Brendan’s, Manchester – one of four clubs Collins represented during his career.
His favourite line to managers when asked to do running in training was that ‘goalkeeping is an art form and Picasso didn’t do laps of the pitch’ but in Manchester he played full-back, so running was on the agenda.
The side managed to reach the Lancashire final before losing out to Oisin’s with the club flying Collins and Breslin over for the big matches. When that adventure was over, the pair would continue to play together in the Down leagues with Carryduff.
“We were living in Bolton so we weren’t actually in Manchester. Was Manchester a nice city? As a man born to a Scouse mother and as a mad Liverpool fan, I’d rather Liverpool to Manchester,” Collins said.
As a youngster he played his football with Ballymartin before transferring to Drumaness when the family moved to Ballynahinch. When he returned from England he was living around Carryduff and ended up being one of four players from the club to pick up Celtic Crosses – Greg Blaney, Mark McCartan and John Kelly the others.
“At that time there were a lot of guys coming and going from Carryduff,” Collins said.
“Liam Heaney, Conal Mooney, who both played for Down, Greg was an original Carryduff player but also a Ballycran man at the same time. Gabriel O’Kane from Dungiven.
“We had no pitch at that stage, we were playing up at Queen’s at the time and Cherryvale.
“I know they trained at Lough Moss too and there would have been broken glass on the pitch when the juveniles were over there but we were at Queen’s and Cherryvale and there was never any bother.
“I played most of my underage football with Ballymartin, my grandfather was one of the founders. I would have stayed up there in the summers after we moved to Ballynahinch and once you walked into the house the first thing you saw was a picture of the Down 1960 team.
“My dad played county minors and was chairman when they bought the football field that was directly across from my Granda’s house.
“When I was growing up, my cousins and Paul Higgins and all the local kids would have been down playing on that pitch all summer. I had two other uncles playing too and there were always games or training on. You just lived for it, it was in the DNA.
“Because Ballymartin was so small, I was eight or nine when I started playing for the u-12s.”
It wasn’t all GAA though for Collins growing up. ‘Transferable skills’ may be a pretty phrase in juvenile coaching these days, but for a lot of players at that time it was Gaelic football or hurling – and that was it.
The Collins household was not like that, and the boys were encouraged to play as many sports as possible. They tried their hand at soccer and cricket too with Collins playing for Queen’s in the latter.
And, as should be the case with impressionable adolescents, coaches in various sports had a massive influence on his athletic development.
At St Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick, it was the legendary Pat O’Hare who would not only guide him through the school, but also play such a major role in the county’s 1994 All-Ireland success.
“The day I started at Red High was the same day that Pat O’Hare started,” Collins continued.
“Lucky for me he took the teams the whole way and we won the first Colleges A title for the school, the Rannafast Cup.”
That win came in Hilltown on October 17 when they defeated St Colman’s, Newry having gotten the better of St Mary’s, Belfast in the semi-final.
“I was playing, Barry Breen was on that team, Mark Bohill, who would have been on the Down squad for a while, was there too. I was in goals at that stage.
“I played soccer too from a very young age, I think I was 16 when I started playing Amateur League soccer with Ballynahinch United.
“Again I was lucky because Billy Hamilton, who was one of the committee members there, took me for goalkeeping coaching.
“That wasn’t a thing back in those days but he did a lot of work with me. I was 16 years of age playing senior soccer at a high level, so I was glad of the help.
“Billy encouraged me to do a lot of stuff on my own. There was a wall behind our house and then a grass bank that fell away. If the ball went past you it was away down the bank.
“I would have gone down there for hours and the ball would come off the wall at all sorts of angles. That 10,000 hours of practice mantra, Billy was maybe ahead of his time telling me that he wanted me to do four or five hours of that a week.
“I did have offers to play across the water but I wouldn’t live in Portaferry!
“I played cricket for Queen’s too, a bit of batting and a wee bit bowling. I wasn’t very good but I enjoyed a bit of craic. The wicketkeeper was actually Paddy Mahon, who was one of the other goalkeepers at Queen’s.”
Irish League offers did arrive, but from a very young age Collins had one ambition, and that was to play football for Down.
His Rannafast performances earned him a spot on Pete McGrath’s minor squad, the two-time All-Ireland winning coach watching on from the St Colman’s sideline in the decider.
Collins played two years of minor for McGrath and a few years later in 1988 he got the call from Jackie McManus to come into the senior panel.
“Pat Donnan got injured and Tony Fearon, who was a clubman of ours, said to Jackie that he should have a look at me. He brought me in and that was that.”
Donnan was a familiar name in GAA circles by that stage and had been in nets in 1977 when Down won their first All-Ireland Minor title with Jarlath Digney and John McCartan grabbing goals in their 2-6 to 0-4 win over Meath at Croke Park.
Collins was quite clearly going to be a threat to his starting position, but he showed nothing but leadership and friendship to the new panellist.
“Wait to I tell you, he is one of the best men you will ever meet,” said Collins. “A brilliant goalkeeper but an even better fella.
“He would help you, he couldn’t do enough for you. They say goalkeepers are mad, and he’s right up there, but he would be so generous with his time and his advice. I loved working with him.
“You know there are two of you fighting for one position but I have been very lucky with the guys I have worked with down through the years. The bond has always been there even if you were in competition. I would have great respect for Pat and Eamon Connolly and I would speak to them on the phone regularly.
“It’s a healthy competition in those squads. I am sure there are examples where it has been toxic, but that was never the case in those Down teams.”
By the time the 1990 Ulster Championship came around, Collins was preparing for his debut.
Monaghan were visiting the then Páirc an Iúir and despite a poor first half, Down recorded a 3-11 to 1-12 win with Cathal Murray, Ambrose Rogers and James McCartan finding the net.
“For me personally it was a relatively quiet game,” said Collins. “I remember Ambrose, God rest him, scoring with a really deft lob over Paddy (Linden). The match was a bit of a blur to be honest with you.”
Their season came to an end in the semi-final though as Armagh got the better of them after a replay. That game at Casement Park was a bitter affair with late hits, flashpoints and early showers dominating the match reports.
“No, because I married an Armagh woman,” Collins said with a laugh when asked did he share the same dislike of the Orchard county as his brethren located in south Down.
“Some of those matches did get a bit fractious, but we ended up playing for Ulster with boys like Martin McQuillan and they were dead on lads. I’d know ‘Houli’ (Ger Houlahan) really well and he’s a great lad. Benny Tierney, ‘the holy goalie’, I’m still in contact with him.
“When they pulled an orange jersey on and when we pulled a red and black jersey on, it did get feisty.
“The Armagh rivalry, it’s more a Newry thing. We weren’t experiencing that rivalry walking around town every day.”
Not everything seemed rosy in the camp between the end of the 1990 and the start of the 1991 All-Ireland winning campaign. Numbers were low at training and some players had stayed away in the early part of the new season, including Ross Carr.
Ulster GAA chief Brian McAvoy, then Down secretary, said early in 1991 that “too many Down players lack pride in wearing the red and black.”
Collins, however, doesn’t buy into the notion that things were not conducive to a good run in the championship.
“I don’t know if there were issues. We got to the National League final in 1990 and lost to Meath, David Beggy beat me all ends up for one of their goals. We missed a few chances though and they were top of the pops at that stage.
“We weren’t that far away really. Yes numbers were light at training but our focus at that stage was Ulster. Nobody was thinking about an All-Ireland.
“We hadn’t won an Ulster since 1981 and we had Armagh waiting in the first round so what greater incentive would you need?
“It was a crap match but Mickey Linden stuck a penalty away and we got over the line.”
That game in the Marshes has entered into folklore for how bad it was with the two teams somehow serving up something more miserable than the weather.
Thoughts of Down winning an All-Ireland would have been laughed in the pubs of Newry that night. Their own fans would have been chuckling as much as those in orange who were maybe looking for a crumb of comfort after losing to their bitter rivals.
While Linden’s penalty is seen as the key moment, equally as important was Jim McConville’s goal chance in the first half.
Once again, Collins’s smothering instincts came into play. The diminutive Crossmaglen man brilliantly read that the ball was going to come through to him and leave him with a one-on-one situation. Fifteen yards from goal, he tried to control possession but Collins was already on him, spooking him into tapping the ball to his left and slicing wide. No doubt the goal still should have been scored, but Collins deserves credit.
They got out of jail against Derry too in the semi-final with Carr landing a real pressure free to send the match to a replay. Fergal McCusker was sent off during the contest for a foul on the Down goalkeeper.
“That free gets longer all the time,” Collins said. “From my memory it was a 14-yard free but according to Ross it was miles out. No, it was a seriously brilliant kick and he knew it had to go over.
“During the game a high ball came in and I caught it on the crossbar and I went to go out to my right and Fergal came in. I don’t know what he was trying to do to this day, but he caught me in the head with a closed fist.
“It wasn’t an attempted tackle and I went down, obviously. Then next thing Higgins is standing over me and he goes ‘stay where you are.’ I was shook up by it but it wasn’t that bad.
“In the second game we tore them apart really. We played really, really well.
“Then it was Donegal in the Ulster final and in the last 20 minutes we started to play real football and I was standing thinking ‘Christ this is good.’ It was champagne football for that last period.”
The reward for that Ulster title was a semi-final clash with Kerry.
The Kingdom had just won their first Munster title in five years, although they were far from convincing as they needed some late scores from Pat Spillane and Maurice Fitzgerald to see off Limerick in the final. The following year they would surrender their title to Clare so it wasn’t a vintage outfit.
Still, this was Kerry in Croke Park – and that is always a significant occasion. And, like the three previous championship meetings between the counties, it was Down who triumphed.
“Down hadn’t a weak link,” the headline in the Kerryman read following the 2-9 to 0-8 win with Peter Withnell announcing his arrival on the big stage with two goals.
“It was always a big thrill to play Kerry at Croke Park,” Collins said. “I had played in Croke Park a right few times but obviously not in an All-Ireland series.
“’Jacko’ (Jack O’Shea), Pat Spillane, Ambrose O’Donovan were all playing. As was my hero Charlie Nelligan.
“Peter Withnell got two good goals and I managed to make a good save from Maurice Fitzgerald from about six yards.
“The biggest moment for me that day was after the match when Charlie Nelligan came up and asked would I swap jerseys with him.
“I still have that jersey in the house. Most of my tops I have given away but I have my two All-Ireland final jerseys, my Ulster jersey and my Charlie Nelligan jersey.”
Meath had it much tougher in their semi-final but another magnificent performance from Brian Stafford saw them edge past Roscommon and into the final.
The hype was new to Collins, but it was something he totally embraced.
“I absolutely loved it. You were playing football in the late summer and strange things were happening. Training was starting earlier because it was getting darker. We had no floodlights in Newry then.
“You have to live in the present and I tried to take those memories in and store them away in a wee box at the back of my head.
“You wanted the final to be the next day but you wanted to experience the buzz in the lead-up too. You had massive crowds coming to watch you train. There was a night we had for the kids and thousands turned up. Me and Pat went into goals and let the kids take penalties against us, it was fantastic.
“My attitude was that I had worked massively hard to get there, and I was going to enjoy every bloody minute of it.”
Thankfully for the Mourne county, that enjoyment extended to the final too as Pete McGarth’s charges sealed a fourth Sam Maguire success with a 1-16 to 1-14 win over Meath with their manager declaring that they had “beaten the team that couldn’t be beaten.”
“Walking around in the parade and the Hill was just red and black,” Collins replied when asked about his strongest memory on the day.
“There’s a photograph of us in front of it that I have and it’s just a sea of red and black flags. It’s my favourite photograph from my whole career even though you can barely see me in it.
“It’s me and all my mates and Eamonn Burns, God rest him, scratching his backside in it.
“The whole thing clicked. Pete and John Murphy had a way that they wanted us to play football and it was centred around getting the ball quickly into the men who would do damage, James and Mickey.
“Peter Withnell offered us something totally different and we had the best player I ever played with in Greg Blaney. Hard, a ball-winner, someone who looked up and got the ball in.
“He always tells Mickey that it must have been easy to play in that team with him putting the ball in.
“I think the defence didn’t get the plaudits it deserved.
“Hard, tough, nasty men that could also play a bit of ball. Higgins and (Conor) Deegan were two tremendous athletes.
“A lot of the men we had playing had played midfield for their club. Higgins played midfield for Ballymartin, Deegan for Downpatrick, John Kelly for Carryduff, Barry Breen for Downpatrick, Brendan McKernan played a good bit at midfield for Burren. It seemed to work for us.”
Collins didn’t concede a goal in the final four games of the championship, which in those days usually would have been enough for All-Star recognition. He was perhaps a victim of circumstance though with Meath’s Michael McQuillan getting in ahead of him.
The Royals ended up with six awards to Down’s four – the unusual weighting attributed to the fact that Dublin and Meath had to meet four times in Leinster in that famous saga. Mickey Linden also missed out and the fact that the Mayobridge man has only one All-Star probably annoys Collins more than the fact that he was overlooked, and would lose out again three years later.
Before they got back to the Promised Land in ‘94, the side lost to Derry in the 1992 Ulster semi-final with the same team hammering them 3-11 to 0-9 in the quarter-final the following year, leading to questions about McGrath’s future as manager in the media.
“I know the boy who writes for your paper (Joe Brolly) would come on and say we would fold and whatever, but the team that folded, the team of losers, delivered two All-Ireland titles and Joe only delivered only one.
“It didn’t feel like the end of the line in ’93, it just felt that we needed to find a way to go again. There was no greater motivation than when the draw came out and we got Derry at Celtic Park.
“Pete brought Pat O’Hare in. I had known Pat through school so I knew what was coming – energy, different training methods and a whole new outlook.
“That coupled with Pete and John’s determination to right the wrongs of the previous year, and the players’ determination to do likewise, meant that we went up to Derry very confident.”
What followed was widely regarded as the greatest game of football that was every played and the winner was always going to move into All-Ireland contention.
From that high though came the low of an Ulster semi-final with Monaghan in Armagh.
Played on June 19, 1994, it came less than 24 hours after the Loughisland Massacre when the UVF killed six people, and injured another five, at O’Toole’s Pub.
“That the strangest atmosphere I have ever played in considering what had happened the night before. You could hear the players shouting from one end to the field to the other.
“That white heat of the crowd simply wasn’t there. There was a numbness all over that day.”
Down still managed to play well and won by six points, which was also the margin of victory in the Ulster final against Tyrone when the Red Hands took the wrong option of trying to physically dominate the Mournemen.
The All-Ireland semi-final saw the appearance of the gold jersey for their clash with Cork and when Linden set up Aidan Farrell for an early 1-1 and another point later on (all three scores coming via the hand) Down were able to play the game mostly on their own terms.
Waiting in the final was a Dublin side who hadn’t lifted the Sam Maguire since 1983. The capital was growing impatient but then came the iconic moment of Collins’s career.
Six minutes from time, Charlie Redmond stood up to take a penalty that almost certainly would have led to the end of their drought.
The goalkeeper won the duel, and so came to pass one of the most famous photos in Down GAA history as Collins, leaning too far to the right for his own liking, deflects the ball with his two arms raised high and his left leg sticking out.
“We did a lot of work, we looked at videos and we thought he was going to that side,” he said.
“We had Gary (Mason) hitting penalties to that corner and I was just practising trying to get down there.
“Charlie slipped a bit and didn’t hit it exactly right so I was away too far, my weight was too far to the side which is why I ended up parrying it back. DJ Kane got his boot in the middle of Charlie and Johnny Barr and the ball went wide.
“I was trying to subtly give him indications that I was going the other way. You would have been leaning further one way, one hand would be slightly higher than the other with the palm turned out a bit. Players would think you’re going that way with the palm open. Any advantage you can get.
“I had a pint with Charlie the next day in the Burlington. I’ve been very lucky to have made great friends from other counties due to our games or playing for Ulster and Charlie is a great guy.”
Two Ulster and two All-Ireland titles collected, but time moves on, and just like with Pat Donnan in 1988, it was time for Collins to welcome the next goalkeeper with advice and knowledge.
For the 1996 championship, Mickey McVeigh’s long kick-outs had propelled him to a starting spot and from there on in it was a case of when to officially hang up the boots.
“When I made the decision I had no regrets. I didn’t want to hang on. When my time was up my time was up.
“Mickey came in and was brilliant. Down were lucky for a long time because we had Pat, then onto me, then Mickey and then Brendan McVeigh. You had fairly established goalkeepers, a lot of good succession.”
Collins still played for Carryduff though and having coached the Queen’s freshers to an All-Ireland title, he stepped in as player-manager for his club one season.
That victory with the students – when he was still a student himself but out with ankle issues – produced some brilliant memories.
“My sister ended up marrying the captain of that Queen’s team so appointing him captain was the biggest regret of my life because my sister ended up meeting him,” he said with a laugh.
“One of the best stories was when we played against UCC in the All-Ireland semi-final in Dublin.
“There was no net in the goal and we were two points up in the last two minutes. One of their lads broke through and put it in off the inside of the post.
“I sank to my knees and a guy Richard Cosgrave, who was a coach with me, goes ‘Dermy has given it wide.’ Dermy Coll would have come with us and done umpire and things like that.
“They were going to kill him and he stood with his arms out as wide as he could. The referee went with him and we got away with it and went on to win the All-Ireland.”
Collins drifted away from the coaching side of things for a few years but then an opportunity too good to turn down showed up as he replaced his old mentor Pete McGrath as Down u-21 boss in 2010.
“I was asked to do a bit of goalkeeping coaching with some clubs and then the Down minors asked me to do a bit of goalkeeping coaching too.
“I did that and then I was asked about managing the u-21s. I did that for three years and we had Steven Poacher in with us to do coaching – for my sins! He is such an innovative coach, so passionate.”
The emergence of Donegal and, especially, Cavan as forces at that level didn’t help their cause while key players like Keith Quinn, Shane McNamee and David McKibben were unavailable for various reasons.
“The biggest disappointment came when we met Tyrone and it went to two replays (2011).
“We dug very deep down in Omagh in the second game. We were three points down at half-time in extra-time and we just asked them for more and they gave us more.
“In the final game we were winning well in the first half but gave away a soft goal just before the break.
“We were still ahead but then there was a big row in the tunnel at half-time and we couldn’t get our boys back down to earth from that. It was just all about the row and they lost their focus. Tyrone had enough nous about them to move on quickly after the row.
“A lot of good lads though and a lot of players went on to represent Down. Darren O’Hagan came through, one of the best defenders in the country, a couple of goalkeepers, Keith was on the senior squad. ‘Taz’ (Paul McPolin) was there too. A right few boys went on.”
At the same time Collins was linking up with James McCartan’s senior squad after Eamon Connolly was unable to continue coaching the goalkeepers due to work commitments.
Collins then continued in the role for Jim McCorry with the pair knowing each other from the latter’s stint managing Kilcoo. When McCorry was removed in controversial circumstances despite taking the team to Division One, Collins’s old friend Eamonn Burns took over at a time when few seemed interested.
Burns wanted his old goalkeeper in with him, but in an overall coaching role rather than just for that specific position.
“I was doing work with the defenders and then I was a selector.
“Myself and Eamonn lived in the same town, our kids grew up together and we would have played golf together. He would have played in the fourball ahead of me and then we would have been in for pints after. We were right and thick.”
Burns’s first year was not good in terms of results. Nine league and championship games resulted in nine losses and the criticism duly arrived.
Some Down players were unhappy with the media coverage, including Gaelic Life’s, and made their feelings known to a number of journalists. They had, unprompted, gone out to bat for their manager.
The 2017 season brought much better days. A gutsy round seven draw in Cork secured their Division Two status and then there was that run to the Ulster final.
Victory over a fancied Armagh brought quiet satisfaction, but it was the semi-final success against big-hitters Monaghan that sparked wild celebrations as fans flooded onto the field to celebrate.
At the weekend, it was the one-year anniversary of Eamonn’s death and now, looking back, that win over Monaghan is one of Collins’s fondest memories.
“It was that was a great day and an even better night back in Newcastle with the management team.
“Macken’s is a bar here around the harbour and you’d myself, Eamonn and Aidan (Brannagan) from here. Cathal Murray is only across the way, big Gerard Colgan as well. They came up and we had such a night’s craic.
“It was such a good day for the players and the supporters, never mind the management. We hadn’t had many good days for a while so it was just a great occasion.”
Those memories, of course, will be tinted with sadness following Eamonn’s passing last October.
“He played in the fourball in front of me with his brother and two other lads.
“We would have had the craic after it and he was a great man for telling stories, he had a real droll sense of humour.
“It’s just so sad when you see Colm, who is the spitting image, and the two other boys going out as a threeball now. For Sinead and the two lads, Thomas and Cathal, it’s just so tough.
“We lost John Murphy not that long ago either. That was tough to take, John was one of the good guys.
“Pete was great at speaking to the group and the crowd, but John was the man for speaking to people one-to-one, he really could get the point across.
“I remember one weekend we were training in Gormanston College although I’m not sure of the year. Pete said we had trained hard so we could go down the road and have a couple of drinks.
“Halfway through that first drink we decided that a couple of drinks really meant nine or 10. The only problem was that Murf was with us.
“I went up and asked him does ‘a couple of drinks’ equal nine or 10?’ And he said ‘does that apply to gin and tonic as well?’ So we knew we were okay.”
Those stories are what Collins cherishes when he looks back on his Down days, they are just as important as the medals.
Throughout his career he made sure to store those moments in a wee mental box to be replayed and replayed in his mind. The best of days.
By Niall McCoy