WHEN Mark Collins was only four years old, he was already front page news.
On the September 24th, 1994 edition of The Southern Star, baby-faced Mark posed in Castlehaven colours, the socks pulled up to his knees, on page one. He was the club mascot for that year’s Cork SFC final against O’Donovan Rossa. Standing beside him was six-year-old Colm O’Driscoll, the Skibb club’s mascot and a future inter-county team-mate.
Mark had to wait 12 years before he played his first game for Castlehaven. That was a South-West U21A football championship opener against Dohenys in late March 2006. He had turned 16 only two months earlier. He came on as a sub and Haven won.
The Douglas boy was always destined to line out with Castlehaven. His father Francis is a former Haven footballer. The blue and white is in Mark’s DNA.
In late May 2006 he scored his first point for Castlehaven, off the bench in a South-West U21A FC semi-final loss to Newcestown.
One year later he was corner forward on the Haven U21 team that won South West and county titles. Plenty of medals followed at club level.
James McCarthy was Castlehaven U21 manager when Mark Collins made his debut. McCarthy was also manager of the Haven senior team that won the 2012 county SFC final against Duhallow by 1-7 to 0-9. Super sub Shane Nolan grabbed the winning goal and the headlines. But Collins pulled the strings. He was man-of-the-match. He was also only 22 years old.
‘From a manager’s point of view he is the dream player, on and off the field. He is a leader,’ McCarthy says.
Collins has played in six Cork SFC finals including replays and has two winner’s medals (2012 and 2013). At club level he has always stood out. He is the best kick passer in the county.
‘I just have a serious connection with him. I suppose we’re playing with each other for so long we know each other’s moves. For me all I have to do is move and he finds me with the pass as he’s so accurate. He’s always positive also which makes you enjoy it more,’ club and county team-mate Brian Hurley says; this duo has an almost telepathic understanding.
Nowadays opposition usually put their best man-marker on Collins, such is his influence on a game. There’s huge respect for him and his ability to dictate a match. Aidan Walsh followed him during the SFC semi-final trilogy between Haven and Duhallow last season.
Collins is consistent too. For almost a decade – and he only turned 29 in February – he has been one of Castlehaven’s best players, if not their best. He shoulders responsibility easily. He steps up. Performs under pressure. Has a calming demeanour. His feathers aren’t easily ruffled. On the pitch Collins is comfortable on centre stage; off it he doesn’t seek the limelight.
Then there’s his football ability – his awareness and vision, his passing, he rarely gives the ball away, great distribution, his engine, a very intelligent footballer, strong under the breaking ball and he can score too.
‘You can always depend on Mark,’ John Cleary says. ‘It’s rarely he has an off-day. He is very, very consistent. From a club point of view, he is always brilliant under pressure and has led by example. On the big occasion he always stands up.**
Two of the shrewdest football brains in the county, James McCarthy and John Cleary, both agree: Mark Collins’ best position is centre forward.
‘That’s where you want him, roving around there, just off the midfield,’ McCarthy says.
Cleary adds: ‘I always feel if he could be left at centre forward, that’s his best position.’
With Castlehaven he has moved further out the field too as a ball winner, and done well, but as good as he is for Castlehaven – and he has more touches per game than any other Haven team-mate – at inter-county level his versatility means that Collins has had to plug gaps all over the field.
He’s that good that he can play in a variety of positions – but that’s probably come at a cost to his own game. Collins has covered a lot of positions for Cork and was deployed as a sweeper too. He does what he’s told but Collins is a threat at the other end of the field, not back in his own defence. That knocked a lot out of him. He wasn’t at his best. Understandable because it’s not his best position. Collins is a threat facing the opposition’s goal with his head up.
Reliable is one word that Cork boss Ronan McCarthy uses to describe Collins.
‘That’s exactly what Mark is,’ he says.
‘He’s a really consistent performer, consummate professional in his preparation and the way he looks after himself. He has no shortage of quality and can play in any number of positions, he’s played centrefield, centre forward, wing forward, full forward, sweeper and I don’t think he has suffered for his versatility.
‘He’s a guy that you can move in the middle of games, he’s a thinking footballer and any fella who thinks his way through the game, you could put them anywhere, really. Maybe he’s a different player to Patrick Kelly, but he’s that kind of player, he thinks about what he’s doing, he makes intelligent runs and sometimes players don’t see that and don’t pick him out.’
It’s a shame that Collins is in his prime at a time when Cork football is suffering through a difficult period.
In his early days, he was the hard-working wing forward who fed the ball to Donncha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding and Colm O’Neill. Now, 29 years old, Collins has had to become the leader. He has stepped up. He takes the frees now and has to lead by example. How good could he be in a better team, we’ll never know.
His medal haul with the seniors is telling – he has won one Munster SFC in 2012 and one national league Division 1 crown, again in 2012. And that’s it. A scant return for one of the county’s best footballers.
The former dual Cork minor has medals from his club career, including those two county SFC titles and Sigerson Cup medals with UCC and Dublin IT. Underage with Cork, he’s won Munster minor football and hurling crowns, and an U21 football All-Ireland. But the past few years have been barren.
He made his senior debut in 2011, an All-Ireland qualifier win against Down. In total, and going by figures on the Cork GAA website, Collins has played 28 championship games, starting 20 of them and scored 2-38 in that time. It seems like a poor return for a player of his quality – but, remember, he has been moved from pillar to post over the years. Plus, he is on frees now, so that tally will improve.
Against Limerick last time out he was in the full-forward line and kicked nine points, four from play. There is more to come from him. Ronan McCarthy agrees.
‘Mark knows himself that he needs to raise his game even further and be the top player in a Munster final or a Super 8. He needs to bring it on to the next level as well, so pat on the back, but let’s look ahead also.’
With more to come, that’s good news for Cork and Castlehaven. Collins should be hitting his stride now and it’s time to make the most of his talent and one of the sweetest right feet in football.