There are few ways more certain to win the hearts of West Ham fans than to demonstrate your class from the start; just ask Tony Cottee and Rio Ferdinand, who both scored on their Iron debuts, and subsequently always guaranteed the warmest of welcomes whenever they returned to the Boleyn playing for other teams.
But there are few players who have made quite such an impression with the style of their departure as Jack Collison. When the 26-year-old Welsh international midfielder left West Ham 12 months ago, he wrote a long, heartfelt thank you letter to fans for the support he had received in his nine years at the club. The honesty and sincerity of his message ensured that when he does – hopefully – return to wherever West Ham happen to be playing then as an opposition player, he will receive a rapturous reception.
I’d been at West Ham the whole way up through the ranks, and I’d been through a lot in my life there, so I wanted to close the book on my time at the club and let fans know how much it had meant to me,’ Collison told Blowing Bubbles. ‘I always had a good relationship with them – I was someone who tried my hardest and always appreciated the support I got, so I wanted to share my experiences with them before I left. I’ve always liked writing, so someone at the club suggested I write something. I sat down at 9pm, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and the thing was written.’
In an ideal world, Collison would still be at West Ham, but for the last 12 months, apart from a brief spell at Ipswich where he did JULIAN SHEA @juliansheasport On target: Jack Collison takes a shot against Arsenal not make any appearances, he has been without a club, studying and setting up a soccer school whilst deliberating over the next steps in his career. A dislocated kneecap sustained at Wigan in March 2009 – caused by an unlucky slip of the foot, rather than a challenge – was the first in a series of problems which culminated in surgery a year later and a 14-month lay-off.
That absence from the first team coincided with the trauma of the Avram Grant era. Being powerless to get on the pitch and do anything about it made the experience even more frustrating for Collison than it was for most spectators. ‘I lived through that season as a fan, and I was as helpless as anyone else in the ground,’ he explained. ‘It was all the more frustrating for me because I was working so hard to get back to fitness to get on the pitch – that was my target, to get playing again before the season was finished.
This was an ambition he did fulfill, finally making his comeback at, of all places, Wigan, in the game where West Ham threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 and be relegated. ‘It was a tough day, but from a personal point of view, it was great to be out there on the pitch,’ he explained. ‘The other guys who’d played through the whole season were feeling really down but I was running about like a crazy person – after all I’d been through, it meant so much to me just to be on the pitch, even five minutes, counted for so much.’
What Collison had been through was not just the challenge of recovering from injury, it was also the loss of his father Ian in a motorbike accident on his way to watch West Ham play Tottenham in August 2009 – the response to which further strengthened the player’s strong emotional ties to the club and its fans. So when new manager Sam Allardyce gave him a new contract in August 2011, it looked like fortune was finally smiling on Jack, and he went on to have his greatest season at the club
‘That was such a good time – everyone was excited about the new era and the new manager, and we were desperate to put the past behind us,’ he said. ‘The Championship was a tough division but we all bought into the challenge of getting out of it, which we did, and from a personal point of view, it was a great success too.’ That campaign saw Collison play his highest number of games in a season for West Ham and score his most goals – including, vitally, two in the play-off semi-final win over Cardiff.
‘Those were the most important goals of my career, so it was great to COLLISON 14 goals during his Hammers career Problems: Jack Collison’s West Ham career was ruined by several injuries play a part in such a vital season in the club’s history,’ he said. ‘I struggled a bit towards the end of it and thought I’d be ok for the start of next season – but it didn’t happen quite like that.’ Having been such a key player in West Ham’s return to the big time, Collison found himself less involved in the following season’s Premier League campaign – not that he took it personally.
‘I always thought I was capable of doing a job, but it’s just one of those things – it’s hard to force your way back into the team once you’re out, and the manager has his way of doing things, so you just have to get on with it,’ he said. ‘I was just happy to have any time on the pitch after what I’d been through, and I’m not the sort to sit around and pick up his wages, so I was angling for a loan to go out and prove myself – so I went to Bournemouth for a month.
Collison’s stint on the south coast did the trick of reminding Allardyce of his capabilities, and he duly returned to the first team picture at Upton Park, but it was not on a regular basis, and what turned out to be his final West Ham appearance came in front of a half-empty ground in the meaningless Capital One Cup semi-final second leg against Manchester City, after a 6-0 first leg thrashing
With grim irony, the last few months of Collison’s West Ham contract were seen out on loan at, of all clubs, Wigan, and at the end of the 2013-14 season, he was released – but not before writing his now famous goodbye letter. The West Ham book was closed, and a new volume was opened. ‘It was a real step into the unknown,’ he admitted. ‘There’s no better feeling than waking up on a Saturday morning knowing that you’re going to go out and play in front of 30,000 people, and it took some real adjustment, getting used to the fact that I didn’t know for sure when that was next going to happen.
Mick McCarthy offered Collison a stint at Ipswich, which ended without him making a first-team appearance, but he said just the experience of being back in a footballing environment helped him get things clear in his mind on what he wanted to do next. ‘I’m experienced enough to listen to my body and to know what it’s telling me,’ he said. ‘That’s why, at the age of 26, when I should be at my peak, I decided the best thing to do was to sit out the rest of the season and make sure I’m in the best possible shape I can be to make a comeback next season. I know if I can get myself right, there’s no reason I can’t do a job.’
If Collison needed any further incentive to Mates: Jack Collison is good friends with James Tomkins Working hard: Jack Collison is in the gym and hopes to find a new club this year get his career back on track, he need only look at his Welsh international team-mates, who are currently in with a fantastic chance of qualifying for the 2016 European Championships, which would be their first major tournament appearance since 1958.
‘It’s a bit tough to watch at times, but it’s great to see the lads I came through the ranks with, like Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, doing so well,’ said Collison, who won the last of his 16 caps in March 2014. ‘This was always Wales’s golden generation, John Toshack blooded them young and now Chris Coleman is reaping the rewards. I’m confident in my ability, so if I can get a decent run of games, I don’t see any reason why I can’t get back into the squad.’
As well as training hard to keep himself in the best possible shape for his return to playing, Collison has been indulging his love of writing on a sports journalism course at Staffordshire University – ‘it’s definitely interesting being on the other side of the fence and seeing how much work goes into it’ – and the Jack Collison Soccer School, something about which he feels passionate.
‘I set it up with Russell Short, one of my old youth-team friends from Cambridge, and it’s wonderful,’ he said. ‘I’m studying for a Uefa B coaching licence and doing this as well, and it’s great to give something back to the next generation. ‘It gives you a really good feeling, seeing how much they’re getting out of it at a stage when it’s all about the love of the game, and they’re not yet polluted by some of the stuff that comes later on. People like James Tomkins have come along to help out, and I hope that really inspires the kids.’
As much as he enjoys his writing and coaching, it is clear that a return to competitive football is still Collison’s number one priority. ‘If I can get myself right, I can do a good job at a decent level, so for the next two months I’ll be focused on making sure that, come July 1st, I’m ready to go into a tough pre-season and to play again next season,’ he said. And whoever he plays for, there will be few fans cheering him on as enthusiastically as those of West Ham – still, his club.
‘That’s still the first result I look for every weekend,’ he said. ‘I’m in touch with a lot of the boys, I still do some work with one of my old physios there and the media department have been very helpful with my writing, so it would be wonderful to go back there one day and play against them.’
But for all his fan’s enthusiasm, inside Jack Collison beats the heart of a dedicated pro. Sentiment only goes so far. ‘I didn’t score enough goals at Upton Park first time around,’ he said, ‘so I’d love the chance to score there for someone else!’.