Neill Collins in his coaching debut
I can quite safely say this is the first time in almost 22 months that I have had the opportunity to sit down and put pen to paper for anything other than a session plan. It is fast approaching two years since I took on the role of head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, transitioning from the playing field to the technical area overnight. In the moment that decision was made, things changed quickly for me and my family. Everything else I had going on in my life took more than a back seat — it came grinding to a halt. A professional playing career, my budding blog and a burgeoning NC3 Soccer Academy all had to come to an abrupt end as I put all my energy into my exciting and challenging new job as head coach.
This unfortunate situation we currently find ourselves in has given me one thing that I haven’t had a lot of since taking the job of trying to make the most historic club in US Soccer a force to be reckoned with again and that is TIME. Time has been hard to come by, especially when you consider that when I am not plotting how to bring a USL Championship trophy to Tampa Bay, I have four young children and a beautiful wife that all need my love and attention. I would be lying if I said anything other than my family have suffered at times as I spend almost every waking hour trying to make the club better. On many family occasions I am there only in body as my mind consistently wanders to matters at Al Lang. Over the past week, I have been able to spend some valuable time with my nearest and dearest, and by that, I don’t mean the players. In saying that, I think my wife, Amanda, is more eager for the USL season to resume than me just to get me out from under her feet.
I thought now was as good a time as ever to attempt to put down in writing some of my experiences from the last two years and give an insight into what life can be like for a young coach or any coach for that matter. There is a classic film titled, “It Started With a Kiss” and if I was ever writing a book on the last couple of years it would be titled, “It Always Seems To Start With a Phone Call.” Perhaps not very catchy, but certainly apt. That’s exactly how my life changed back on May 17, 2018.
A 1-0 defeat to rivals Jacksonville Armada in the U.S. Open Cup was a new low in what had seemed like a never-ending stream of lows over the previous two months. It all started with a 5-0 thumping at Red Bulls, quickly followed by another limp showing in a 3-0 defeat at Penn FC. I thought a 1-0 defeat away to Richmond was surely rock bottom, but this latest defeat disproved that theory. I am not sure if there was a better phrase than “lower than a snake’s belly” to describe the mood of the Tampa Bay Rowdies locker room at that moment in time after our sixth away game in a row without a goal and our fourth defeat in a row. Just before boarding the bus home from Jacksonville, my phone rang and a name that was going to be flashing up pretty regularly for the next two years was on the screen, and by pretty regularly I mean two or three times a day, every day. It was Lee Cohen, then COO of the Rowdies, now President, and owner Bill Edwards’ right-hand man. I didn’t know what direction the call might take, but as it was late at night and the bus was just about to depart, I was quickly informed that tomorrow morning Bill wanted to meet with me at the stadium. I wasn’t daft. I had been in the game long enough to realize that changes might be afoot due to the current performance of the team, but I really wasn’t sure where I fitted in to any prospective changes. My body may have been tired, but my mind raced the entire journey as I sat on a solemn bus ride home contemplating my thoughts and trying to second guess what our owner had planned for me the next morning.
Fast forward 12 hours and after a very upfront and honest discussion (Mr. Edwards doesn’t really have any other type of discussion,) I had been offered the opportunity to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Not caretaker for the weekend’s upcoming game or holding the reigns until he found an experienced replacement for the departing manager. No, the full-time job. I made the decision to end an 18-year playing career including ten clubs that was two games short of six hundred appearances and still going strong, in less than five seconds. I could lie and say it was a really tough decision, but it wasn’t. I was ready for this next challenge and I was acutely aware it was an opportunity that might never come around again.
I was introduced to the team and the staff as their new head coach less than 24 hours after I had led the team out onto the field for a game. Looking back, the situation was surreal. The same group of guys I had sat beside in the locker room were now sitting in front of me looking for a way forward and so were the staff. Coaches I had played under were now part of MY staff.
Neill Collins leads his first training session as head coach of the Rowdies
It was Thursday evening and there was no time to waste as we had one session to prepare for a Pittsburgh Riverhounds team managed by Bob Lilley arriving in St. Pete to play on Saturday evening. The short-term objective was simple: to do what we could in the very short space of time to try and win a game of football. The rest could wait until Sunday. To say the next couple of days were like a whirlwind doesn’t do it justice.
While I am sure it was unusual for the players to have their ex-teammate now in charge, they didn’t show it and got straight to business on Friday morning. So did I. I named my first starting lineup that morning and this, of course, meant making decisions not only to leave guys on the bench but also out of the squad completely. When things aren’t going well, every player craves change until some of them see what the change looks like. One of the hardest parts of being a coach in any sport is you can only pick a certain number of people to start a game. You try to be as sincere and as honest as possible with the guys you leave out, but ultimately, they have to deal with it. It’s part of the game. Picking the team over the past two years has thankfully become even harder as the squad has improved, but I know there were a couple of disappointed players that Friday morning already trying to read into what my team selection meant for them in the long term. Two weeks ago, I was someone’s roommate and now I am the a$%&?!e who didn’t pick them. Welcome to the job.
One training session to prepare to win a game of football is almost insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but we did what we could within training and prior to the game to get the players ready. The first game in charge for any coach could be considered somewhat of a freebie, but I wanted to try and influence some positive change as quickly as possible. It took three minutes for something we worked on the previous day in training to get us a goal ahead. The early stages of the game were so encouraging, and the buzz of seeing a response from the team was one of the reasons why I wanted to get into coaching. Watching a player or team improve at any level due to good preparation and hard work is very satisfying.
I was quite quickly brought back down to earth and given a dose of reality. Twenty-five minutes later, we were 2-1 down. We allowed two calamitous goals and I was starting to see the other side of the job. I now had an idea of just how powerless you can feel on the sidelines. The number of grey hairs on my head have only started increasing in the last two years and I have no doubt it’s games like this that have put them there. I have to make the point that the players that wore the green and gold that night gave absolutely everything they had. Giving 100 percent effort is the minimum I expect from any professional, but the people behind the scenes at the club know just how testing the previous week had been and the players definitely dug that little bit deeper to try and put some pride back in the jersey. We eventually tied the match and only an unbelievable save in the last minute stopped us from a last-gasp win and from turning one point in to all three.
Those first 90 minutes gave me a small taste of what was still to come. My first night being on the sidelines as a coach in a suit and not inside the lines in my boots and shin pads was a learning experience. All of a sudden, I couldn’t use all my pent-up energy to fly in and make a tackle or win a header. Of course, you can influence the game with your tactical changes and substitutions, but nowhere near as much as I had been used to. The technical area might look like a small marked-off box but at times it can make you feel like a caged tiger. The only issue is if we come out of “our cage,” we don’t get shot with a tranquilizer dart we get shown a red card. I think I may prefer the tranquilizer option if they could find one big enough to tame me.
One thing that didn’t surprise me early on was how much more the result affected your mood as a coach than as a player. As a player, it hurts losing and you enjoy winning, but you only carry the responsibility for one person. As a coach, the weight of responsibility and expectations of the whole club are on your shoulders and this can make the highs extremely high and the lows desperately low. People tell you to try and stay in a middle ground whatever the outcome, and I can now tell you that takes real effort plus some very good acting. The emotional roller coaster dictated by wins and losses was not unexpected, but one thing that I did underestimate was the impact my phone would now have on my life. A win can make you deliriously happy and a loss will make you feel bitterly disappointed. That’s what we all signed up for, but what I hadn’t foreseen was how much the shrill ringtone of an iPhone could suddenly affect my emotional wellbeing and derail even the best-laid plans.
On the Sunday morning following my first game in charge, I was just starting to get my feet back under me and my head around the colossal changes that had taken place the previous couple of days. I hadn’t slept and had hardly eaten, but I was feeling a sense of tranquility for the first time since taking the reins when the phone rang. No big deal, right? People’s phones ring all the time. But when you are a coach you just never quite know what is coming when you press that green button to answer. I have quickly found no matter how good you think you might have it, at the end of the other line just might well be a bolt from the blue that can turn your day upside down.
“Hi Neill, how are you? I just wanted to let you know I was thinking about retiring.”
“Amanda, hold those pancakes a minute. WHAT!?”
Until that call, that was a morning of reflecting on the previous night’s game and digesting being the head coach, mixed with thoughts of what am I going to do if I lose my most experienced center back? There was already a hole to fill in on the field as the previous incumbent of that position was me. Instead of enjoying a stack of pancakes, I was thinking about how to pick a lineup without any center backs.
Neill and Amanda Collins with their four children
This might have been my first experience of how a phone call can completely change the nature of my mood, but there have been plenty more since. Of course, they don’t all bring despair. I do occasionally receive calls that relay more positive news. For example, our team doctor calling to say the scan on an injured player is all clear or a transfer target getting in touch to tell me he has chosen to sign with the Rowdies. These types of calls are much more well-received, but they’re expected and therefore lack the same surprise as a call late in the evening when you are not awaiting any news.
Picture the scene. It’s a regular Thursday night, the kids are in bed and I am settling down for the first time that day to catch up with Amanda and, if we are lucky, watch some Netflix when a staff members name appears on my phone and goes on to relay that they have just seen a player in a downtown St Petersburg nightclub less than 48 hours prior to a game. Netflix is abandoned and my anxiety levels go from zero to one hundred. Now it’s my turn to disrupt Lee Cohen and ruin his night as well. Please don’t feel sorry for him. More often than not, it is him delivering the bad news to me.
I don’t hesitate in saying that a mobile phone for a coach could safely be described as a health hazard. I can give you many different examples of issues that have cropped up that have changed the course of a day. Whether it be a bid from a club for your star player or a call from league office to tell me our center back has been handed a one-match ban thanks to their Independent Panel Review system.
For the first few months, the bad news was never-ending. Two players unexpectedly retiring, bad news on two season-ending injuries, and I will never forget a call one morning from a player who, well let’s just say had a matter that involved the authorities. I am surprised my phone has managed to stay intact through all these episodes. I did take the precautionary steps of buying a quality protective case after a month in the job.
Over time, I have come to realize bumps in the road are par for the course. It doesn’t matter if you are struggling at the bottom of the table or flying high at the top. When you are dealing with people, anything can happen at any point in time. Like in life, it is how you deal with these setbacks that matters. No different to winning or losing a game. It happens. I have quickly learned as a coach that trying to control the things that you can’t control that will drive you crazy. That is not to say I always keep my cool when things don’t go my way, but I am trying.
I took this job as I felt I could have a bigger influence on the club as a coach than I could have as a player. I try to do that by having as much influence as possible over all the things I can control. How we prepare, how we train, how we travel, how we scout players, how we scout the opposition, the list is endless, and it is why I love the job. We have made huge strides over the past two years but still have a lot of work to do and I can’t wait to get going again to see what the future holds for the Rowdies.
Sorry, I need to stop here. My phone is ringing…