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In Retro: Jack Collison


Filed: Monday, 6th November 2017
By: HeadHammerShark


Imagine playing a game of football for West Ham against Spurs, and all the attendant emotional baggage that goes with that.

Then imagine coming off the pitch and trying to find your father to talk about it like you do after every game, and being given the single worst piece of news you could ever hear - that he has passed away. And then having to call your mum to give her the news.

Now imagine that four days later you play for West Ham again, only this time in a poisonous local derby against Millwall that goes to extra time and features crowd disturbances both inside and outside the ground, while you try and honour the memory of your father.

And now imagine that when all this happened you were twenty years old.

And now you have imagined the four days in August 2009 that changed Jack Collison's life.

***

When I started to write this series of retrospective pieces I wasn't really sure how I was going to choose my subjects. I started with Ian Bishop as he seemed synonymous with my first forays into following West Ham around the country, and thus he invoked feelings of great joy in me.

Similarly, Trevor Sinclair was an important part of an important team for me, and a man who helped to change West Ham irrevocably for the better. I then toyed with doing some match reports but they proved either too hard to source (Metz) or simply too painful to reopen (the Cup Final).

And yet here I am writing about a man who has only just turned 29 and who finished with 121 appearances for us across parts of seven seasons.

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Jack spies the front row at the London Stadium


Put simply, I chose Collison because of one thing that I return to again and again when I think of him. I believe that sports fans give over a very small, almost infinitesimal piece of ourselves to our teams when watching them play. And sometimes we get that piece of ourselves back, and sometimes we get even more back than we gave and sometimes we get nothing back at all and we are reduced.

Of all the players I have seen over the years, I think Collison understood that point as well as any of them. As much as Brooking or Bonds or Dicks or Parker or any other folk hero you care to name. I think he played with the joy of a man who knew he was living the dream of every person in the crowd and he never sneered at that chance. Instead he determined to be the best he could be, and to try and give us back those little pieces of ourselves as intact as possible.

And for that reason alone he deserves to be fondly remembered.

***

Collison made his full debut in a game against Bolton in 2008 and it probably won't surprise you to know that I spent most of the report whinging about the manager and his baffling tactics. My main recollection is of some nice touches, but a game that passed him by, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Bolton under Gary Megson used to pick midfielders based on how far they could throw it, and treated the middle of the pitch like a Demilitarized Zone. The biggest impression Collison made was that his hair was Premier League ready, even if his play wasn't quite yet there.

Tellingly perhaps, Collison wasn't even the most highly regarded youngster of the time as his team mate Freddie Sears was the great hope of the terraces back then, having emerged on to the scene with a debut winner and all sorts of hype. Take note, ye Toni Martinez fanatics.

As it was, Collison was an under the radar graduate from the Academy, without any of the fanfare of the likes of the Golden Generation before him or even his peers like Sears, James Tomkins or Jordan Spence. The fact that Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson were playing for Portsmouth at the time probably only made us more desperate for homegrown talent as the frittering away of the Rio Ferdinand era side was still a red raw wound for most, and Johnson was supposed to be leading us to glory and not nicking toilet seats from B&Q in Dartford.

And into this emerged a young kid from Watford who had already played in the youth systems at Peterborough and Cambridge before he joined West Ham at the age of 17 and was presumably introduced to the delights of Romford's fabled nightlife.

It didn't affect him too much, apparently, as he was making his debut within three years, albeit he had to wait for the arrival of Gianfranco Zola before he really began to make an impression on the first team. With the departure of the staid Alan Curbishley, certain players began to flourish under the Italian and Collison was among them. Carlton Cole finally began to deliver on his early promise at Chelsea, while the likes of Scott Parker and Craig Bellamy seemed perfectly suited to the intricate, short passing game that was suddenly on display.

With a midfield diamond to play around, we suddenly became a team of angles and perfect geometry. Our passing was a joy to behold, whilst Zola stayed true to other time honoured West Ham traditions such as being largely incapable of defending against better sides or ever beating Everton.

Embed from Getty ImagesThis dawn was false


It was against the Toffees that Collison took his first steps into a larger world. A replacement for Matthew Upson - naturally - he was the centrepiece of an excellent West Ham performance that seemed set to result in a rare home win against the Merseysiders. It was Collison who got our hopes up by opening the scoring with a typical Zola era goal. Bellamy and Parker combined beautifully to feed him just inside the left hand side of the box and the youngster opened his body and swerved a stunning strike into the top corner. It was the kind of goal you repeatedly practiced scoring in your back garden as a kid until you got it just right, or next door's greenhouse was finally destroyed.

It was also Collison's home debut.

As it was, we somehow contrived to lose that game 3-1 despite being one nil up with seven minutes to go, as we conceded three times in the space of four minutes. West Ham, 'yo. A truly remarkable collapse even by our lofty standards.

But it was official. The kid had something, and West Ham fans love nothing more than a West Ham kid. More appearances followed and he chipped in with a Boxing Day goal at Portsmouth in an uncharacteristically thumping 4-1 win and the winner in a thrilling 1-0 victory over Man City. Back then West Ham were flying, as Zola's determination to pass everybody out of existence actually made us entertaining to watch for a while. We finished the 2008/09 season in ninth place and probably should have been higher. Naively, I believed this would be a springboard to some serious world building on Zola's part but instead it marked the high point of his reign, as asset stripping off the pitch saw his best players sold and his diminished responsibility for playing staff acquisition and replacement saw his squad pared down to whatever the Italian is for "bare bones".

And then, as sure as night follows day and Alan Sugar firing the posh one on The Apprentice for using words with more than three syllables, Collison got injured.

In a typically West Ham turn of events, this happened in an away game at Wigan where Cole scored perhaps the definitive goal of the Zola era, superbly finishing off a one touch passing move that had more than a hint of genuine tika taka about it. Who needs Iniesta when you've got David di Michele, after all.

Two-touch Parker letting everyone down


Rather than being able to bask in the glory of that moment, however, we were instead reduced to the sight of Collison writhing in agony on the touchline after controlling the ball on his chest and somehow dislocating his knee in the process. I'm in pain just typing that. The injury would only keep him out for a couple of months but it was the beginning of a series of knee struggles that would ultimately end his career, with Collison himself admitting that he was never truly fit again after this point.

***

As a player, Collison was unusual in that - despite his diffident debut - he arrived in the first team as an almost fully formed Premier League contributor. He wasn't terribly quick, but he had the stamina of a young man and the diligence and mental acuity to play in Zola's narrow diamond while running the hard yards required in that position. He is also a bigger man that he initially looks, with a slightly stooped running style, that meant he was probably a more physical player than he was given credit for.

In the modern game, where tackling has become less prevalent than intercepting and pressing, Collison was a modern midfielder in the truest sense. Comfortable on either side of the pitch, he eventually ended up primarily as a left sided player with the intelligence to pick passes, a silken first touch and an underrated eye for goal. Had he stayed fit and been able to play at full throttle for longer, one could certainly have seen him developing into a deep lying goal threat. He talks openly of his admiration for Kevin Keen and the work that he did with him at a young age, and I felt there was something of Keen in his play - the deft touches and eye for a short pass were definite hallmarks of (the startlingly few) West Ham midfield academy graduates.

But, for all the brightness of his future, sadly Collison was about to experience an eclipse of the worst kind. On August 23, 2009, his father Ian was killed in a motorcycle accident on the way to the home game with Spurs.

I am fortunate enough that both of my parents are still alive, so I have no frame of reference for this but right now, at the age of thirty eight I can assure you that I wouldn't have the strength of character to react how Collison did. Just four days later he played, brilliantly, in the league cup tie with Millwall. The night was horrendous but the youngster wanted to play in memory of his father and, in the end, we didn't West Ham it completely.

Collison himself was typically eloquent on the topic:

"Football was my escape, and I wasnít playing for anyone, I was playing for West Ham, I was playing for every fan who carried my night, every fan who took the time to write to me. I was playing for the memory of my father and, after that night in particular, I always felt a special bond with the fans."

It's weird that I'm suffering from hayfever and my eyes are streaming despite it being November. A young West Ham team, filled with Academy graduates like Hines, Tomkins, Stanislas and Payne, had helped their youngest member to bid his father an emotional farewell. Collison would leave the pitch in tears, but firmly embedded as a hero in the heart of every West Ham fan.

***

Beneath his typically smiling exterior, it seemed that Collison had a steely side to him that would have set off an airport scanner. Shortly after his father was buried he suffered another setback as he was sidelined with a recurrence of his knee injury. It was beginning to seem that the Battle of Wounded Knee was being fought every week in the Chadwell Heath physio room just to keep the youngster on the field.

We missed him, as an ever-declining squad spluttered their way through the season to somehow stay up with just 35 points and two wins from our final twelve games. It wasn't so much that the writing was on the wall for the following season, so much as it was spray painted on with flaming alcohol in script saying "You're Screwed, Lads". As it was, new owners David Gold and David Sullivan decided to dismiss Zola and replace him with former Chelsea boss, Avram Grant, a man so uninspiring that one can only imagine his own dog feigns sleep when he calls him for a walk. And with that we sleepwalked into the type of relegation that is usually the sole preserve of Sunderland.

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Oh, Jack


Sadly for Collison, he was a spectator to all of this.

Read any footballing autobiography and you will read tales of players suffering from depression and slipping into addiction whilst being out for long periods. It is a strange purgatory that injured players live in - prevented from doing their jobs but still having to work incredibly hard just to figure out if they will ever be able to do that job again. Their once reliable body no longer the sure thing that it has always been, and when they come back not quite what it once was. It's a terrible thing to realise that some of your powers have diminished.

For a young man, still presumably suffering through the loss of his father, it must have been awful. Young men throw themselves into things they love to escape from grief, and while I don't know Jack Collison, I can only imagine that long rides on stationary bikes, tedious weightlifting sessions and constant medical appointments weren't the ideal way to spend that long, lonely period of his life, especially as his mates were off doing the thing that he loved - playing football - every day.

He worked diligently to return and indeed played in the final three games of that season, although he probably had to go through his new player initiation ceremony all over again, such was the turnover in the squad at that point.

But we went down and Grant was sacked in the bowels of the JJB stadium and then only got a lift home on the team coach because Scott Parker took pity on him. Sometimes we are even too West Ham for West Ham.

***

It was under Sam Allardyce that Collison experienced a career renaissance. He might have bored me to tears with his style of play, but Allardyce is much admired by those who played for him, for the clarity of his instructions and vision. He managed Collison carefully and despite limiting his starts across the season, extracted his best goal scoring return of six. These included a vital winner at Leicester late in the season, and then a high point as he scored a crucial brace away at Cardiff in the play off semi final first leg. One can only imagine that he and Allardyce shared a nice pint of Chablis after that one.

Even a knee high lunge at Jimmy Kebe couldnít dislodge Collison from our affections, as most thought that the Reading winger got off lightly for a bit of needless showboating. We all also wanted Collison to repay the favour at a later date with some pisstaking himself. Football fans there, both complex and remarkably stupid all at once.

But with promotion secured, the reduction in his playing time became more pronounced as that knee injury continued to take a toll. His time on the pitch decreased and he became a more peripheral figure. Collison made his final West Ham appearance in a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City, in the semi final of the League Cup. Hammers fans will have this episode seared into their minds as Allardyce had rested the first team for an FA Cup Third Round match at Forest in order to prepare for the first leg of this tie. Forest promptly smashed us 5-0 and City went one further and won the opening semi final 6-0. I think that could be the single most West Ham sentence I have ever written.

In retrospect, with the dreams of a Wembley final gone, perhaps the greatest shame of that night is that Collison deserved far better than to finish his career playing at a half empty Upton Park with Alou Diarra and Roger Johnson for company.

***

And with that, he was gone. Upon announcing his departure from West Ham, Collison wrote a long heartfelt letter describing his time at the club. While you won't be able to read it with welling up slowly, it is an moving piece of writing where he revealed himself to be articulate, thoughtful and adhered to West Ham in the way that we wish all our players were. Football fans dream that their heroes care as much about the club as them, but thatís a sad dream that is rarely accurate. In the case of Jack Collison, however, I actually believe it to be true.

Oddly, I feel that I have got to know Collison better since he left West Ham and then eventually had to retire. He set up his own soccer school, started a family and began a degree in sports journalism and his writing has impacted upon me greatly. Perhaps I empathise with the idea of revealing a little more of yourself every time you power up the iMac, or maybe I just respect him immensely for the way he has carried himself through difficult times and still presented his best side to the wider world.

Consider last summer when he had to watch on as his mates Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen carried a resurgent young Welsh side to the semi finals of Euro 2016. He should have been there and watching must have been a beautiful kind of torture for him. Decent Welsh teams are like good Guy Ritchie films, after all - there might have been one once but it was so long ago that nobody can truly be certain.



That haircut improved, to be fair


But herein lies the thing that has always made me admire Collison more than most others who have worn the claret and blue. Whatever it was that he was going through, he never seemed to let it spill over into the way he played. I don't say that to diminish the difficulty of it, or even because I think footballers should be robotic and perform brilliantly no matter how they are feeling. In fact, Collison to me is an example of the reverse of this. He cried, he acknowledged his pain and he came through it, with a better understanding of himself as a person and a willingness to share his experiences with dignity and maturity. Forget his career as a footballer - in this most masculine of sports and in this most magnified of careers - I admire anyone who is able to achieve that.

I usually have no truck with the idea that former players should be able to return to the club as coaches simply because they played here once, but in the case of Collison I make an exception. He is now the manager of the West Ham under 16 team and I can't think of a better example for our young trainees to observe than the man who has experienced so much and come out the other side. Nobody in that team will ever want for a bit of perspective on life, which is probably more helpful to them than any Cruyff turn ever will be.

***

So, Jack, thank you for everything that you gave to West Ham. Like Bishop and Sinclair, you connected with me as a fan, and even then I suspect that you gave more than most of us will ever realise, just as I think you were a better player than we appreciated too.

When a retired player tells you that he wakes up in the morning unable to walk properly, the customary response is to feel sorry for him. You, instead choose to use that pain as a reminder that you were lucky enough to have played the game you loved. To my mind, that is a greater sacrifice than you should have ever been asked to make, but West Ham fans won't forget that you did so.

Jack Collison - the one who deserved better.

* Listen to the KUMB Podcast's exclusive interview with Jack Collison (recorded in 2015)


Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.







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