Danny Collins, who has gone from the factory floor to Wembley Stadium, tells Andy Mitten the key to The Potters success.
Stoke City are 'a good set of boys who work hard'
Stoke City's Welsh international Danny Collins will scour the crowd at Wembley Stadium today to spot those friends and family who have followed his career through good times and bad. An FA Cup semi-final represents a high mark in the 30-year-old defender's career that has seen him rise from non-league football to the Premier League.
"My mates from home still come and watch most weeks," he said. "They can't believe that I've gone from playing in front of 150 to 30-40,000."
Today's crowd against Bolton Wanderers will be far bigger.
"We're taking nearly 40,000 fans and everyone in Stoke is talking about it," he said. "The draw was good for us because one of the two Manchester clubs will get knocked out. If we can beat Bolton, then you never know what can happen in a one-off final. Look at Birmingham City beating Arsenal in the League Cup final."
Collins grew up in Buckley, a small town in North Wales close to Chester and Liverpool. A childhood Everton and Chester City fan, he loved playing football and cricket.
"I've actually played cricket for Wales," he said, "and used to play minor counties cricket every summer until I turned professional. Football was my first choice."
Collins came from a rich seam of footballing talent.
"I played in the same area team as Michael Owen and we won everything," he said. "Gary Speed and Ian Rush had played for the same area side, so there was good pedigree."
Collins was spotted by Chester at 15 and played in youth sides at the club until they released him. "I went for a few trials at other clubs but none of them wanted me. It's then that you realise that the chances of making it as a professional footballer are very small."
He began to look for work. "I'd taken a wood machinist course after school and took a job in a factory. It was hard work, with a lot of maths involved. I worked 40-odd hours a week and earned £250 (Dh1,500).
"I played non-league locally and the game on a Saturday was my highlight of the week. Then Chester came back in for me in 2001."
His second spell at Chester was far more successful; they won the Conference and were promoted to the Football League in 2004.
His performances in central defence started to attract bigger suitors.
"Sunderland, Sheffield United and Everton were all interested," he said. "I went to Sunderland, was overawed at the size of the club and signed for them that day."
Championship club Sunderland paid £140,000 for his signature in October 2004 and he moved away from home for the first time.
"I was 24 so it wasn't like moving away when you're a 16-year-old kid, like many footballers," Collins said. "I lived in a hotel and was used as a reserve defender."
Collins played 14 times as Sunderland won the 2004/05 championship and promotion to the Premier League. He was now a top-flight footballer.
"I was for a bit," he said with a laugh. "We didn't have much money to spend and were relegated straight away with just 15 points." Still, Collins established himself in the first team and he kept his place when Roy Keane came in as manager soon after the start of the 2006/07 season, playing 42 of 46 league games. "I felt myself improving as a player. I enjoyed playing up there. I met my partner there, too."
Life under Keane as manager was seldom dull.
"A lot of the players had mixed views of him, but he was good for me," said Collins. "He told it as it was and knew what he wanted. He was well organised and wanted things doing right. He also got us promoted."
Collins' respect for the former Manchester United captain is clear, yet Keane was a complex character.
"Some days he'd come into training and be friendly with everyone. Other days he'd not say a word to anyone. The players would say: 'His twin brother is in today.'"
Keane quit Sunderland in 2008. "I was sad to see him walk out. I improved under him," Collins said.
The Welshman has several strengths. "I read the game well and I'm not bad in the air," he said. "I'm also left-footed. You often find teams playing three or four right-footed players across the back four, so being left-footed helps."
Collins became a favourite in Sunderland; fans made him their player of the year in both 2008 and 2009. Steve Bruce, the manager, then made Collins the Sunderland captain at the start of the 2009/10 season. But it all changed in January.
"I was playing well and settled in my private life, too, when Bruce pulled me into his office and told me that he was looking at other defenders," Collins said. "He told me that he couldn't guarantee my place. I was stunned; it was completely out of the blue."
Bruce told him that the Stoke manager Tony Pulis was on the phone and he could have a word with him. "I couldn't believe what was going on," Collins said. "My head was in pieces. It was horrible to be told I wasn't wanted because life had been so good.
"It was a shock for my girlfriend, too. She was a Sunderland girl and I told her that we'd have to move. I found myself rushed into going to Stoke and signing for them."
Collins is still uncomfortable at the memory.
"Sport can be brutal," he said. "Did you see Rory McIlroy in the Masters? He was top of the world thinking that he would win it, then he imploded. That's sport."
Stoke paid £2.75m for Collins, a fee that could rise to £3.5m, depending on appearances.
He competed with Danny Higginbotham for the left-back spot last season, but still made 28 appearances and 22 consecutive outings earlier this term. He is likely to play more with Higginbotham out injured for six months.
Stoke's long-ball game is not for football's puritans. Many of the club's players are ill at ease with Pulis's tactics and training, but they have the results to establish the club in the Premier League.
"We finished 12th in the first year after promotion, then 11th last season. We're hoping for a top-10 finish this time. We have a good set of boys who work hard and have created a great team spirit," Stoke's No 5 said. "That has helped carry us to where we are."
The defender also has been impressive for Wales recently. He made his debut in 2005 but fell out with the former manager John Toshack. He was recalled by the current coach Gary Speed for the 2012 European Championship qualifiers. He enjoys playing for a man who played more than 500 Premier League games.
"If we can get our full squad out - which we need - then I think we can give it a good go at reaching the 2014 World Cup finals. I hope to still be playing then. I was a late starter, so I'm not ready to give up yet."
Bolton Wanderers v Stoke City
Kevin Davies v Robert Huth
With Daniel Sturridge, the in-form and on-loan striker from Chelsea, cup-tied for Bolton, captain Davies, below, will have a huge part to play in attack. He is one of the most physical forwards in the Premier League. However, Huth, Stoke’s German centre-back, is equally as dominant in the air. A mammoth battle awaits.
While Bolton, under Owen Coyle, have shaken off the label of being a long-ball team, with free-flowing, quick paced football, Stoke are still plying the tactic. Expect an interesting clash of styles.
The sides have met four times in the FA Cup, with Bolton winning the most recent – 3-2 at home in the third round in 1974. In six Premier League meetings, Bolton have three wins to Stoke’s two.
Bolton (4-3-3) Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Muamba, M Davies, Petrov; Lee, Elmander, K Davies
Stoke (4-4-2) Begovic; Wilkinson, Huth, Shawcross, Collins; Pennant, Whelan, Delap, Etherington; Jones, Walters
• Stoke have been beaten three times at the semi-final stage.
• Bolton have beaten three Premier League sides in the competition – Wigan, Fulham and Birmingham – but Stoke have knocked out only West Ham.