Footballer, manager, and broadcaster, Roddy Collins is a big man, with big emotions, and a big life. He seems to attract controversy – and cause it – effortlessly. Right now, it’s a row about Sky Sports apologising for the behaviour of Celtic football fans around the time of the Queen’s funeral. Next week, it’ll probably be something else.
e meet on a sunny morning in the Merrion Hotel ahead of the publication of his autobiography, The Rodfather, which he co-wrote with Paul Howard.
Over the course of the hour we spend together, there are tears – particularly when he talks about his dad, who died suddenly aged 49, of a heart attack, when Roddy was 21 – plenty of belly laughs, eye-popping anecdotes, a spot of coaching advice, and some profound reflection.
So many things in his life, he says, are “brilliant” – the way he was brought up, his wife, family, friends. The things that aren’t brilliant are sometimes heart-breaking.
He is unguarded and open, in our conversation and throughout his book. He writes about mess-ups, failure, low moments, frustrations, right alongside the good times and triumphs.
There are football stories, of course – a bewildering succession of clubs he has played for (including Fulham, Arsenal, Bohemians, Home Farm, Shamrock Rovers…) and managed (Carlisle, Derry, Bohemians, Rovers, many more). There is also the social history of Cabra in the 1960s and 1970s; insights into the career of his brother Steve Collins, world champion middleweight and super-middleweight boxer; tales from his years in the construction industry as a plasterer; and a hilarious interlude in which he ran a boxing gym and trained Travellers for bare-knuckle fights.
It is, I tell him, a fascinating read.
“Is it?” he asks. “On my life, I don’t get it… I mean, I’ve lived this.”
How was it, living it again, in the writing?
“It was emotional. I probably never got over the death of my father. Caroline [his wife] and my ma say I should have went for counselling. Too late now, I suppose. I still miss him.”
Did he ever think about being less blunt? Spinning it all a bit more?
“No. I’ve never done that in my life and I couldn’t. I hate falseness. Hate it. There’s this new pretend life people live – thank god I’m the age I am, I don’t even know how to do it. I hate pretence, I hate dishonesty.”
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Roddy Collins was born in Dublin in 1960, the second of six children. He grew up in the northside suburb of Cabra, “within earshot of Dalymount Park”.
His recollections of his childhood in the 1960s and 1970s are full of affection and nostalgia, despite the financial limitations. There were nine in the family – parents, six kids, Roddy’s granny – in a two-bedroom house with no bathroom and the toilet in the backyard; so cold that, in winter, ice formed inside the windows. And yet, what he remembers is “a time of fun and adventure”.
He writes about street football, stealing apples, sleeping in a barn loft off the North Circular Road, Fossett’s Circus. He also writes about the tight-knit community, the way people helped one another. As an adult, during hard times, he recalls receiving cash anonymously through the letter box, the odd bundle of notes arriving without fanfare. During his own flush times, he would do the same for others.
“Where we were reared, where Caroline was reared, you were never stuck,” he says when I ask about this. “If you needed a bit of sugar, you got a bit of sugar off the neighbours. I remember my ma giving me ‘the message’ – it would be a ten bob note, wrapped round a penny – so if you dropped it, it wouldn’t blow away.
“And she’d give that up to someone on the terrace, and then when they got their wage or whatever, that went to someone else who was stuck. It was like a little bridging loan.
“I’ve put money in letterboxes for people that were on their uppers and said nothing to no one. But people aren’t stupid. They know when you’re in a good way and when you’re in a bad way. And there’s people out there like me.
“They’re not stupid – they put two and two together and knock at your door. ‘You all right, Rod? Here.’ Maybe it was a Dublin thing, the way we were reared? It’s a brilliant thing, I think – everyone helping everyone. I love it.”
He and Caroline met (or rather, Collins first saw her, standing at a bus stop) when he was 15 – and he is still full of wonder at the chance that brought them together.
“How do you walk along Henry Street as a kid, turn a corner and see a girl at a bus stop with her back to you, and get a rush…? I’ve never had that in my life. Then I meet her again, through a friend – and we’ve never been separated since, other than through work.
“It wasn’t perfect. I’ve done mad things. Like I went off missing, to England, with Vinnie Jones, having a few pints, for a day or two. Caroline had to ring me – ‘Where are you?’ ‘I’m in London.’ ‘What? Get on the next flight home!’ – but I’m with her every single day, and I love every minute of it.
“She’s the best. She’s strong. Very strong. Takes no nonsense off me, thank god.”
Collins went to London aged 16. He was what my football-playing kids refer to excitedly as ‘scouted’ by Fulham. They always imagine it’s the start of a life as Ronaldo or Beckham. The reality, certainly in the 1970s, was very different.
“It was lonely. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible.” The player he went over with, a friend, “went home after a week. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to make it. I wanted to buy me dad a Jag. I wanted to buy my parents a house. I wanted to marry Caroline when I was 17 and buy a big house in London and be a superstar football player. And I tried hard. I tried my best.
“But the reality was, I arrived in London, in Fulham, which was an affluent area. I was from a council house in Cabra – a beautiful home, but Fulham was different…
“The people were different. They told me the only reason they took in lodgers was to go on a skiing holiday. They told me never to use the phone. I spent my time in a little room upstairs. I’d have me dinner at five o’clock, I’d go up to the little room and I’d try and go asleep at 7pm. I was hungry. I went out and bought tins of food, sardines and corned beef, and sliced pans, and hid them, because I was that hungry.”
His time at the training ground wasn’t much better. He’d call home from a phone box, ringing the number of one on the North Circular Road, where his dad would wait at a certain time.
“How’s it going, son?”
“I’m doing great.”
But he wasn’t. There was no sign of a contract. “I wanted to come home after two weeks, but me da was so proud of me. And there’s me, looking at George Best [who then played for Fulham] in the flesh most days of the week, and I’m thinking: ‘If this doesn’t happen to me…’
“And I tried really hard. But nothing was happening, and then I remember one day, I was coming on the bus back from a game, and it was bucketing down. Forked lightning. And there’s me da, with his little bag [his father had come over on a surprise visit]. And he was drenched.
“I was banging on the window. ‘Da! Da!’ I got off the bus and he was in the stands and I went up and it was like: ‘He’s coming to save me! He’s going to get me a contract.’”
He pauses. He’s laughing, but tears are there too, remembering the kid he was, and his utter faith in the power of his dad.
“At least he asked the question,” Roddy continues. “Instead of prolonging the outcome, he asked the question.”
Fulham came to nothing. Then there was Arsenal, then Wolves. Each time, no contract. He came to back to Dublin and played for Bohemians, Home Farm, Athlone Town, Drogheda United.
There were rows – times he reacted to being called ‘Paddy’ (the casual anti-Irishness of those days is horribly well rendered), incidents with players, managers, in nightclubs – and there
He broke his leg – a bad break, the kind that ends careers, and that kept him out of action for two years – then broke it again. And later yet again. There was a dislocated shoulder, a seizure after swallowing his tongue in a high tackle, and a host of other, smaller but debilitating injuries.
He got married. He and Caroline had children – four – and in between football, he worked on building sites as a plasterer. There were good times and bad, often in dizzying succession. House moves, country moves – England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland.
He started managing clubs, beginning with Bangor, moving to Bohs, then to Carlisle. There was never enough money, enough faith from owners, enough support. Carlisle in particular brought him close to the edge. Through it all, conviction and commitment kept him going.
At one stage, when their own youngest, Padraig, was just a few months’ old, he and Caroline fostered her brother, Liam’s, baby. Liam and his partner Rose both suffered with mental illness. When Rose became unexpectedly pregnant, it was clear they couldn’t care for the child.
“I’ll never forget it,” Collins says now. “It was a scorcher of a day. I was out the back. Caroline came out and said: ‘I think Rose is pregnant.’ Caroline brought her down to the doctor’s, and she was. She was six months’ pregnant.
“We were 40 at the time. Caroline came in and says: ‘The child’s going to go to social services. I want to take the baby.’ So I said: ‘Yeah, no problem.’
“I’d do it again tomorrow,” he says now. “That’s the way we were reared: Look after each other. Blood is thicker than water.”
So Lauren, born in 2001, came to live with them and is, Collins says with great pride, “brilliant. She’s so independent. She’s starting a new college in September, and works in Penney’s part-time. She’s staunch. She’s strong. She’s a great kid.”
I wonder is it his close-knit private life that has allowed him to take the endless career knocks?
“All I really care about is my family, my kids, my grandkids. That’s all I care about. The book… I don’t know. Caroline thinks it’s great. To be honest with you, I just take it as it comes. Once Caroline’s happy, the kids are happy, no one’s upset, that’s all I care about.”
What does he hope from the book? Is there an element of setting the record straight?
“Yeah. That people might read it and go: ‘He could have been manager of Man United if he’d got a fair crack at it.’”
Did doing the book change anything about the way he thinks about his life?
“No. It only highlights one or two regrets. One was the stupidity of falling out with Johnny Giles.”
This is an incident that made me wince, reading it. Collins was called up for the U18 Ireland squad for a match against Belgium. On the day, when the team was put up, he was a sub. He walked off, and went home.
“It was one of the stupidest things I ever did,” he writes. “I regret that. “And I regret not hugging my dad more. Other than that, I’m grand. I can live with everything. I’ve probably had the most unperfect life.
“I’ve done stupid things that hurt other people and let them down, but I can’t change that. I’m happy. I’ve a great wife, brilliant kids. I got lucky there.”
He’s tearing up again. How come, when he is so robust about the abuse he has sometimes got from the terraces, and indeed from within the hierarchy of the clubs he’s worked for, is he so easily moved by the more personal side of life? “Football stuff is people shouting and roaring. You can look at people in the crowd – solicitors, accountants, labourers – they turn into different human beings. I can take that from two thousand, twenty thousand – I can take that. Water off a duck’s back.”
He tells a story of going out to dinner with Caroline and bumping into a man who used to yell at him from the terraces – “calling me a wife-beater, a drug dealer, a paedophile”.
When Roddy goes to pay for his dinner, it’s paid for. At which point the man comes over to him and says: “Ah, it’s only a bit of craic!” He gives a big laugh, repeating, “only a bit of craic!” and rolls his eyes.
But, he continues, “I can walk out of the grounds and a genuine man can come over to me and say: ‘Rod, I’m really disappointed with the way you’re doing things,’ and that would kill me! It’s like with my father. My father was a brilliant man, he had to come down heavy with me… but I’d rather get a belt than one of his looks of pure disappointment.
“It’s the same with Caroline. If I’ve done something wrong and she won’t talk to me, even for three hours, I’m tortured. We sort it out. We never go to bed on a row.”
“Never. I can’t sleep, not in a million years. I’ll wait, I’ll go: ‘I won’t give in yet…’ Then I give in. I grab her hand and say: ‘I love you pal.’ Every night.”
He is utterly sanguine about some of the bad luck that came his way – the injuries that messed up his footballing career – but less so about the resistance he encountered as manager of the clubs where he worked. Resistance, he insists, to improvement.
“A man said to me once: ‘Keep your mouth shut, and you’ll be in the Bohemians’ shop for 10 years. If you want to be.’ But I would have been a hostage to the mediocrity of the people who were running it.”
“The playing career – that’s life,” he says. “No one blocked me in that. It is what it is. We all have a story. But the management one? I swear to god, I one-hundred percent know – and everyone who’s ever worked with me knows – that I was gunning to go right to the top. Right to the very, very top. The most important years are probably lost, but I’d still love to get a challenge.”
He hasn’t given up the dream?
“No. Never. Only before lockdown, I got a call on my phone – ‘Rod, will you come out to China?’ I said it to Caroline, and she said ‘yeah, we’ll give it a bash!’”
Covid and lockdown put paid to that, but now aged 62, he continues to believe.
“Age doesn’t come into it, once you’re physically with it. I’m not going to get work in Ireland. There’s nothing here for me. I don’t want a ‘big job’, I want a challenge. If I’m as good as I think I am, as Caroline thinks I am, I’ll go up the ladder.”
He talks about lower league clubs in Spain, in Jamaica, in China again.
“You know what? I’ve never said no to a job. It’s a drug. So look, I haven’t given up.”
Meantime, there’s the new book. “I hope I give respect to all the people I’ve worked with – plastering, the Travelling boys, the boxers, my brother – I give him the height of respect for being a world champion – to my other brothers and sisters who I love, to let them all know. Because you don’t always get a chance to tell people.”
And we’re back to talking about his dad again, specifically the sadness of how he only hugged him once as an adult.
“But do you know what came out of that? I hug my kids every day. Every day. I think it’s a great thing. It’s brilliant.”
It is indeed brilliant.
‘The Rodfather’, by Roddy Collins with Paul Howard, is published by Penguin Sandycove, €20.99
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/roddy-collins-i-went-off-missing-to-england-with-vinnie-jones-having-a-few-pints-for-a-day-or-two-42030150.html Roddy Collins: ‘I went off missing, to England, with Vinnie Jones, having a few pints, for a day or two…’