Interview: Jack Collison on West Ham's struggles, the club's best youngster and a rivalry brewing with Beckham

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Former West Ham midfielder Jack Collison speaks to Sports Mole about his career, the challenges that came with early retirement, and a rivalry brewing with David Beckham.

Jack Collison's career in football could be regarded as a tale of woe by some, yet the former West Ham United midfielder is still in love with the game.

Once regarded as one of Welsh football's brightest prospects and a future star for his boyhood club, injuries denied him the chance to fulfil his true potential and limited him to fewer than 150 first-team appearances throughout his career.

The midfielder was eventually let go by West Ham on a permanent basis in 2014, but the injury problems persisted and only a handful of professional games followed during his time with Ipswich Town and Peterborough United before he was forced to retire at the age of just 27.

However, those troubles on the pitch pale into insignificance when compared to the tragic loss of his father, who died when Jack was just 20 years old and fresh off the back of being named West Ham's best young player.

Ian Collison was on his way to watch his son play for West Ham against bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur in 2009 when he was killed in a motorbike accident, with Jack only finding out about the devastating news after the match.

Football continued to be a shining light throughout those dark times, though; Collison played against West Ham's fiercest enemies Millwall just days later and went on to feature 22 times in the Premier League that term - his highest single-season tally in the competition.

Jack is now looking to forge a career in coaching and, having already spent time with West Ham's youth team before joining MLS outfit Atlanta United last year, he believes that his personal experience can help to prepare young players for the mental as well as physical side of the sport.

"It's massive. It's a big reason why I am in coaching now. I love the game and I'm disappointed it was taken away from me so early, but for me it was important to stay in and around it. Even though my career was fairly short in time I experienced a hell of a lot, both on and off the pitch - injury, relegation, being in the team, being out the team, having to go on loan, losing my dad at a young age as well," he told Sports Mole.

"So in terms of being in a position now to guide these kids and maybe give them some worthwhile advice, I feel I'm in a fairly good position. Certainly what I've found being in the youth game and working with young kids as well, such a massive part of it is the mental side and the psychological side in terms of trying to create a good environment where they're happy and enjoying their football. I feel that's where they really flourish, both at grass-roots level and the really elite level at the likes of West Ham and Atlanta United now.

"There is more awareness about it now because of social media and a lot of cases have been well documented since people have stopped playing or been forced to stop playing. It's a great game but there's a lot of other stuff which comes with it. A big part is trying to recognise those signs and trying as people who love the game to try and help each other through it.

"Whether it's a little problem, a family problem or away from the game completely - football is universal and used to help people through tough times. I found it a really good coping mechanism when I went through some really tough times such as losing my dad. I found football as a real release for me and somewhere to get away from all the issues. I think the mental side and working on these players psychologically has come on leaps and bounds and hopefully it will continue to do so over the next five, 10 years."

In addition to his coaching career in America, Collison has also set up a soccer school to help young kids of all abilities catch a glimpse into the world of professional football.

"I set the soccer school up five years ago now, while I was injured. Football had given me so much, it was an opportunity for me to try to give something back, and I had a bit of spare time. For me it's nice to give something back to the kids, let them have a bit of fun, hopefully improve them a bit and give them a little bit of insight into the professional game as well.

"At the next camp we've got young Nathan Holland, Zavon Hines and Izzy Brown coming down to speak to the kids at our three locations in London, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire. For kids to get insights off young up-and-coming players, players who have retired and become coaches and players who have been at massive clubs like Chelsea, it's an opportunity these local grass-roots players won't always get. To be doing something like that is obviously a great thing and something I'm very proud of.

"I was injured at the time so I was reassessing where I was at. My best friend Russell Short sat down one day and just thought 'Why not? Let's have a go, let's try it'. We've got something a little bit different we can bring and for me it was great to do the first one back where I grew up in Shefford so I could give back to the local community where I went to school and where I was raised.

"I had good links to the local schools and the local clubs so it made sense to start there. I'm really pleased that one is still going strong. We've got lots of kids booked on already for the upcoming camp. The first one was good fun and ever since then it's gone from strength to strength. We've done lots of exciting stuff and I'm pleased that some kids have had opportunities to go on further with trials at MK Dons and Peterborough.

"The lesser-skilled kids - hopefully they go back with a good experience and a bit of insight into the professional game, which is something they might never get. It's open to pretty much all age groups, both genders, all abilities - it's an opportunity for kids to get together, build some confidence, team building stuff, a bit of fun and obviously a hell of a lot of football with some good prizes.

"Alongside that we're bringing back something we started a while ago - Friday Night Elite - which is catered towards the better players who are looking to further their game. It's real elite training at a 12:1 ratio with a coach who's been in and around the professional game himself 10-12 years. That's aimed at kids with higher ability to help take them to the next stage alongside their grass-roots stuff."

Despite his injury problems, Collison made 121 appearances for the West Ham first team and returned to the club in 2017 to continue honing his coaching skills, having initially taken charge of youth teams at Peterborough following his retirement.

The former Wales international remains a fan of the Hammers, but admits that things must improve having seen the club slip to 17th in the Premier League table - only outside the relegation zone on goal difference ahead of Wednesday's match against runaway leaders Liverpool.

"It's hard work being a West Ham fan! It's been a difficult season. I think if you look at the start of the season and the way the squad was shaping up, [Manuel] Pellegrini had been in there a bit of time, there was a lot of optimism about the place but for one reason or another it just hasn't seemed to have clicked or gelled.

"They've really struggled in recent games and the league position is a representation of that. The fans are desperate for a cup run, a bit of glory and another trip out to Wembley, so it was disappointing to get knocked out to West Brom at the weekend.

"There's a lot of unrest which is evident amongst the fans. They're not happy with the lack of transfer activity, the performances on the pitch and I think there is always going to be - until the performance improve on the pitch - that elephant in the room about the move from the Boleyn Ground, which was much-loved with all the passion, to the Olympic Stadium, where the seats are miles away from the pitch and it's hard to create that atmosphere.

"Speaking to a lot of West Ham fans, they feel like they've lost a massive part of what the club has been about over so many years. It's a difficult period at the moment, but performances on the pitch will certainly help the stuff going on away from the pitch.

"Hopefully we can get one or two more in, stick a couple of results together and start moving up the league, but it doesn't get much tougher than Liverpool coming to your place on Wednesday night. It's going to be difficult, but the boys really like David Moyes, they trust David Moyes and they're going to have to lean very heavily on his experience. It's vital that a club like West Ham, with their stature, find a way to stay in the league this year."

The importance of staying in the league was thrust into the spotlight even more by co-owner David Sullivan's admission this week that the club cannot afford relegation, revealing that Premier League survival was an "absolute necessity" for the Hammers.

However, Collison, who suffered relegation under Avram Grant during his time in East London, has warned against thinking that the current squad are too good to go down.

"It's such a dangerous statement, 'too good to go down'. I was involved in a squad that was 'too good to go down' you could say. On paper we had a fantastic squad under Avram and ended up getting relegated. A few years before the likes of Joe Cole were in a fantastic squad as well.

"But I think we'll find a way to get through it and find a bit of form. You look at the squad and there is a lot of ability in there, it's just up to David Moyes now to find a formation he's happy with as quickly as possible, find the players who are on form, producing and gelling and then obviously working hard and getting a little bit of momentum and getting a run of points."

Moyes began his reign with back-to-back wins in which West Ham scored six goals without reply, but since then they have suffered three losses and a draw, including a home FA Cup defeat to 10-man Championship outfit West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

The decision to re-appoint Moyes a year-and-a-half after parting company with him was a controversial one, but Collison believes that it was the right time to sack Pellegrini and is backing Moyes to use his experience to help the club steer clear of danger.

"You look at recent performances and you can't say [Pellegrini] didn't have a good crack at it. He had a good period of bedding in and good time to try to get his ideas and his way of playing across. When you think of Pellegrini you think of wonderful attacking football, and it just wasn't happening for one reason or another so I think it was important to make a change.

"In David Moyes you obviously get a highly experienced manager, someone who had been at the club fairly recently and so knows a lot of the staff and players. Getting him back, the transition period isn't as long as it possibly could be getting a new face in. David Moyes knows the league inside out and it's important now he navigates his way through that and finds the points needed to ensure that West Ham are still a Premier League team at the end of the season."

One of the biggest sources of unrest amongst West Ham fans is the ownership of Davids Sullivan and Gold, with the duo this month marking 10 years in charge of the club.

During that time the Hammers have suffered relegation and only finished higher than 10th in the Premier League table on one occasion, despite the move to the London Stadium being touted as a means to help West Ham make the step up and compete for top-six finishes.

Collison believes that the main problem has been recruitment and urged the owners to build more of a structure and identity in the future.

"The performances on the pitch will talk for themselves. When the team is winning and playing well then a lot of stuff will go unsaid. But you look at some of the signings over the past five, six seasons - they just haven't really done it.

"I think the fans are keen to see some sort of structure, some sort of thought behind future signings, whether it's the young player route you go down, whether it's experienced players. But you want players who can come in and make an instant impact, especially at the moment when there isn't time to take too many risks.

"The move to the London Stadium - part of it was to get West Ham to the next level and try to get them competing for the top six, the top four, but there just hasn't been much progress since the move in terms of signings or performances in the league. Don't get me wrong, I think they've tried. Appointing Pellegrini, a manager of that stature and experience, speaks for itself.

"But in terms of getting a real structure and real identity behind the scenes and on the pitch, it hasn't really happened. It's important over the next couple of years that steps are taken towards this. Recruitment is obviously a massive issue and something needs to be done about that and then hopefully you will start to see an improvement on the pitch."

Collison knows more than most about the youth set-up at West Ham having come through the ranks himself, been named the Young Hammer of the Year in 2008-09 and then spent two years as a coach at the academy, and he insists that there is no shortage of talent to call upon should Moyes be willing to take a risk on youngsters.

"There are some fantastic young players there. There is certainly a pool of talent to lean on, but it seems like recent managers haven't done that. You've seen what Declan Rice has done given the opportunity, he's grabbed it with both hands.

"There are players who are probably ready for first-team football and ready to make that step, but it is such a difficult situation lingering at the bottom of the table when the managers tend to lean more towards experience rather than giving youth an opportunity.

"You talk about individuals - Nathan Holland has gone out on loan to Oxford. For me he is an exciting player - he can score goals, make goals and is the sort of player the West Ham fans would love to see. He's got that flair, that hard work and he would certainly get bums off seats, but he hasn't had much of an opportunity yet.

"Even below that there are other players who are close and pushing - the likes of Conor Coventry, Dan Kemp was on the bench at the weekend. There are some talented lads, it's just finding the right situation and finding the manager that gives them the opportunity to go out there and is willing to let them make the odd mistake while trusting that they'll come good. The fruits will be there at the end of it."

Collison was born and raised in England, but was eligible to play for Wales through his maternal grandfather and switched his allegiance after being recommended by then-West Ham teammate and former Wales captain Craig Bellamy.

The midfielder went on to win 15 caps for his country, playing with the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and he believes that their experience en route to the semi-finals at Euro 2016 will help them negotiate a difficult group when the tournament comes back around this summer, having been drawn alongside Italy, Switzerland and Turkey.

"There are no easy games once you get to the final stages. I thought they did ever so well to qualify after a bit of a slow start. [Manager Ryan] Giggs was a little slow to get the team firing and then you look towards the end of the qualification - some of the performances were fantastic. When you talk about giving young players a chance and an opportunity on the big stage - Giggs certainly did that, believed in it and got his reward in the end.

"The pleasing thing for Wales is that they've got a lot of players behind the scenes who still have such great memories of the Euros in 2016 when they got to the semis. Their experience will be vital alongside the mix of the youngsters, and why not? They'll certainly be there to compete and have a go. Hopefully they can get through the group stages and then you never know what happens from there.

"[Having Bale] is a massive weapon. If you dig in and manage to keep the game tight there is always the chance that Gareth Bale will come up with something ridiculous, as he has on so many occasions for his country. He certainly inspires the others around him and also the likes of Aaron Ramsey seems to step up every time he puts that Welsh shirt on.

"And the exciting young players - the likes of [David] Brooks, [Harry] Wilson, [Ethan] Ampadu - all these young players who have really exciting careers ahead of them, it's certainly a great stage for them to go and show the world what they're made of and what they're capable of."

Bale has made no secret of the fact that he prefers Wales duty to representing club side Real Madrid, and caused further anger amongst Los Blancos fans when he marked Euro 2020 qualification by posing with a flag that read 'Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.'

However, Collison believes that the Welsh talisman has been harshly treated in Spain and suggested that the difference in opinion from the fans is one of the major reasons why he favours international duty.

"I think [Bale has been harshly treated]. You look at his goal record, especially in the first few seasons, it was outstanding. Goals and assists, important goals in Champions League finals and things like this. But they're a tough bunch to please obviously! The pleasing thing is, every time he is in that Welsh squad he wants to turn up every trip, even sometimes when he's had little niggles.

"I think he just loves going out there and being adored. Playing in front of those fans, it certainly inspires him and it certainly inspires the rest of the nation, not just the boys on the pitch - the staff that are at every single camp, the fans and there are a lot of kids around Wales wanting to be the next Gareth Bale."

With his playing retirement now four years in the past, 31-year-old Collison has his sights set very much on a future in coaching before eventually moving into management.

Frank de Boer is currently the head coach at Atlanta United, and Collison revealed that he has been watching the Dutchman closely in addition to taking lessons from all of his previous managers in an attempt to mould his own style.

"I think long term in terms of my coaching career - I'm 31 and I've finally completed my Pro Licence, but I don't want to just get my badges and tick them off, I need to be out on the grass, testing myself and proving myself day in day out, which I'm getting the opportunity to do.

"Long term I'd like to be a manager or a head coach at a men's team, and who knows where the path will take me? I just want to work at the highest level possible and get the opportunity to go out there and get that buzz of a real intense atmosphere on a matchday. It's great to see someone of [De Boer's] experience. He had a great playing career and now he's doing so well at Atlanta. It's good to be close and see first hand a different style of coaching.

"He's got some fantastic people in and around him - they've got really good staff here all the way down so just to be able to lean on people for their different experience has certainly helped me along my journey and when the time comes hopefully I'll be ready to put my own imprint on a team and see what I can do with it.

"I was very fortunate - although my career was quite short I got to play under some great managers. The likes of Sam Allardyce - for me I'd take his attention to detail. You'd go into every game knowing exactly what to expect from the opposition, exactly what was expected of you both in and out of possession. I had a month at Bournemouth with Eddie Howe and his training sessions were really sharp - good fun but really competitive.

"[Gianfranco] Zola for me was the best one I worked under. Just his care and the way he wanted to know about you as a person and make sure you were happy. His willingness to go out and do extras with you after sessions is something I'll really take from that. Alongside that Chris Coleman, Gary Speed, [Alan] Curbishley, [Alan] Pardew - I'd take little snippets from that and try to put my own little twist on it to stand me in good stead going forward."

Collison's fledging coaching career is only marginally shorter than Atlanta United's history as a club, but in that time they have already won the MLS Cup, the US Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.

Such success in a short period appealed enough to Collison for him to leave West Ham for a second time in July of last year, and he is enjoying his new life Stateside as he comes to terms with the challenge of building a youth program at a franchise that is only five years old themselves.

"It was a big reason why I came over here, you can see what they're trying to build. The foundations they've already got in place in such a short period and the facilities are just incredible. To come out and be a part of an exciting new project - its early stages have been really good. Already in my five, six months here the growth amongst the academy especially has been quite significant and quite exciting.

"It's been very different working with players with different styles and slightly different mentalities, but I'm certainly enjoying it. For me it's vital at this stage of my career to be on the grass as much as possible and working with elite players, which I'm getting to do."

Atlanta are no longer the new kids on the MLS block, though, with two new franchises joining the league for the 2020 season - most notably the Inter Miami outfit headed by David Beckham.

Collison has already had a chance to come up against the new team at academy level, and he is excited to see the impact it will have on the senior set-up having already sensed a rivalry brewing between the two clubs.

"It's exciting! The academy has been going already this season and you can feel the rivalry already. Atlanta is probably the biggest club in the MLS at the moment and there is no doubt that Inter Miami are coming in as one of the big boys with big expectations.

"It's pleasing for us that there is going to be a fierce rivalry there at all levels. It ensures that us guys at Atlanta are all on our toes, we're pushing forward and keep pushing the program to be the best we can be. They love their football out here - it's actually surprised me. Especially somewhere like Inter Miami, there are a lot of Hispanic kids, parents and players, and they absolutely love it. You can see there is a real passion in the way they play.

"There is no doubt that Beckham has got great pulling power, so it's going to be a really interesting season this year at first-team level and academy level. That rivalry already between Atlanta and Inter Miami, not a million miles away from each other, both teams with big spending power... I'm really excited to see how the season pans out. For me it's great to see the good work being done up close and personal."

Jack Collison's Soccer School has spaces still available at camps in London, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire for the February half term, beginning on February 18. Click here to find out more.

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