Reuben Collins on life as a free agent in football’s current financial climate

In Depth

There’s rarely a good time to be out of contract, but there have certainly been better ones than this summer, with the landscape of English football drastically altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Budgets have been cut, expectations have been revised, and uncertainty reigns.

With matches being played behind closed doors and the fixture list more tightly packed than ever before, nobody knows quite what to expect from next season, including the hundreds of players who are currently without a club.

Many managers are scaling back their squads, and reluctant to sign new players, making the free agent market more competitive than ever before. Reuben Collins is one of those players searching for the right opportunity.

“I was at Wimbledon for seven years, from under-12s through to the season just gone,” Collins says. “It was my first professional club. They picked me up from Sunday League locally and I went through the ranks there.

“I’ve got so much love for that club. They shaped me into the person I am today. They really did. The academy set-up there is great. Not just footballing-wise, I felt I developed as a person there throughout. They gave me that opportunity to become a professional footballer and have the pathway to a career in football.”

The 19-year-old centre-back discovered his fate at the start of lockdown. “I got a phone call from the gaffer and he was like, ‘Reubs, I’m sorry, but due to the current situation I’m going to have to let you go.’

“It is what it is. It’s a shame but there are no hard feelings because I know it was purely a business decision.”

Despite being exposed to the ruthless side of football, Collins has lost none of his enthusiasm and remains as committed to his career as ever.

“It’s just the love of the game. Literally as soon as I could walk, it’s just been everything to me. If I could live at the training ground I would,” he laughs.

“It’s hard to put into words. Just going out in the garden and doing drills, I find satisfaction in that. Currently, all my satisfaction in life is coming from football. I know that a lot of people my age have other focuses and influences but, for me, it’s always been football.”

Signing his first professional contract last summer gave Collins a foothold in the game, albeit a slender one, and demonstrated that he was on the right track.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gone to plan over the last 12 months. Collins was involved with the Wimbledon first team throughout pre-season before heading out on loan to Basingstoke Town. It started well, as he played regularly and contributed to meaningful results in men’s football until injury began to take its toll.

“I was playing on a little niggle and it just started to get progressively worse. I couldn’t play to the best of my ability, so I thought, ‘Okay, let me give it a rest.’ I got all the scans and stuff, and I was out from October to February.”

Collins was suffering with osteitis pubis, or pubic overload. His body was still growing and the added strain on his muscles was causing aggravation in his groin.

‘What’s next?’

Once he was able to return to playing, he managed just a few appearances on loan at Billericay Town and then Merstham before the season was suspended in March. A week later, he discovered that he was being released.

“I feel like if there wasn’t the pandemic, and the club had the funds, there would have been a much higher chance of me staying on because I had a contract extension clause. I reckon they would have extended my contract.

“The club had me in their plans, but just a bit further down the line. I’m a young centre-back and I’m still growing. Centre-backs normally need to be a bit more mature, especially if you’ve got a more traditional manager.

“Once the pandemic started, I had a rough idea what was going to happen. The club has one of the lower budgets in the league anyway, and with this going on, I knew they’d have to strip the squad down. I was quite sad to leave but I was looking at it from a positive angle – what’s next?”

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QUIZ: Can you name all 72 Football League clubs for the 2020-21 season?

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Faced with a major setback at such a young age, Collins has never stopped believing in his ability. He doesn’t view being released as rejection, and won’t let it define him.

“I can see why young players would be disheartened after being released. There’s a stigma that if you’ve been released, it means that you’re not good enough for that level of football. That’s the end of it.

“I disagree with that because I feel football is more a game of opinions. You might not fit into the vision of one manager but there could be five others searching for your exact characteristics. I have the confidence and belief in myself that I’ll be able to find another club at the same level.

“I’ll always put my heart and soul into whatever club I play for because I’m just passionate about the game.”

That passion has kept Collins motivated and focused over the last few months. Without a clear end in sight, it would be easy to slack off, but he won’t. He’s been training hard on his own, using the fitness programme he was sent by Wimbledon, and finding ways to work on his technique.

“I’ve had the mannequins out in the garden. I get balls served in for me to head. Going side to side, doing little volleys, nicking the ball around the side.

“With more technical aspects, I’ve been passing against the wall, passing into the little gates, keeping the ball up, working on my ball control. At the end of the day, it’s down to the football. You can’t be going back rusty.

“I’ve got my agents, who deal with the business side of things. They’ve got their side of the job in terms of providing opportunities and getting my name out there. But for me, as a footballer, my job currently is to keep myself in the best footballing condition so that when I’m given an opportunity, I can hit the ground running.

“I’ve got myself into a routine since the start of lockdown and I feel like I’ve taken advantage of this break to improve my game. Each week I’m setting myself small goals in all aspects of what I’m doing to improve myself.

“Regardless of what happens in the next couple of months, I want to be able to look back at this period and not have a single regret about how much work I put in. I’m on track to do that, but, like lots of things in life, only time will tell.”

Time on his side

The search for a new club can be stressful. As well as lost earnings, there’s also a psychological toll to bear. In contrast to the bountiful resources of Premier League clubs, the lower divisions were always a place of relative scarcity and insecurity, which has only been exacerbated by these exceptional circumstances. Yet Collins tries to remain upbeat and optimistic.

“I don’t really think about the pressure of finding a new club. I like to just keep things simple and focus on football. Looking at the long term isn’t going to benefit me mentally, so I’m taking it day by day, week by week,” he says.

“Of course, it’s frustrating, because any player will just want to be on the pitch. When you’re seeing the football on TV, and that other pros are still playing, it can be frustrating, but you just have to put those feelings and emotions aside to focus on the main goal.

“At the end of the day, you’re not going to get there just by sitting there feeling frustrated. That will only hinder you.”

Currently living at home, with few outgoings and plenty of free time, Collins recognises the advantages he has over free agents heading towards the end of their careers, who have mortgages to pay and children to provide for.

“I’m still fairly young and I don’t have the responsibility of having to support a family, unlike some of the older pros,” he says.” It’s not as much of an immediate threat if I’m out of contract. I’ve still got time on my side, fortunately.

“I’ve looked at my situation from an external perspective and I’ve thought to myself that I’ve got to make the most of this time because I won’t be able to have this luxury in the future. Now I can just 100% dedicate everything to football. I’ve got no external factors influencing my life currently. I have to count my blessings and make the most of that situation.

“Even the fact that a football career is relatively short has always been a driving factor for me to develop myself to the best of my ability. Of course, being out of contract isn’t ideal, and it can be stressful, but you have to be able to roll with the punches and believe in yourself to get to the next stage of your career.”

By Sean Cole

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