SHEFFIELD UNITED: Composed Collins is a man for the big stage

Ready for the final: Centre-half Neill Collins.        Picture: DEAN ATKINS

Ready for the final: Centre-half Neill Collins. Picture: DEAN ATKINS

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NEILL Collins is used to treading the boards on some of football’s greatest stages.

Indeed, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunderland and Preston North End defender used to call Hampden Park home.

So little wonder that, despite preparing to make his first visit to Wembley since watching Scotland beat England at the old stadium 13 years ago, Sheffield United’s combative centre-half refused the opportunity to acquaint himself with its awe-inspiring surroundings before tomorrow’s League One play-off final against Huddersfield Town.

This commanding Celt prefers to focus on triumph rather than tourism.

“I used to be at Hampden every other week when I was at Queens Park,” Collins, who started his career with the Glaswegian amateurs, said. “There might be 50,000 fans at Wembley and the atmosphere is bound to be electric but, let me tell you, I actually think it’s tougher to play in a stadium like Hampden when there’s only a couple of hundred people in it.

“Because, if someone is giving you stick, you can hear every single word!

“It’s definitely easier if you are out there in front of a big crowd.”

Collins will have to demonstrate similar composure if he is to nullify the threat posed by Jordan Rhodes.

Town’s much-coveted marksman has scored 40 goals since August, with Fulham, Sunderland and United’s namesakes from Manchester among those represented at the second leg of their semi-final with MK Dons.

Rhodes, however, has yet to breach United’s rearguard this term. His duel with Collins, who scored the winner when these two teams met at The Galpharm Stadium in February, and teenager Harry Maguire is likely to prove pivotal in deciding who joins Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship next season.

“I don’t know Jordan but I worked with his dad, Andy, at Deepdale,” Collins said. “But he’s not the only good player Huddersfield have got. Lee Novak is no slouch either.

“Mind you, I don’t think Scotland should have released Jordan for this one.

“They should have insisted on him joining up in their squad (for the friendly against the USA)!”

Collins might have been in jovial mood when he chewed the fat with the press at Shirecliffe earlier this week - “If you can’t look forward to something like this then you shouldn’t be in football. What’s not to enjoy?” - but Rhodes’ presence ensures his demeanour will have changed dramatically when referee Roger East gets the action under way tomorrow.

“I actually get more nervous watching a play-off game than I do when I’m involved in one,” Collins continued.

“When you play you are in control. I’d take another Collins winner at Wembley. But it really doesn’t matter who scores so long as we win.”

Maguire, Collins’ colleague at the heart of United’s rearguard, has shown similar composure in his first full season in senior football.

The 19-year-old, who also caught Fulham’s eye, has been a virtual ever present.

With neither blessed with searing pace, the Collins/Maguire axis is a partnership which, on paper at least, should not work.

But they have helped United keep 18 clean sheets.

“Harry doesn’t have to prove himself in this one,” Collins said. “He’s already done that over 40-odd games.”

Teams and ref

UNITED (possible): Simonsen, Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Hill, Williamson, Doyle, McDonald, Quinn, Cresswell, Porter (4-4-2).

TOWN (possible): Bennett, Woods, Morrison, Hunt, P Clarke, Johnson, Miller, Ward, Higginbotham, Rhodes, Novak (4-4-2).

Roger East: From Wiltshire, East averages 2.75 cautions per game and a red card every 7.3 this season. Took charge of Sheffield United’s 2-0 win at Bournemouth earlier this season. Last officiated a match involving Huddersfield in November when they were beaten by eventual champions Charlton at The Valley.

One to watch

Who else but Jordan Rhodes? The Huddersfield Town striker has scored 40 goals so far this season, including one in each leg of their play-off semi-final with MK Dons. However, he will be searching for his first against Sheffield United tomorrow.

History lesson

Sheffield United have won three of the previous five meetings between these two teams with Huddersfield Town triumphing in two. However, the West Yorkshire club have taken the honours in 38 of their last 98 contests. Thirty four per cent of those have ended in draws.