Jamie Collins – the footballer who has helped write two of the greatest non-league FA Cup fairytales
Not many non-league players can say they have led their team out at Anfield.
Not many can boast they have struck a match-winning penalty against one of English football’s most famous clubs as his side defeated a team from THREE tiers higher in the pyramid for a second time.
And not many can claim they have appeared live on BBC1 in a fifth round tie against one of the Premier League’s elite outfits, Arsenal.
So that’s official, then - Jamie Collins, an FA Cup hero with two different clubs nine years apart, is not your average non-league footballer.
The 37-year-old was captain of the Havant & Waterlooville side that were catapulted into the public gaze in 2007/08. Facing a Liverpool side 123 places higher in the pyramid, they twice led at Anfield - making a mockery of the five-division gap - before losing a fourth round tie 5-2.
That ‘David v Goliath’ fixture, one of the most romantic in FA Cup history, would have been enough for most non-players in providing enough memories to comfortably dine out on forever, but Collins was remarkably back in the international sporting headlines in 2016/17, skippering Sutton United to the last 16.
In the fourth round his penalty gave Paul Doswell’s men a stunning 1-0 win over Leeds United, and in front of a national TV audience Sutton only lost 2-0 in the fifth round to an Arsenal side 105 places higher in the pyramid.
And remarkably, those games against Liverpool and Arsenal, two of the most famous clubs in the world, aren’t even in Collins’ top two of FA Cup memories!
Instead, he pinpoints two third round replay victories under lights which sparked ‘old school’ celebrations the likes of which he will never forget.
First, Hawks’ 4-2 win against Swansea on a heavy Westleigh Park surface in January 2008 that clinched the trip to Anfield.
Secondly, Sutton’s 3-1 victory at south London rivals AFC Wimbledon in January 2017 - a night which ended with him sleeping in the Sutton clubhouse!
‘For a non-league player, the FA Cup is something you always look out for,’ said Collins, who was coaxed out of retirement by Dowell to take up a player-coach role at Hawks last summer.
‘It’s a chance to play against the big boys, and fortunately I’ve had two or three opportunities to do that and they’re something you never forget.
‘It’s the greatest cup competition in the world. Sometimes it gets a bit degraded by the Premier League, but you can see what it means to the League 1 and League 2 clubs and non-league teams.’
Having joined the Hawks in 2005 on being released by Watford, Collins’ first season as captain, 2007/08, coincided with the greatest games in the club’s short history.
Wins against York, Notts County and Swansea - one, two and three divisions higher respectively - led Hawks to a fourth round tie at Liverpool.
‘It’s weird. You look at it and you don’t think it’s that long ago, but then you look at the pictures and you realise how young you look, Collins remarked.
‘At Havant, it was my first real cup run. Every round we seemed to get drawn away and you never think we’d go that far. To walk out at Anfield as the captain is something dreams are made of.
‘York away was a tough place to go - everyone’s expecting you to get beat. They were only one division above, so we went in believing we could win. We were expected to lose so we had the freedom to go out and express ourselves.
‘Notts County have a massive history, massive ground. When we got there a steward told us ‘you’ve done well, just enjoy your day’. As you can imagine, he got a bit of stick after we won 1-0 in the 89th minute!
‘It was a tough ask to go to a team two leagues higher, especially as we were only training two nights a week back then - Tuesdays and Thursdays. We were proper part-time, we all had other jobs (Collins was coaching football in schools at the time for a company run by current Sutton boss Matt Gray).
‘To get drawn away to Swansea was a big disappointment, it wasn’t a glamorous tie at all, we knew it wouldn’t be on TV. We got absolutely battered but we came away with an unbelievable result. When Rocky Baptiste equalised late on it felt like a win.
‘The replay was unbelievable. The pitch was flooded, it was nearly called off, and they liked to play Total Football. Their manager had said a few things about us which were stuck up in the dressing room.
‘Drawing Liverpool gave us an extra boost, and I think they were more worried about the league, they were top of League 1. After all that, we fancied our chances
‘It was a bit of mudbath, the pitch worked in our favour. We got stuck into them early on, there had been a bit of Argy-Bargy up there - it was all geared up to get the result we wanted.
‘We were 3-0 up at half-time (Collins having scored the second). The manager was saying ‘keep it tight’ and I think we gave away a penalty after about 30 seconds! They brought it back to 3-2, it was squeaky bum time, but Tom Jordan scored a fourth. The game had everything.
‘The build-up to Liverpool was crazy, something I wasn’t used to as a non-league player. We had a press day at Champneys and there were media from all over the world - it all adds to the memories.
‘At Anfield we were 1-0 up, 2-1 up, it was 2-2 at half-time - something we never thought was going to happen. At half-time we were just trying to get our breath back.’
Nine years later, Collins was catapulted back into the spotlight as Sutton enjoyed a taste of worldwide exposure.
Collins’ second half spot-kick gave the non-leaguers a famous win against a Leeds side who were 83 places higher in the pyramid - Sutton were only 16th in the National League at the time.
‘They made a lot of changes, but Kalvin Phillips played and Kemar Roofe came on as a sub,’ recalled Collins. ‘Without being disrespectful, that was the easiest tie we had in the cup run, they didn’t seem that interested - Ross Worner only had one save to make.’
Collins remembers the previous round replay win at AFC Wimbledon with more affection. ‘That was an unbelievable night. You have to be from the area to know there’s a big rivalry between the clubs.
‘We’d drawn at home 0-0 and no-one had given us much hope. We’d lost Nicky Bailey a few hours beforehand so I had to play centre mid in the first half.
‘We went back to the club (Sutton) after the game, there were 200 or 300 fans already there, the chairman laid on a free bar - I think I was one of five or six players that ended up sleeping there that night!
‘Again it was crazy in the two-week build-up to the Arsenal game. We had media over from Mexico, America, Argentina - it was just relentless. I guess it showed you what the life of a Premier League player must be like.
‘The Arsenal game was probably on a par with the Liverpool one. At Anfield I’d never had that experience before, I was a little bit more excited. I was a lot older when we played Arsenal.
‘Roarie Deacon hit the bar (v Arsenal), I should have scored with a header.
‘For three quarters of the pitch you’re comfortable but then the movement and speed of thought is frightening - they’re lightning quick on the break.’
Asked to rank all his FA Cup memories, Collins pondered the question. ‘It’s a difficult one, but I’d say Wimbledon away and Swansea at home. People might be surprised it’s not Arsenal or Anfield, but we did lose those games.’
Collins is back on the FA Cup trail this weekend as Hawks bid for a fourth qualifying round upset at National Leaguers Torquay United.
Prior to recent weeks, he had not played a competitive game since November 2019 when he turned out for Sutton. His last goal had come a few months earlier, in August at former club Aldershot.
That two-year plus goal drought was ended last weekend when he scored twice in the first half - the second a penalty - to register his first goals for Hawks since January 2009.
‘We’re going down there full of confidence, we’ve won our last two games and scored a few goals,’ he outlined.
‘I’m sure if we win the celebrations will be like we’ve beaten a Premier League, because winning is winning at the end of the day.’
‘It was good to be back on the scoresheet. I was retired for nearly two years, just helping with the coaching side, not doing any training myself.
‘I’d stayed in contact with Dos and Bairdy and when they offered me the chance to get back playing again it was a no-brainer really, with the added bonus it was back at Havant, finishing off where I started.
‘You want to stay in the game as long as you can - it’s an unbelievable job to have.’
Hawks have never met Torquay in a competitive match, but Collins has happy memories of Plainmoor.
He converted a 90th minute penalty winner when he last played there as Sutton won 3-2 in the National League in February 2018.
Collins had also played the 90 minutes when Sutton won by the same scoreline in south Devon in February 2017, five days after the Arsenal FA Cup tie amid a little less publicity.