Jack Collison, West Ham
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Jack Collison on what West Ham means to him

| 25.11.2021

Jack Collison talks about West Ham memories

Jack Collison made 121 appearances and scored 14 goals in seven seasons with West Ham before his career was cut short at the age of 26 five years ago because of persistent knee injuries.

Now the head coach of Atlanta United’s reserve team in MLS, Collison spoke exclusively to Ladbrokes about the infamous 2009 League Cup second-round tie between West Ham and Millwall, the 2012 Championship play-off final and his thoughts on Sunday’s game ahead of the launch of the 5-A-Side Bet between Manchester City and the Hammers.

Hammers like a family

A lot of fans talk about this West Ham family, and it really is how I see the club. They’ve moved on a lot in the past couple of years, but you still feel like that family culture is there at the core. Whether it’s the fan base or the people working within the club, the beauty of it is that the first team personifies that now.

They’re humble, they’re hard working and obviously they’re very talented. I think it went missing for a while – not through a lack of trying, but I just think sometimes in football things don’t work out the way you want them to.

Certain managers might not be right, recruitment might not be good and a run of tough results is tough to get out of. But it’s great to see them turn things around. I’m happy for everyone associated with the club.

I joined as a young lad and went through their academy system, working under Tony Carr who was a massive part of why I joined the club. I was fortunate enough to go through the youth teams, into the reserves and slowly make my way to the first team where I burst onto the scene.

There’s a special bond West Ham fans have with their academy players, and I instantly felt that. And then as soon as I started to get that feeling, I was hit with a few difficult moments off the pitch. My dad passed away and we had Millwall in the cup two days later.

It was a game my dad was really looking forward to, and I remember speaking with Gianfranco Zola at the time and I told him I really wanted to play in that fixture. I’m really glad I made that call; if I didn’t I think it would’ve been one of my biggest regrets.

Was I in the right mind frame? It wasn’t exactly ideal. I remember walking onto the team bus having not trained or seen anyone and I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I wanted to burst into tears. No one knows what to say to you in a moment like that.

You’re looking at your team-mates and they don’t know whether they can have a bit of banter with you, whether to keep it light-hearted or say sorry for my loss. I don’t think anyone quite knew what to say, but I could feel on that bus that the whole group was around me.

I got through the warm-up and walked out for the start of the game and I just remember looking around and the atmosphere was just incredible.

The game will be remembered for the supporters coming onto the pitch and all the trouble beforehand, but for me as a young man who’d just lost my father, those West Ham fans carried me through that night.

They were vocal throughout, and even at the end of the game I went round to try and clap them all – I think that whole experience just intensified the relationship I had with them.

2012 play-off final: Kevin Nolan’s hairdryer and toilet troubles at Wembley

I managed to chip in with a few goals in that 2011-12 season in the Championship, it was a great one for me personally – the semi-final games in particular stand out for obvious reasons. Playing in Cardiff where I’d spent time with Wales, it always gave me that special feeling, and then to score two goals in the first leg and set us on our way was just something I’ll never forget.

But that was only half of the job really; we still had to get the second leg won and then head into that final against a difficult Blackpool side. The expectation from fans and pundits was high that year; we’d spent a lot of money, bringing in the likes of Kevin Nolan. Sam Allardyce arrived with the pressure of having to get us promoted at the first time of asking. Anyone who’s watched or played in the Championship will tell you how difficult a division it is. You’re playing every Saturday and Tuesday against teams who are fighting for their lives; it’s not an easy league to get out of at all.

It was almost as if there were mixed feelings going into that final at Wembley; obviously we wanted to enjoy it but we also knew the expectations of supporters. It wasn’t just surrounding us as players, but there were whispers of people within the club behind the scenes potentially at risk, given the financial implications of another year in the Championship. When you talk about West Ham, especially for someone like myself, we’re a family, and we know each other inside out, so we wanted to do well that day not only for ourselves, but for everyone behind the scenes.

We started the game really well; a wonderful pass from Matty Taylor puts in Carlton Cole, who takes his goal brilliantly and we’re sort of thinking ‘here we go; we can enjoy it a bit now’. We went in 1-0 up at half-time and we’d beaten Blackpool twice already that season so we were confident. But we came out in the second half and we just couldn’t get going. We struggled, we conceded a lot of chances, they got a goal and we rode our luck after that equaliser for a little while as well. But thankfully Ricardo Vaz Te was on hand. I set Kevin Nolan free down the left-hand side, his cross comes into the box and big Coley is nice and clumsy, causing problems around the box and thankfully it fell to Vaz. I think if Vaz wasn’t there it was probably falling to me and I’m sure I’d have missed it, so he did me a big favour there.

Kevin Nolan, West Ham

He was sensational for us that season; I think he hit double figures from January to the end of the season, he was unbelievable. He couldn’t wait to get his top off after he scored the winner; imagine looking like that, though – he must have been working on those abs all year so fair play to him I suppose!

That feeling as the ball hit the net… I’ve never experienced anything like it. Vaz ran off with his abs out one way, I had no idea what to do with myself so I’ve gone the other way – for some reason I’m pulling my shorts up – it was just sensational to score so late in such an important game like that.

The funny thing – we can look back at now and laugh at it – if you actually watch the game back, I picked the ball up with about 30 seconds left and start thinking I’m a bit of a player. I actually started cramping in both legs. I’m having a bit of a dribble, then I end up giving the ball away. They nearly go through and score. I just remember Kevin Nolan picks me up by my throat and gives me an absolute hairdryer with about 20 seconds to go. He starts shouting “what are you playing at?!” with a few X-rated words in there!

To get over the line and hear that final whistle, to go up the famous stairs and experience that feeling was fantastic. It was such a nice way to end the season. We were a really close-knit group of players and everyone was pushing in the same direction. It was nice to be a West Ham player winning more often than you’re losing. It was special to be part of the team as a whole, but I’ve also got some great individual memories to look back on from that season.

People talk a lot about the celebrations after a win like that, but for me it ended up being a real anti-climax, to be honest. I got dragged into the drug testing room with Winston Reid and  Kevin Phillips, and I just couldn’t pee. I had about five or six beers and I could not pee. You have to sit in there until you’ve gone to the toilet, so I literally missed all of the celebrations in the changing room, and was probably the last person to leave Wembley that day.

As a group we had a bit of a do back at the club, but it was Mark Noble’s stag do the next day, so a lot of the boys were getting ready to go to that, and I had a heavily pregnant wife at the time, so it was all a bit of an anti-climax on the day. But once the dust settled, and certainly over the next few weeks there was that feeling of excitement, and everything else that comes with knowing you’re going to be playing in the Premier League next season.

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Warren Barner