Nathan Collins, the teenage defender who has been catching the attention of Stoke City fans over the past couple of years, has now been picked out in the national media as one of the EFL’s brightest prospects.
The Daily Mail have come up with a list of eight young players who could follow in the footsteps of Luke Matheson, who has joined Wolves from Rochdale, and Jarrod Branthwaite, who made the leap from Carlisle to Everton.
There are some names which are becoming increasingly familiar.
Jet-heeled Peterborough forward Ricky-Jade Jones, aged 17, has already been linked with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.
And 16-year-old Birmingham City midfielder Jude Bellingham, who scored against Stoke earlier this season, has been strongly in the transfer frame with Chelsea and Man Utd.
There has been no shortage of whispers about centre-half Collins, aged 19, either.
And this time the Mail add: “Collins made his Stoke City debut at the age of 17 and has continued to progress with nine appearances in the Championship this season, even captaining the side when they played Leeds in August.
“The towering centre-back has reportedly been recommended to United by former player Darren Fletcher who witnessed his potential first-hand.
“Collins made his debut for the Republic of Ireland Ireland’s Under-21’s in November and reports in the defenders homeland suggest both Arsenal and Chelsea are considering an approach with the Blues closer to making a move.”
Collins was on the fringes of the Stoke first team in the second half of last season. Nathan Jones then put him in the starting XI on the opening day of 2019/20 – and named him as skipper for an EFL Cup tie a Wigan.
He only found out when he was sent to the referee’s room by Jones an hour or so before kick-off.
“We didn’t want to make a great deal of it, but he takes it in his stride anyway,” said the then manager.
It’s difficult to work out definitively if he is the youngest player to ever start a competitive game as Stoke skipper. Even the historical list of Stoke club captains is a work in progress, keeping track of who occasionally covered Ryan Shawcross, Peter Dobing or Neil Franklin is a long task. Paul Bracewell did wear the armband and he broke into the team at 17 too.
But it is a safe bet.
Collins was plucked from Cherry Orchard in Dublin – Glenn Whelan’s old junior club – to join Stoke’s under-16s in January 2016 after being recommended by scout Tony Bowen, Mark’s brother.
There is a decent pedigree, including a dad Dave Collins, who was on the books at Liverpool and played alongside Roy Keane for Ireland under-21s and under Denis Smith at Oxford.
His uncle and agent Eamonn Collins was an Ireland youth captain and went on to play for Colchester.
So he made his debut against Liverpool and has made a swift progress through the ranks, captaining the under-18s and under-23s and even experiencing a bizarre Potteries derby with the under-21s thanks to the Checkatrade Trophy.
There were loan suitors from League One last season but, at 17, he was kept at Clayton Wood and made his first team bow when Stoke had two men sent off at Swansea in April, his first start 10 days later at Middlesbrough.
He was always going to come back in the summer with the first team squad, rather than Academy, but before then he had been in national headlines.
Darren Fletcher had been so impressed as a training partner that he had mentioned him to Manchester United… and even if it would have been a big jump for that to translate into a transfer, there was no denying he has been on the radar of some very big guns.
So it was a major coup for Stoke when he signed a five-year contract.
He was pulled out of Ireland’s under-19s European Championship squad so Jones could keep him at close quarters and he started the first game of the season, against Queens Park Rangers.
Academy director Gareth Owen said in the summer: “It’s not purely his footballing ability but also off the field; his confidence in himself, his sacrifice and how he lives his life, how he is a leader, a communicator, how other players respect him.
“These are all old school values that can quickly be forgotten – but they are what make a player. He is doing everything he can to make himself better and that, matched with a fantastic football ability, means that he’s got a hell of a chance.”
Stoke’s season, however, did not pan out as planned.
Jones left in the autumn and there were only eight points on the board from 15 games when Michael O’Neill took charge in November.
The only priority was to keep Stoke up and, with the new boss to keep a side as settled as possible to restore a confidence which had been battered, Liam Lindsay and Danny Batth emerged as first choice pairing.
Ryan Shawcross has made a gradual fight back from injury and, even with Bruno Martins Indi shuffling to left-back, James Chester arrived on deadline day to make for fierce competition for two spots.
But Collins has remained in O’Neill’s plans and been used at Brentford and Blackburn – and is clearly a big part of the future.
He said himself: “Of course I’ve wanted to play but there’s no point me moaning about it, I need to be supportive and help the lads, especially considering the place we’re in. They don’t need anything like that. I just tried to make sure that I was ready whenever I was needed.”
And Stoke legend Terry Conroy is sure the club has got a gem.
When Collins made way for Chester at Luton before the shut down, Conroy said: “Michael O’Neill is bringing in experience. Nathan Collins will feel hard done by but we know he’s for the future. I think next year we’re looking at him being a regular and the young lad will understand that.”