It’s decision week for Rob Page, as next week the Wales manager will name his squad for the upcoming EURO 2024 qualifiers against Croatia and Latvia in seven days’ time.
Tonight’s midweek round of fixtures in the Football League and this weekend’s action will act as the last opportunity before he makes a decision on who to lead the country forward. He has been dealt a blow by the retirement of five-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale, but that opens up an opportunity for either a new face or someone to return to the fold.
In November, we were talking about Bristol Rovers star Aaron Collins potentially being a dark horse for Wales’ World Cup squad, but unfortunately he had to line up against Peterborough United and Boreham Wood, rather than the USA and England.
Months have since passed and the conversation has not gone away, at least by the media and his manager Joey Barton, about earning a Wales call-up. If Collins were to receive the call from Page, already Rovers would be thinking of the valuation that would add to his price tag with suitors for sure sniffing around in the summer.
Last week, the 25-year-old admitted it would be a ‘dream come true’ to BBC Wales if he were to be called up. Collins has had to watch on as a supporter during the remarkable EURO 2016 run, and as mentioned, he was left at home when they played in their first World Cup since 1958.
It’s not a case of now or never for Collins and breaking into the Wales squad, but this is a start of a new qualifying campaign and whilst injuries may happen, the 26-man squad Page names, is likely to be the one that plays the majority of their games. Page should be fully aware of what Collins is about, despite not visiting the Memorial Stadium to watch over him in person.
Collins has made a strong case to be involved, as he is the most creative player across the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League. He has scored 15 goals, and is second top scorer in League One, whilst he leads the assists charts, by supplying his teammates 10 times.
What bodes well in Collins’ favour but at times works against him is that he is not an out-and-out forward or a number nine, he can play anywhere and is fairly versatile. The Newport-born forward was likened to Roberto Firmino last year by his manager and told to study his game to shape him around it. It’s seven goals apiece for Collins as both a left-winger and as a centre-forward but when he has moved out to the flanks, he’s obviously got more assists.
Collins is unlikely to lead the line for Wales with Kieffer Moore the preferred option and so he would likely have to settle for playing as a winger, which wouldn’t be all bad. He does have stiff competition however and despite his exceptional form, it would likely be a substitute role at best given most players from Wales are from the Premier League or the Championship.
Who is Collins up against?
One of Collins’ rivals for a call-up is Tom Bradshaw, who is the highest scoring Welshman across the four tiers of English football. The Millwall striker has 13 goals in 30 matches for a side that is chasing a play-off place. The 30-year-old, unlike Collins, is an out-and-out striker, and has proven he can score goals at a competitive level, so we should expect Bradshaw to be a part of the squad.
There’s been talk about Paul Mullin, who is scoring goals for Wrexham, but that’s in the National League. Mullin has 29 goals in 39 games for the side financed by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, but that is the fifth tier of English football, and not many players from the non-league receive international recognition. He is yet to confirm his eligibility for the Red Dragons by providing the relevant paperwork, despite his claims that he has a Welsh grandmother.
Collins should target a role as one of Wales’ wide players, but that in itself will be difficult as Page has preferred a system that uses three centre-backs and wing-backs, which is a role Collins has not been used to. It was only against England that things changed with a 4-2-3-1 formation.
He will be up against Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson, who is in fine form for the Reds in the Premier League. Johnson has seven goals and two assists in the current campaign, which is respectable for a team that is involved in a relegation battle.
Bale’s retirement has probably ensured that Johnson will start, but on the other flank could be Dan James, who hasn’t had the best of loan spells at Fulham from Leeds United. James was once at Manchester United and has built up a good partnership with Moore on the international stage, so already you have an attacking three of Johnson-Moore-James which could start against Croatia on March 25.
Back-up to Johnson and James are Harry Wilson and Sorba Thomas, with Wilson in the Premier League and Thomas at play-off chasing Blackburn Rovers. Both players are likely to be ahead of Collins in the pecking order, but Wilson is more of a central player, which could at least free up one space.
It then leaves Collins up against those who weren’t part of the World Cup squad, and this is where Collins should stand a good chance. Nathan Broadhead and Wes Burns have both been called up in the last 12 months by Page, but weren’t taken to Qatar. Broadhead has yet to play for his country whilst Burns played in several Nations League matches last summer.
Broadhead and Burns are both in a promotion-chasing Ipswich team, and whilst the former was playing in the Championship before a big-money move to Portman Road, it is Collins who has been the most consistent this season. What Burns has over Collins is that he can play at wing-back, but when it comes to Collins against Broadhead, then you’d arguably put Collins ahead of him, despite his five goals for Wigan, and then his three goals and two assists for Ipswich.
How will Rovers be affected?
Rovers may have to play on without their key man if they do not receive enough international call-ups to postpone the match against Shrewsbury Town on Saturday, March 25. A match can be called off if at least three players are called up by one club.
Should Collins be included, then there’s the possibility that Luca Hoole could be included in Wales’ Under-21’s squad, whilst you couldn’t rule out a call-up for Jarell Quansah either, who has been involved in various England age-grade teams.
What if Collins doesn’t make this squad?
It’s not the end of the world if Collins doesn’t make this squad, as at the end of the season, there are several EURO 2024 qualifiers in the summer. Wales play against Armenia and Turkey in June, more than a month after the 2022/23 League One campaign concludes. Collins could reach 20 goals by then and it would be even harder to avoid picking up the phone and calling him up if he scores more. In fact a call-up in the summer would proably be better as Rovers wouldn’t have to do without their talisman.
And what's the verdict?
Collins is in the form of his life and it would be disappointing if he wasn’t included in the squad this time around as he is performing for a team that is just below mid-table in the third tier. He has stiff competition against Premier League and Championship wingers, and the best he can hope for is perhaps a cameo against Latvia if he was to be called up this time around, which given his potential absence for Rovers wouldn’t be great for his club, but a real achievement for himself. If it doesn’t happen this time around then he does have the summer to fall back on, but then once the 2023/24 season starts, he’s got to prove himself all over again.