James Collins has come a long way since the darkest day of his career to date.
In March 2016, Collins – then on loan at Northampton from Shrewsbury – was banned from all British racecourses, along with MK Dons midfielder Samir Carruthers, after being photographed apparently urinating on a balcony at Cheltenham Festival.
On the pitch, the former Aston Villa trainee has worked his way via spells with Burton, Shrewsbury, Swindon, Hibernian, Northampton and Crawley to Luton, where his goals are currently fuelling a League One promotion charge.
Now 28 and hoping to be handed a senior debut for the Republic of Ireland in their Euro 2020 qualifying double-header against Gibraltar and Georgia, Collins believes he has learned from his mistakes and is a better man and footballer for it.
He said: “I have grown up a lot over the last few years. Obviously, like everyone else, I have made mistakes along the way and learned from them and matured into a man, really.
“I’ve got a young family now, which always helps, and you have to grow up because it’s not just me that I’m supporting now, I’ve got a family to support as well, so you can’t really afford to slip up anymore.
“I definitely think that’s helped me on and off the pitch.”
Collins’ 20 goals this season have helped promoted Luton to establish a five-point lead at the top of the table and caught new Ireland boss Mick McCarthy’s eye at a time in his career when the former Republic youth international feared his chance had gone.
He said: “The calibre of strikers that Ireland have had over the years, I always knew you maybe had to be Championship and above.
“I’ve had to work my way up from the bottom and I’m really fortunate that the gaffer has given me a chance this year of being in League One.”
Collins faces a battle if he is to get the nod with Sheffield United frontman David McGoldrick vying for a return to the international stage after losing his form and, as a result, his place in the squad.
McGoldrick, 31, was released by Ipswich at the end of last season and with little interest in acquiring his services after a succession of niggling injuries, agreed to a trail at Bramall Lane and won a one-year deal which has since been extended by a further two.
He said: “I went on trial at Sheffield United and I think that’s what I needed. It was like a kick up the backside to show me where I was and proved why I hadn’t been selected for my country.
“My form hasn’t been good enough. Now I have got the oomph back and I am enjoying playing my football again.”
McGoldrick’s absence from the Ireland squad during the latter days of Martin O’Neill’s tenure sparked rumours of a fall-out between the two, but the striker was quick to play down the suggestion.
He said: “Every player wants to play and I’m no different. I wasn’t happy that I wasn’t playing but there was no fall-out.”