Neill Collins could have been forgiven for thinking his Sheffield United career was over when he finished last season on loan at Port Vale.
Firmly out of favour under then manager Nigel Clough, the 32-year-old Scotland defender did not look to have a future at Bramall Lane.
But he has returned to become a stalwart of United’s defence under Clough’s successor, Nigel Adkins, and celebrated his 200th Blades appearance on Saturday with a goal.
His fourth goal of the campaign capped a battling fightback by the Blades, who had trailed 2-0 after early goals from Ryan Leonard and Jack Payne.
But after Jose Baxter pulled a goal back, Collins pounced in first-half stoppage time for the equaliser. It was the prelude to a second-half bombardment by the hosts, who hit the woodwork three times, before settling for a point.
It left Collins and his team-mates frustrated, but the defender was left “humbled” at reaching a personal milestone.
“I’m a realist, I know I’m probably not going to get to 400 appearances here,” said Collins, who is approaching five years with the Blades since signing from Leeds United.
“But I’m just humbled to have made 200 for such a great club.
“Everyone, hopefully, knows I’ve always given 100 per cent.
“It might not always have been to the quality people think it should be but I’ve always given absolutely everything for this club.
“My appearance record won’t matter when we get promoted at the end of the season.”
Two dropped points against promoted Southend left a minority of Blades fans to boo at the final whistle.
That was harsh, purely based on a second-half display which warranted all three points.
United sit eighth this morning in League One, nine points adrift of the top two – Gillingham and Coventry City – and know they cannot afford to let the gap get much wider.
Certainly, at 2-0 down after 31 minutes, the Blades supporters in a 19,007 crowd would have taken a point.
Leonard had rocked the hosts with a thunderbolt from 25 yards, after goalkeeper George Long had punched clear a corner.
Two minutes later, Payne pounced with a clinical low finish.
The mood inside Bramall Lane was one of frustration, and Baxter’s instant reply was much-needed to calm the fans’ ire. The former Everton youngster prodded the ball home after goalkeeper Daniel Bentley fumbled in front of the Kop.
Collins then rifled home with his left foot – a rarity for the centre-back as his goals normally come from headers.
It set up the second-half onslaught. Billy Sharp was denied in a one-on-one with the impressive Bentley, before Baxter, Chris Basham and Sharp struck the woodwork.
“I think there’s been times this season when we’ve come away with a draw or a defeat and felt we should have won whereby, in reality, it was probably 50/50,” said Collins.
“Today, though, anyone watching, particularly the second-half, wouldn’t know how we didn’t get the victory. The second half was possibly as well as we’ve played. We penned them in, hit the post and their goalkeeper made saves. Sometimes, you’ve just got to suck it up and accept that it just hasn’t gone your way.
“In football, you are always going to get testing times. But one thing we’ve always done this season is come back well.
“I’ve been in teams before where, if you went 2-0 down, you knew you were going to struggle, But I just don’t feel like that here. We always feel we can score and that, if we get one, then more goals will follow.
“Yes, with regards to going two behind, that’s something we need to look at. But we’ve still done more than enough to win the game.
“The one thing we want to do, though, is give ourselves a platform because, with our pace, if we can bring the opposition on to us then they’ll get punished.
“Fair play to Southend because they didn’t come here to just be defensive. They’re a good team and they wanted to give as good as they got. But that platform, that base, is really important.”
Collins said he understood Blades fans’ frustrations as United have won just three of their last dozen League One fixtures.
But he is confident United, two points off the play-off positions, will improve as the season continues.
“I never begrudge anyone an opinion,” he said. “Fans can easily get quite negative and quite rightly so because it was a game we wanted to win.
“But, as players, staff and fans, we’ve got to stay positive because we’ve got to get ready to go again.
“At the moment, it’s not quite happening for us.
“But if we play like we did in the second-half going forward then, to be honest, I don’t think too many teams are going to be able to live with it.”