The word “legend” is much overused in football circles these days, but every so often the word is barely sufficient an accolade for a player. Bobby Collins was such a man.
Some footballers become legends playing with a single club, but very few achieve legendary status at three separate clubs. Although his heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, Collins is remembered to this day by fans of Celtic, Everton and Leeds United, as the archetype of the diminutive Scottish midfield battler.
Weighing in at around 10 stone and claiming to be 5ft 4ins – he may have added half an inch to his height – Collins was Napoleonic in stature, but he commanded the field of play like an emperor, albeit one with a streetfighter’s temperament who tackled like “the clap of doom”, as the late Bill McLaren said in another sporting context.
His leadership and motivational qualities added to his sublime skills as a passer of a ball, not to mention a thunderbolt shot, which made him the complete midfield general.
Born in Glasgow the eldest of six children, Collins was brought up in the Polmadie area. Despite his height, Collins’ potential was spotted at an early age when he played for the local Life Boys and then the Boys Brigade. He left school at 14 to work for two years as a scrap boy at the Empire Aluminium Company before starting to learn the shoe repair trade.
He played for Polmadie Hawthorn Juveniles before joining Pollok Juniors at the age of 16. Scouts for both Everton and Celtic spotted him and though he was offered generous terms by the Liverpudlian club, he chose to stay in Glasgow.
Collins was signed by Celtic as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1948 for an initial £4 per week plus bonuses, though that had risen to £9 plus a £1 bonus per point by 1950.
Prospering under manager Jimmy McGrory, after a season in the reserves, Collins made his debut against Rangers in a League Cup match in August, 1949, playing as outside right in a 3-2 victory.
He would go on to play more than 300 games for Celtic, scoring 116 goals in competitive matches and soon acquiring nickname the “Wee Barra”.
He avoided National Service by going to work in the coal mines of Fife, spending two years down the pit and training with Cowdenbeath midweek before returning to play for Celtic at the weekend.
His form earned him a call-up for Scotland while still a teenager, playing alongside such greats as Lawrie Reilly, Billy Steel and Billy Liddell in a forward line that comfortably disposed of Wales by a score of 3-1 in a home international match in October, 1950. He played for Scotland on various occasions throughout the 1950s and was part of the World Cup finals squad in 1958 in Sweden, featuring in all three matches.
Collins was a real crowd favourite at Parkhead. Playing alongside such excellent players as Willie Fernie, Charlie Tully, Sean Fallon and his great friend Bobby Evans, he was arguably part of an under-achieving side by Celtic standards, but they still won the Scottish Cup in 1951 and 1954, the Scottish League championship in the latter year and the Scottish League Cup in 1956-57 and 1957-58.
The latter victory was achieved over Rangers in the final which Celtic won 7-1, remembered to this day as the “Hampden in the Sun” match. Collins did not score but hit the woodwork twice, lending credence to the observation that Celtic could have reached double figures that day.
It was an era when players were paid not much more than tradesmen, and Collins and Evans, for example, used to go to training each day by bus. It is no exaggeration to say both men would be worth millions as footballers today, and would travel in Bentleys.
Players were also bought and sold like chattels back then, and with Celtic Park needing improvements, not long after the 7-1 match he was sold to Everton of the English First Division, who paid a club record fee of £23,500 for Collins.
He enjoyed immediate success on Merseyside, proving an inspiration in midfield and scoring 48 goals in four years with them.
He was thought to be getting past his best, however, when Leeds manager Don Revie made what he later called “the best buy of my life” in securing the services of Collins for a transfer fee of £25,000 in 1963. At 31, lesser players might have wanted to coast to retirement at what was then a Second Division club, but Collins and Revie’s United were only just getting going.
Revie made Collins his on-field leader, eventually appointing him captain, and the Scot imbued the whole side with his own combativeness. Promotion from the Second to the First Division was won, and in 1964-65, a Collins-inspired Leeds came second in the First Division and reached the FA Cup Final, losing to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 2-1 after extra time.
Collins himself duly became the first Scot to win the English Footballer of the Year award. That season he also returned to the Scotland squad, and eventually finished with 31 caps, scoring ten goals in total in his international career. He was also selected 15 times for the now defunct Scottish League XI.
A horrendous broken leg sustained against Italian side Torino might have finished any other player but Collins fought back and resumed playing before Revie, who was rebuilding United around Collins’ obvious successor Billy Bremner, allowed Collins to be sold to Bury in 1967 after 167 games, 26 goals, and immeasurable influence over the rise to prominence of Leeds.
After two years with Bury, Collins moved to Greenock Morton, where he spent two seasons.
It was at Morton that Collins spotted the teenaged Joe Jordan and recommended him to Revie, kick-starting the career of the international striker who remains the only player to score for Scotland at three World Cup finals.
Jordan said yesterday: “Bobby was an incredible footballer and a proper Scot, the kind of man that football is all about. I was a part-timer with Morton when Bobby came along and I just watched and listened and learned from him.
“He had a word about me with Don Revie, and that moment when our paths crossed changed my career and my life. When I went to Leeds, players like Jackie Charlton and Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray and Johnny Giles all spoke of their respect for him and how much of what Leeds became was down to Bobby.”
After Morton, Collins moved to Australia in 1971 as player/coach for Ringwood City in Melbourne. After a brief spell as coach to Hakoah FC in Sydney he returned joined Oldham Athletic in 1972 as player/coach, then signed for Shamrock Rovers in Dublin in 1973.
He then managed Huddersfield Town and either coached or managed Leeds United’s youth team, Hull City, Blackpool and Barnsley.
Collins remained physically fit, playing golf and football in his sixties, but his later life was blighted by the sudden death of his daughter Julie in 2010, and by a decade and more of battling with Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed with the illness in 2002, and at first was cared for at home by his devoted wife, Betty, until latterly he was resident in a care home not far from Leeds in Yorkshire. He is survived by Betty and their son Michael.
Celtic and Leeds will announce the form of their tributes before their next home matches on Saturday. A minute’s applause for a wonderful and fondly remembered footballer would seem appropriate.