THE BOBBY COLLINS STORY

BY Vince Cooper

In Glasgow-speak a ‘Wee Barra’ is a term used to refer to a small person who people like, Bobby Collins might not have been liked by all, and certainly not by all opponents or opposition fans. But he was undoubtedly the type of player you wanted on your team.

Collins can truly be said to have had two football careers, or at least played in two different styles.

The first came in Scotland when he started as a tricky and elusive winger or inside-right with Celtic. Then, on moving to England he became, first with Everton and later and perhaps more famously at Leeds United, an abrasive midfield general and prompter and a non-shirker of the most physical of battles despite his diminutive size.

At Leeds he was very much Don Revie’s right-hand man and helped guide and form a team that became giants of the English game. The likes of Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer, Paul Reaney and Terry Cooper all developed their game while playing alongside Collins, who led by example and was as tough in training as he was on the pitch on matchdays.

Born in Govanhill, Glasgow on 16 February 1931, Robert Young Collins was the eldest of six children He worked as a miner and a cobbler from the age of 14. One of the advantages of working down the mine, he would later admit, was that it meant he avoided conscription.

As a youngster he was a fan of Third Lanark and would often squeeze under the fence to watch them play when he wasn’t playing for first the Boys Brigade team then local juvenile side Polmadie Hawthorn. “As we played away for all we were worth on an ash pitch,” he would later recall, “we could hear the crowds roaring at Hampden, or at nearer Cathkin”.

He then moved on to Pollok FC – his hometown junior team and one that produced numerous players who went on to have successful careers both in Scotland and England.

By the time he reached 17 Collins had already started appearing on the radar of bigger teams and Everton were quickest off the mark offering the Southside Glaswegians £1,000 for the youngster. The deal seemed set to go through but the youngster then heard that Celtic manager Jimmy McGrory was interested so Bobby did an about-turn and signed a two-year part-time contract with the Parkhead club at £8 per week

A FLYING START

Bobby finds the net

Collins was still working as an apprentice cobbler (he would later say ‘Football was a wonderful life but I found working outside the game interesting and challenging too’) when he made his Celtic debut. He was thrown in at the deep end, being given the start in a 1949 Scottish League cup final old-firm clash with Rangers in front of 70,000 fans. Playing on the right wing and up against veteran Jock Shaw, the teenager more than held his own and had a fine game in a 3-2 win.

His league debut followed shortly after and, switching to inside-right, he scored the winner in a 3-2 success over Hearts prompting John Jessiman in the Sunday Express to liken his style to former Hoops great Patsy Gallagher and to write: “When he was not hurling himself at the Hearts defence, he was back defending”.

The tiny (5ft 3in) terrier soon became a regular in the Celtic first team and in the 1950-51 season he scored 15 goals in 27 league games, including a hat-trick against Falkirk. This earned the notice of the national selectors and he received his first Scottish cap, although first there was a missed opportunity.

IN, THEN OUT

On national duty

Collins was forced to withdraw through injury when originally chosen for Scotland but he made his debut in the October 1950 match with Wales in Cardiff, creating a goal for Billy Liddell in a 3-1 win. He stayed in the team for the next two matches but the second of these was a home defeat by Austria which led to big changes in the Scottish set-up. The Celtic man was one of the casualties of this and wasn’t chosen for the national team again for almost five years.

Collins’ early years at Celtic saw the club continue to struggle, at least by their own high standards as they had since the resumption of football after the Second World War. But in 1951 he was ever-present in the run to the Scottish Cup final and played in the 1-0 win over Motherwell in front of 132,000 fans.

Celtic 1954

Eventually, Celtic pulled out of their slump – at least for one season – and it was Collins, along with Jock Stein, leading the way. The 1953-54 season was when the ‘golden years’ returned to the club with a league and Cup double. Although somewhat scandalously, Collins was left out of the team for the Scottish Cup final success over Aberdeen.

The move to leave Collins out for the final was just one of many odd decisions being taken by the men in charge at Celtic Park. Back-to-back League cup wins in 1956 – over Partick Thistle –  and 1957 seem scant reward for a squad packed with talent. The 1955 Scottish Cup final is a case in point; Celtic drew the first game with Clyde but Collins was left out of the replay for ‘an undignified charging of the Clyde goalkeeper’. The team duly lost the return.

In the second of those League Cup wins the Hoops really showed their potential.  Having sailed through the group stages with five wins out of six they then thrashed Third Lanark 9-1 on aggregate in quarter-final and secured a final place with an 4-2 win over Clyde.

The 1957 League Cup final

This set up a final meeting with Auld enemy Rangers and Celtic went in at half-time with a 2-0 lead though few could predict what would happen in the second period. A third goal seemed to put the game out of reach until their opponents pulled one back.

Bobby with Rangers rival and Scotland teammate George Young

But then, with the Rangers defence opening up so much that ‘you could have driven a circus through it’ according to one observer Celtic scored four more times to complete an amazing 7-1 success in a match that earned a place in Hoops folklore with fans singing the song ‘Hampden In The Sun’ in relation to it.

This seemed to set the team up for a sustained return to the great days, and with Collins as a key component.

Collins celebrates a goal for his country against Paraguay.

By this time he was also back in favour with Scotland. He had been restored to the national side in 1955, playing alongside the great Gordon Smith on the right side of the attack and in 1958 he appeared in all of his country’s three matches at the World Cup in Sweden.

In World Cup action against Paraguay in Sweden

The Scots failed to impress there though, drawing with Yugoslavia before suffering defeats by Paraguay (where Collins scored) and France.

OFF TO ENGLAND

Shortly after the tournament ended rumours began circulating that Collins might be on the move and in September 1958 the ‘Wee Barra’ was gone, sold to Everton for £23,500.

The move was, in all likelihood, made for financial reasons although this was never made clear. There was some talk that the money received paid for the new floodlights at Celtic Park. What was clear was that Collins wasn’t happy to be sold. But unlike now, players had little say in when or where they were transferred. So, after 220 games and 80 goals the bags were packed and he was off to England to join the club that had thought they’d bought him almost ten years earlier.

Collins with Everton boss Johnny Carey

When Collins moved to Everton, former Scottish amateur international Ian Buchan was ‘chief coach’ (he was never officially given the title of Manager). But he hardly had time to unpack before Buchan’s disastrous spell in charge came to an end and Johnny Carey was installed as the new man at the helm.

Collins gives his son a boot-mending lesson 

Under Carey, Collins was a key figure as the club looked to return to better times. After a couple of seasons of finishing in the bottom half (in the second of which Collins finished top scorer), the arrival of Roy Vernon and others saw the Toffees jump up the table and finish 5th in 1960-61, their highest post-war finish. This wasn’t good enough for Chairman John Moores who sacked Johnny Carey – memorably in the back of a taxi.

REVIE’S MAN

Carey’s successor was Harry Catterick and under him they improved again in 1961-62 to finish 4th, though Collins started just 19 games and in March 1962 he was on the move again when Everton accepted a bid of £25,000 from Don Revie of Leeds United to send the Scot to Elland Road.

Brian Labone of Everton, Bobby Collins of Leeds United

At 31, many would suggest that a player is in the twilight of his career. But for Collins, the best was yet to come. When he joined Leeds the club were battling to avoid relegation from the 2nd Division and rooted to the foot of the table but with his help they managed to finish 19th and retain their second tier status.

Revie snaps Collins

Revie made Collins skipper and he helped nurture the young group the manager had brought together. In the 1962-63 season they jumped to 5th in the table and a season later they were champions and promoted to the top flight. Colllins’ style of play had become more combative but no less effective.

Introducing his teammates to royalty

For their debut season in the top flight there was no time for consolidation. Leeds came close to the elusive double or as close as it is possible to get without winning anything. They finished runners-up to Manchester United in a tight race for the title and lost in extra-time to Liverpool in the FA Cup final.

FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR

Footballer of the Year

The season was a personal triumph for Collins. He was recalled to the Scotland team, winning the last of his 31 caps 10 years after the first in the 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw against Poland in Chorzow and was also voted Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers Association.

In action against West Ham United

There was no doubt that he led a young Leeds side by example, goading opponents and showing a fierce approach on the pitch. Teammate Eddie Gray would later say of him; “To an extent, the respect he had from the younger players at Leeds was based not just on his skill and his record in the game, but also on the fear factor. As soon as you saw his finger go up pointing at someone, you knew that person was in trouble”.

There was talk of unrest between Collins and Revie during the summer of 1965 as the Leeds manager pursued Blackpool’s Alan Ball. But a talk between the two cleared the air and the Scot continued to lead the young side as they looked to build on their success of the previous campaign.

THE INJURY

Les Cocker and Don Revie visit Collins in hospital

Sadly, a Fairs Cup game in September 1965 brought his season to an early almost end. A vicious challenge by Torino left-back Poletti saw Collins stretchered off. Leeds returned home from Italy having secured the goalless draw needed to take their place in the next round. But they left their skipper behind  in a Turin hospital after he’d had a pin inserted in his broken thigh.

The tackle, which none other than Billy Bremner called; ‘Just about the worst I have ever seen’, kept Collins out of action until the final match of the season, against Manchester United. The skipper had played two reserve games in four days and Revie asked if he was ready to return to the side for a match Leeds needed a point from to guarantee the runners up spot behind Liverpool.

Revie asked Collins if he was ready to return. “I’ll play if you want me”, came the reply.

Collins played, and made the Leeds equaliser that saw the team confirm second spot for the second season running.

By the start of the 1966-67 season Bremner had taken over as captain and Johnny Giles had replaced Collins – now 35 – as his midfield partner. This left no room for the former skipper and in February 1967, Revie, who would later call the player ‘The best signing I ever made for Leeds United’ allowed him to leave Elland Road for Bury on a free transfer.

He spent just over two years in the more homely confines of Gigg Lane, scoring 5 goals in 75 games.

MOVING ON, AND ON

Applauded onto the pitch by his former teammates

Next he returned to Scotland, spending some time at Greenock Morton whilst also working as a scout for Revie. It was in the latter role that he recommended Joe Jordan to Leeds who signed him after just eight games for the Scottish club, for £15,000.

He next joined Shamrock Rovers and then, as his playing time diminished he switched from player to player-coach then coach and manager. During this time he took on roles with Oldham Athletic, Huddersfield Town, Hull City, Blackpool and Barnsley.

The John Charles – Bobby Collins testimonial

In April 1988, Leeds held a joint testimonial for Collins and another former-great, John Charles. The match was between a Leeds All-Star XI and League Champions (and Collins’s former club) Everton. The Leeds line-up included guests Michel Platini, Kenny Dalglish, Gaetano Scirea and Ian Rush, and Rush scored a hat-trick as the home side ran out 3-2 winners in front of a disappointing crowd of 13,671.

Collins was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2002 and passed away in 2014 aged 82.

‘Collins was the star’

Despite the undoubted successes at Celtic and, to a lesser extent, Everton, it is his time at Leeds that Bobby Collins is clearly best-remembered for. Whilst Don Revie is rightly thought of as the brains behind the Leeds’ rise to become a prominent team at the game’s top level, Collins was clearly at its heart. Revie would later say of his captain; “He is the perfect example of what we in the game call a professional’s professional”.

Billy Bremner, who idolised Collins during his formative years and then got to play alongside his hero, said; “Bobby Collins was the best professional I have ever known.

“I learned many great things from Bobby, not the least being able to take the knocks as well as hand them out, and always play the game as a man.

“They say that one man does not make a team – but Bobby Collins came nearer to doing it than anyone I have ever seen on a football field”.