I’d be eleven at the time, although only just and, as was our wont, every other Saturday I was at Fellows Park with my dad watching Walsall play. It was 11th November 1967, and the Saddlers were entertaining a Bury side that had been relegated from Division Two the previous season and on their way to rebound straight back at the first time of asking.

As a callow youth at the time, I knew little of the players from Gigg Lane. Burt – my Dad – did; well, one of them in particular anyway. He was a short, stocky midfielder who Dad said had been a really good player a few years previously. I didn’t take much notice at the time as the name meant little to me. As the game went on though, it quickly became clear that the player Dad had pointed out was very much running the game. Well, perhaps running is the wrong word, as he often broke into a trot, but rarely a run, with legs that had seen many a battering over the years. He held the game in the palm of his hand though.

Strangely, Walsall won 2-1, with the winner coming in a prolonged period of injury time that seemed to last for a dozen minutes or more after Bury had equalised through Alec Lindsay who went on to fame and international recognition with a Liverpool and England. At the end of the game though, my abiding memory was of that stocky little player who had passed, probed and prompted his team. “What was that player’s name again?” I asked Dad. “Bobby Collins,” he replied.

Robert Young Collins was born in February 1931, and very much of the stereotype of players of his era came from a large working-class family, one of six siblings. After beginning his career with the fantastically named Polmadie Hawthorn Juveniles he joined the famous Pollok FC in the south side of Glasgow to complete his footballing education. It was a well-trodden path for aspiring Scottish players and seemed to be working out ideally for the young Collins when a move to Merseyside was mooted and he signed a contract to play for Everton. For a 17-year-old, earning his living as an apprentice cobbler and miner since the age of 14, it seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was. Following a strange episode that many accounts describe as a ‘contractual dispute’ the move to Goodison Park fell through. Instead, there was the glorious compensation of joining Celtic instead.

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Standing a tad over five feet three inches tall, the teenager looked like a boy that had wandered into an adult’s game, but his upbringing had built a big character into his short frame, and he quickly showed a tenacity on top of a natural talent that would define so much of his career. His debut for the Hoops could hardly have been more high profile; playing on the right wing he contributed to a 3-2 Old Firm victory in the Scottish League Cup. If there’s a better way to introduce yourself to the Bhoys fans, it’s difficult to imagine one, and it set Collins up for a largely successful ten-year period in the East End of Glasgow where he would play 220 games and score 85 goals.

As his Celtic career progressed, he was moved from the flank to an inside forward position where his ability benefitted the team more consistently. It was a move that not only suited his style, but also his character as he inspired those around him with his determination as much as a capacity to control and influence games.

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By 1950, he was as selected for Scotland and would play 31 times in the dark blue jersey, scoring ten goals, and also represented the Scottish League on 16 occasions, scoring an impressive dozen times. His time with the national team saw him compete in all three of Scotland’s group games at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Although strangely without a manager at then tournament, the Scots put in typically combative performances. A draw in their opening game against a top-class Yugoslavia team – with Collins at inside-right – that had mercilessly crushed England 5-0 in friendly in Belgrade earlier that year was no mean feat. Next up, they faced Paraguay and playing at inside-left, Collins scored one of Scotland’s two goals. Unfortunately, they went down 3-2 to the South Americans. For the final game, he was switched to outside-right, but an outstanding French team including both Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine were simply too powerful and Scotland were eliminated. Had they been under the charge of a manger with a more defined plan, the chopping and changing of Collins’ position may not have occurred, and who knows what the outcome would have been.

During his time with Celtic, Collins accumulated the sort of silverware redolent with spending time at one of the Old Firm clubs. He won the Scottish Cup in 1951, with Celtic finishing runners-up four years later. They were also Scottish champions in 1954, and finished as runners-up the following year. Two League Cup winners’ medals in 1957 and 1958 completed the set alongside a number of minor trophies. The latter of those two League Cup triumphs would herald the end of his decade in Glasgow though. In 1958, the move to Everton that had been aborted ten years earlier was reawakened, and Bobby Collins, no longer the tricky little outside-right, now the mature inside forward, moved to England.

His time with the Toffees is less celebrated than that with Celtic, or the club he would leave Goodison for four years later. It should not, however, be summarily dismissed. It was a time when Collins showed that his skills and character were every bit as valuable in the English game as they were north of the border. It is, in fact, not overstating the success he enjoyed, to say he became an “instant hero” with the fans in the Gwladys Street End. It’s not my assessment, it’s a quote from the official Everton FC website.

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The website goes on to say that the soubriquet of ‘Little General’ quickly gained common currency around Goodison Park. Apparently, he was, “the ultimate leader on the pitch – tough in the tackle, with a superb passing range and also the propensity to urge his teammates on. All that is without mentioning his 48 goals in 147 appearances. It’s worth noting that the Everton side he joined in 1958 were relegation candidates, but with the “Little General” directing operations, they were transformed into title contenders. It was therefore a surprise to many Everton fans that he was sold to Leeds United in 1962, with Everton receiving the handy sum of £25,000 in exchange. Everton continued to flourish and go on to win trophies after he had left, but Collins had set the transformation into motion. After he left, the famous trio of Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey took the club forward to its best period of modern times. It was Collins though that had set the scene, he had made the difference and set the club on a forward momentum. Many fans, and the club as well, apparently recognised this. He would now go and do a similar job at Leeds United.
At the time, the Elland Road club was languishing in the second tier of English football, but had appointed Don Revie as manager the year before. In typical Reviesque manner, he immediately set off on the task of building the club into the major force they would become across the following decade or so. One of the very first steps was to sign Bobby Collins. Despite all the star names that would follow as the Yorkshire club enjoyed its heyday, it was a move Revie himself described as “the best signing I ever made. Leeds can never thank him enough for the transformation he brought to the club.” It’s a ringing endorsement of the difference Collins had made to a club – and manager – struggling to get into forward gear.

It was the start of a mutually beneficial relationship as Collins was again given the opportunity to be the general on the field, but Revie had Collins’ other qualities in mind as well, as the player would later relate: “Don knew that good pros had good habits and I think that’s what he was hoping to instil when he signed me. One of the great things about the boss was the way he built up a comradeship. We all loved him because he treated us properly and commanded our utmost respect. He also knew how to build a team.” There’s very little doubt about that, and with Collins installed as his guide to the younger players, Leeds began to prosper.

As with his time at Everton, Revie saw Collins’ time at the club as serving a particular purpose; it was to help him grow the club and educate the younger payers, such as
Billy Bremner, who would go on to become a club legend. Once that task had been completed however, and the new generation was in place, that task would have been serviced. With that in mind, the year after signing Collins, Revie went to Manchester United to sign a 21-year-old right winger. Much as with Collins, Johnny Giles would also evolve into a playmaker and become Collins’ natural successor.

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Two years after coming on board, Revie’s plans blossomed as Collins led the team to the Division Two championship. He would miss just one league game in the entire season. Back in the top flight, the team continued to flourish and Revie’s young team, guided by the old hand, finished an outstanding season as runners-up in the league, agonisingly losing out to Manchester United on goal difference. They also finished as FA Cup runners-up, losing to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in the final. Bobby Collins had made sufficient an impression on the watching football press that he was voted as the FWA Footballer of the Year for 1965. It was a rare, but fully warranted individual accolade for a player who gave so much to the development of the teams he played for. The Reds against the Whites was a rivalry that would come to dominate English domestic football over the coming years, as Revie’s Leeds and Shankly’s Liverpool – both blossoming teams – battled it out for honours, but Collins would miss so much of that.

By now, Collins was 34 and in those days when the ‘magic sponge’ was the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of medical treatment and knowledge of injury and fitness were hardly at basic levels, his game clock was running into overtime. His situation was not helped when, later that same year, a callous challenge by Torino’s Poletti caused a broken bone in Collins’ thigh. For any number of other players, it could have signalled time to draw the curtain on his playing career, and go and open a pub or newsagents, as was the wont of so many ex-players in those days. However, Collins’ tenacity and the way he had looked after his fitness up to that point had paid dividends and, following a major operation, he returned for the final three league games of the season.

Tenacity and determination can only take you so far though, and after sustaining another injury the following season, and with Giles now established in the first team, Revie considered that Collins’ useful time with the club was coming to an end, and he was transferred to Bury. And so, back to Fellows Park on that November Saturday, when a short and squat 36-year-old who could barely break into a trot, ran a game from start to finish, so impressing an eleven-year-old home fan who had no idea who he was. Of course, Bobby Collins did what he had done for Everton and then Leeds. Signed to get a club moving upwards, he delivered, and Bury were promoted. In 1969 though, with the team established back in the second tier, it was time for Collins to move on again. Even now though, he wasn’t prepared to hang up hips boots.

A move back to Scotland with Morton, and then across to Ireland with Shamrock Rovers were brief interludes before a spell with Oldham Athletic as player/coach.

After leaving Oldham in 1974 he took over as manager of Huddersfield Town. If he thought that this would be an opportunity to put into action his ideas of how a club and squad should be run, he was quickly to run into the buffer of hard reality with the club’s board of directors, markedly reluctant to follow his promptings. A lack of support and intransigence from his employers meant the appointment would last only just over twelve months; a period that Collins himself would describe as “a nightmare.”

With typical determination, and of course the need for gainful employment to the fore in those days before superstar wage packets, Collins ventured back in to the game with Hull City, moving from Coach through to Caretaker Manager and finally to the top job in October 1977. This job lasted even less time than the one at Huddersfield and he was sacked the following February.

A period of short term jobs and passages of time on the dole were never really going to work for Bobby Collins though, and he was delighted to accept an offer from former Leeds team-mate Norman Hunter to take up the role of heading up the Barnsley youth team and working with the reserves. Again, it surely should have been an ideal role for Collins, but fate took a hand when Hunter was dismissed, and he was invited to step into the managerial role in February 1984. The realities of managing lower level clubs reared their heads again when he was sacked the following June, despite him thinking he had “done a decent job” there. In the late nineties, Collins would return to Leeds for a further period of working in the youth set up there. It was his final job in the game.

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Bobby Collins passed away in 2014, and to many fans of the game – even those of sufficient vintage and with long memories – he is at best a peripheral figure; someone who was a little famous for a while. Fans of Everton, Leeds United and Bury would tell a different story, however. Fond memories of a player who made such a difference to their clubs, and helped them along the road to achievement and development will long be remembered, as lauded by Don Revie. Also for an 11-year-old lad, standing on the terraces at Fellows Park, he was a mightily impressive example of how to run a football match.