Bobby Collins: Little big man who put Leeds United on track

Bobby Collins.
Bobby Collins.
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Jack Charlton, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray pay tribute to the late Bobby Collins, the player behind the rise of Leeds United. Phil Hay reports.

John Charles is Leeds United’s original super-star but Bobby Collins was the icon, the player on whom an empire was built. Even Billy Bremner, the club’s greatest captain, bowed down to the man he took the armband from.

“They say one man doesn’t make a team,” Bremner once said, “but Bobby Collins came nearer than anyone else I’ve seen on a football field.” The ‘You get nowt for being second’ mantra belonged to Collins before Bremner inherited it.

Don Revie’s first Scottish general is too often forgotten in analysis of that glittering era but his death on Monday at the age of 82 and the flurry of tributes to him gave Collins a fitting epitaph – that Leeds would not have been the club they became without the Glaswegian’s fearsome influence in the 1960s. He did not share in much of Revie’s success; he rather laid the ground for it.

Jack Charlton, a one-club man, was a long way into his career at Leeds when Revie paid £25,000 to sign Collins from Everton in 1962. “The lads were frightened of him,” Charlton told the YEP. “Frightened in a good way but frightened all the same.

“We weren’t used to his manner. He told you what to do and you did it. No-one ever argued. But then no-one at that time was more competitive or focused than him.

“Don made a lot of good signings at Leeds, a lot of them. But Collins was the signing. He was the one. That’s where it started, that’s where it all came from.”

In 1962, Collins was a player of high repute with many good years behind him. A Scotland international, he won trophies at Celtic – a league and Scottish Cup double in 1954 – and cost Everton £25,000. Revie’s willingness to match that fee four years later with Collins into his 30s caused surprise but United’s manager was sure of his investment. “I’ve never come across anyone with such a fierce will to win,” he said. “I’d been searching for some time for a midfield general.”

It is arguably true that, as unhappy as Collins was at Everton, Leeds needed him more than the midfielder needed them. The club were wading around at the wrong end of Division Two and beset by the threat of relegation. With 5ft 4in Collins unleashed in the centre of their midfield, they saw off the threat on the last day of the season, suffering one defeat in their final 11 games.

United’s timeline from there is remarkable: promoted as champions in 1964 with Johnny Giles added to their squad and denied the double by a whisker the following year; beaten to the title on goal average by Manchester United and cruelly defeated by Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley. The disappointment was keen but Revie could see a bigger picture developing – a top-class team with Collins at the heart of it.

“Every one of the lads looked up to him,” said Charlton. “I liked Bobby, I liked him a lot. I got on well with him, or at least I think I did. You were never quite sure. His attitude wasn’t about having fun. It was about going out, doing your job and doing it right. Having a captain who’d have a go at you like he did was an eye-opener.

“But because he played the way he did, you listened to him and you didn’t argue. He was a driving force and he made a lot of realise that you have to be serious about football to get anywhere in it. If Bobby hadn’t come in, none of the success would have come either. We’d have carried on messing about in the lower leagues.”

Collins was named Footballer of the Year in 1965, the first United player to win the award. Billy Bremner did likewise five years later. Scotland recalled Collins after overlooking him for six years but in the 1965-66 season, Collins’s career was halted by a horrific injury, a broken thigh bone suffered in an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tie against Torino. “You knew it was serious if Bobby wasn’t getting up,” said Charlton.

Collins took more than six months to recover and was never the same influence again. In his absence, Revie moved Giles from the right wing and paired him with Bremner, creating by a distance the best and most perfectly-balanced midfield partnership United have ever seen.

“Bobby was an idol of mine,” said Giles yesterday. “I was playing at Leeds with my idol to the right of me.

“When I was a kid, the Scottish League used to send a team over to Dublin for a game every two years. There was no football on TV those days so you hardly got to see your heroes. The games in Dublin were my only chance to watch Bobby. I loved him, I loved his style, and he was a hero of mine going right back to his time at Celtic.

“In my opinion, he was Don Revie’s best signing. I don’t think that’s up for debate. Part of the reason I wanted to go to Leeds was because Bobby obviously liked what he saw there. That told you something. He was integral to the club’s success.

“I was 22 when I joined and for a while I played on the right. Bobby and Billy were in the middle. I’d played on the right a lot at Manchester United because it was the only way I could get into the team but the centre of midfield was my natural position.

“When the time came for me to replace Bobby, I’d had three years in the same team as him – three years of learning what it took to be a good professional and a winner. Many of us were 10 years younger than him and Don needed someone to set the example. That was Bobby. I don’t think any other player had more influence on me.”

Collins left Leeds for Bury in 1967, the framework for dominance at Elland Road laid, and returned to Scotland to play with Greenock Morton. He later managed Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Hull City and worked as a youth-team coach at Leeds. His death on Monday afternoon followed a long illness.

“Bobby was the main man,” said Eddie Gray, another of Revie’s disciples who grew up at Elland Road while Collins was captain. “I’m certain that without Bobby signing, we’d not have seen the Leeds United that we did. He taught the entire club how to win.

“Don realised he had to get someone in who could bring us younger lads on and that he had to get a born winner. A shrinking violet would have been no use. Nothing fazed Bobby and his determination to win was passed down.”

Bremner embraced it and the baton passed on. So the great Leeds United were built.

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