Tommy Henderson: Bobby Collins was Leeds United’s best signing

Bobby Collins.
Bobby Collins.
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Former Leeds United winger and roommate of the late Bobby Collins, Tommy Henderson, talks to Phil Hay about the legendary Whites midfielder.

They will say goodbye to Bobby Collins on Thursday, packing out Leeds Minster to remember the Scotsman’s life and career. If you judge a man by his friends then Collins was the best of them, as the turn-out as his funeral will show.

Leeds United’s entire first-team squad are due to attend the service with manager Brian McDermott and his coaching team. United’s old guard will be present too alongside many others who played with Collins during his distinguished years in English and Scottish football. All have stories of his attitude, his brilliance and his professionalism; the perfect footballer or something close.

The days since his death at the age of 82 and the tributes paid to Collins by the great and the good make you wonder if Leeds ever had a better player. Some at Elland Road were more long-serving than him and others had more success but there is a common theme to the memories of Eddie Gray, Johnny Giles, Jack Charlton et al – that Don Revie’s best signing was his £25,000 purchase from Everton in 1962.

They say that they were privileged to know Collins during and after his five years with Leeds. Tommy Henderson had the added pleasure of living with him in the days when signings without a home to go to sought accommodation with the general public. He and Collins were signed by Revie in the same year, Henderson as a 19-year-old and Collins in his early 30s. Two Scots from the west coast, they shared a room together in a house in Bramley in 1962.

“Back in those days the club didn’t put you up in a posh hotel or anything like that,” Henderson says. “It wasn’t five-star accommodation. What they did was ask local people to take you in and give you digs for a while. The local people were very willing.

“After we signed, the club put a story in the Evening Post with a picture of me and Bobby, an advert for anyone who wanted to offer us a room. I’ve still got a copy of the paper and I’ve been looking at it recently. That’s not really the way clubs work now but it’s what they did back then. We were put up by a couple in Bramley, Terry and Eve they were called. She was a smashing cook and a great baker. It was no hotel but they treated us brilliantly and we got on well. It was a good time.”

The arrangement was temporary while Collins waited for his family to move from Liverpool and Henderson tried to settle.

For the younger of the two, the situation was ideal. Henderson’s move to Leeds in 1962 was his second. United had signed him previously in 1958 but Henderson, as Billy Bremner would, suffered from home sickness and put up with life in England for only a year. He went back north and joined Celtic before moving on to Hearts and St Mirren. Revie kept an eye on him and brought him south again three years later.

Henderson remembers his roommate as a tidy companion, almost a perfectionist. It tallies with the reputation of a footballer who played as much as anyone to drag United out of their lower-league existence.

“Bobby was an immaculate guy,” Henderson says, “a really tidy man. The other boys will tell you. He was always perfectly turned out and anywhere he went he’d have his shoes polished. That was him.

“There was never a speck of dirt in his car and he kept everything in order. I suppose I knew my place with him. He was a great guy, really good company, but he didn’t put up with any nonsense. Sometimes he’d give you the look, if you know what I mean. His look kept people in check.

“For a young lad, which I was, it helped to be around someone like that. He was well into his career, very sure of himself, and an example to all of us. A lot of people have been saying recently that he’s maybe the best player Leeds ever signed. I’d go along with that, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Collins has shared pitches and dressing rooms with some of the finest players the British game can lay claim to. At Celtic, a club where he won a league and cup double in 1954, Collins mixed with a number of future Lisbon Lions – Bertie Auld, Bobby Murdoch, Billy McNeill. He left Parkhead before that dynasty of locally-produced footballers reached their zenith but Celtic’s legends speak of him as fondly as Revie’s squad do.

Eddie Gray was belatedly inducted into the Scottish Hall of Fame last November and was joined at the ceremony by 75-year-old Auld, himself a member of the Hall of Fame since 2009.

“Bertie was a brilliant player,” Gray says. “That Celtic squad was phenomenal. But we got onto talking about Bobby Collins that night and I remember Bertie saying to the people around us ‘Bobby Collins could have played for any team, any time, anywhere in the world.’

“That’s how highly people like Bertie rated him. European Cup winners thought Bobby was the best of the best. It’s not just in Leeds where he’s talked about him like that. Celtic, Everton, Leeds – he was a top player wherever he went.”

Celtic and Everton will both send representatives to Thursday’s funeral. Henderson and countless former Leeds players will be there too. McDermott has rearranged United’s Thursday training session ahead of their derby against Huddersfield Town to ensure that he and his squad can attend the same church where United honoured John Charles in 2004.

Recollections of Collins’ credentials as a footballer are a mixture of comment about his competitive instinct and appreciation of his skill. Reporters who covered Leeds in the 1960s recall the midfielder’s famous banana shots; swerving efforts which perplexed goalkeepers and stretched the net behind them. “Anything around the box was a goal,” is one journalist’s view of Collins’ threat.

“He loved his football,” Henderson says. “He loved his golf too. He was incredibly fit and like a lot of top sportsmen, he was good at just about anything he turned his hand to.

“I went off to Bury in 1965 and I’d gone from there by the time Bobby joined Bury a couple of years later but we remained in touch for years.

“I always thought of him as a mix between Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles – which you might say is the perfect footballer. He had Billy’s aggression and Johnny’s ability to pass the ball.

“When you think about it, players so good come along rarely and clubs are lucky to have them. He was a privilege to play with and, I have to say, a great guy to live with. We’ll miss him.”

United’s Championship game against Charlton Athletic on February 15 has been postponed as Charlton are in FA Cup action.

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