He might be too modest to admit it, but Tony Collins is a football pioneer.
In 1960 he became the first black manager in England when he was appointed by Rochdale, leading the club to the League Cup final two years later. Although they lost to Norwich over two legs, Rochdale remained the only team from the lowest division to contest the final until 2013, when Bradford City played Swansea.
Now 90, and residing in a care home near Manchester, Collins has told his fascinating story with the help of daughter Sarita in the new book ‘Tony Collins: Football Master Spy’.
Despite his achievements as a manager, Collins is most renowned for his scouting work during a career that spanned six decades. It is these memories that he enjoys most, such as the time he perched at the back of the stand on a freezing, rainswept midweek night to get a glimpse of the new hotshot striker making a name for himself in the Southampton reserves.
That particular example, just one of many Collins recalled during our conversation, saw him recommend a young Alan Shearer to Manchester United, long before he joined Blackburn Rovers, won the Premiership title, and then rejected the Old Trafford club in favour of signing for boyhood side Newcastle.
For most football scouts the nickname ‘Super Spy’ would be worn as a badge of honour, but for Collins the moniker he earned as Don Revie’s assistant with England was just a bit of fun.
He had been asked by Revie to compile a scouting report on Scotland ahead of a 1974/75 British Home Championship match at Wembley, and watched as England perfectly executed his advice to defeat the auld enemy 5-1.
“Don gave each player a copy and the match went exactly as I thought it might,” says Collins. “But afterwards one of the England players left their report behind. The papers got news of it and came up with the name ‘Super Spy’.”
The Daily Record’s double-page spread on Collins’ report, bemoaning the comparative standard of Scottish scouts, attracted plenty of attention. As many working in football already knew, ’Super Spy’ was a fitting nickname for Collins, with Ron Atkinson – who wrote the foreword to the new book – a keen admirer of his vast knowledge of the game.
As Manchester United manager, Atkinson once sent Collins, then the club’s chief scout, to watch a Dutch right-back that had caught his eye. But twenty minutes into the game Collins was unimpressed with what he had seen, instead finding himself distracted by a skilful, dreadlocked centre-half.
“He was a beautiful player, pulling it down, sweeping it out to the wings. I thought, ‘Blimey, he looks a bit special’.” Sadly for Atkinson and United, the young Ruud Gullit wasn’t for sale.
Gullit wasn’t the only future star Collins tracked for United. He travelled to Ireland to watch a 22-year-old Paul McGrath playing for St. Patrick’s Athletic, and quickly persuaded Atkinson to recruit the talented defender. “He was cool as you like on the ball,” Collins recalls. “Clever, a good passer – a very good player all round.”
Collins’ own playing career was almost over before it began when he was conscripted into the army as an 18-year-old. Having been set to join Brentford before his call-up, the tricky left winger served for three years in Italy before signing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1947.
He had some help in the move to Hillsborough from two fellow soldiers, who supported the Owls and had been wowed by Collins’ ability in army matches. “There were two Wednesdayites who told me ‘Leave it with us’,” explains Collins.
“They wrote letters to Eric Taylor, who was the manager at Wednesday, and he got back to me and said, ‘You’ve been strongly recommended, we’d like to fix you up for a trial’. So I went up there, they put me up in a hotel, and after the match Taylor called me into his office and signed me.”
Despite being highly regarded by the clubs he played for, Collins wasn’t afforded the same opportunities as his peers. He was overlooked by England manager Walter Winterbottom, who watched him playing for Watford in 1954, although Collins doesn’t feel that prejudice blocked his path to the top.
As a mixed-race footballer in the 1950s, he faced many challenges. His daughter Sarita found 13 job applications her father had sent during his time as Rochdale manager, with not a single one receiving a reply. After leading the unfashionable fourth-tier club to the League Cup final, Collins’ achievements undoubtedly warranted greater recognition.
Management’s loss was to be scouting’s gain, as Collins’ talent for player-spotting was sought throughout the game. As well as Atkinson and Revie, he also worked with Jock Stein and, briefly, Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom he recommended the raw Torquay winger Lee Sharpe.
“I saw Lee Sharpe and thought he was good enough to work on if the money was right,” he says. “I went down to Torquay with Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox and introduced them to the Torquay manager. There were one or two clubs interested but he came to United.”
Collins continued working as a part-time scout for Leeds until retiring 13 years ago at the age of 77. His new book tells the story of a man who triumphed in the face of adversity and was respected by all he worked with in football. Collins may play down his achievements, but his was a career like no other.