Baby-faced and standing no taller than 5ft 4in, Bobby Collins was a giant in an Everton shirt; an improbable mix of tenacious skill, biting aggression and impish brilliance. Such was his contribution during his first two seasons at Goodison that he can lay claim to saving their First Division lives, and thereafter being the basis of their 1960s revival.
Signed for £24,000 from Celtic in September 1958, Collins’ arrival made front-page news on Merseyside. Everton were without a manager following the sacking of Ian Buchan and on a run of six straight defeats. The new boy’s impact was immediate: within a day of his arrival he had inspired Everton to their first win of the season, a 3-1 victory over Manchester City. ‘First appearances suggest that Collins will be well worth every penny of his transfer fee and although one man may not be the complete answer to Everton’s troubles, he can go a great part of the way to restoring Everton’s glamour,’ was the prescient view of his debut by the Liverpool Football Echo. Two minutes before full time the debutant produced a ‘story book finale’ with a shot so powerful that it slipped through the goalkeeper’s grasp to make it 3-1.
COLLINS, ironically, could have been an Everton player more than a decade earlier. In 1947 he came to Goodison from Scottish junior side Pollock as a raw 16-year-old but left just weeks later, complaining of home-sickness. Upset at losing such a promising young star, Everton complained to the Scottish FA and Collins had to serve a six-week ban as punishment for his indecision. Back in Scotland he joined Celtic and won a glut of honours for his boyhood club. Gradually disenchanted by life in Glasgow, he requested a transfer and Everton came in almost immediately.
Short, stocky, ferocious in the tackle, Collins never stopped running or shouting at and encouraging his team-mates.
He was dubbed the ‘Little General’ and ‘Pocket Napoleon’ and when Johnny Carey was made manager a month after his return to Goodison, he was quick to recognise that Collins’ mere presence on the pitch inspired his fellow players and made him captain. Amid a team short on confidence, Collins continually demanded the ball, driving Everton forward and bringing his colleagues into play. He was a prolific goalscorer too, and finished the 1959/60 season top scorer with 14, a total he bettered by three goals the following year. For a couple of years Collins seemed to be the fulcrum of everything positive at Goodison.
If Collins was Everton’s saviour in these first days at Goodison, the inside forward fully blossomed with the arrivals of Alex Young and Roy Vernon in 1960. Under Carey’s watch, Everton’s attacking football was considered among the best in the club’s history and Collins – with his unusual brand of tenacity and skill – flourished. Yet Everton’s problems rested in defence and a title challenge in 1960/61 faltered mid-season amid lapses at the back. Nothing Collins could do could save Carey, not even a hat trick in a 5-1 drubbing of Cardiff City in April – Carey’s final match as Everton manager.
His replacement, Harry Catterick, brought with him his own ideas and unpredictable ruthlessness. In March 1962 he sold Collins, now aged 31, to Leeds United for £30,000, bringing in Dennis Stevens from Bolton as his replacement. This would be the first of several significant transfers that Catterick would make in the teeth of supporter opinion, but Collins remained phlegmatic about his departure. ‘I couldn’t have been that good,’ he quipped in later life, ‘because they won the league the next season!’
THERE REMAINS an indisputable sense that Collins was allowed to leave Everton too early. At Don Revie’s Leeds he enjoyed a prolonged Indian summer, helping transform a side perilously close to relegation to the Third Division into one that was unlucky to miss out on a League and FA Cup double in 1965 – the year he collected the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award.
Collins was unsentimental on his returns to Goodison, meting out the same ferociousness that had once been his hallmark in an Everton shirt. In November 1964 he was part of the Leeds team that partook in the infamous ‘Battle of Goodison’, when the two teams were led off the pitch for a cooling-off period. ‘We came back out and Everton were even harder,’ Collins would recall. ‘People talk about that game, but the following January we met them in the Cup and it was even worse than the original match.’
After five years’ distinguished service at Elland Road, Collins was allowed to join Bury on a free transfer in 1967. There were subsequent spells in Australia and for Morton and Oldham Athletic before he finally hung up his boots aged 42. Managerial spells at Huddersfield Town, Hull City and Barnsley were all destined to end in failure.
Despite such all-round brilliance in a playing career which spanned a quarter of a century and more than 600 games, Collins’ football philosophy remained simple: ‘I went out and tried to be the best,’ he would say – and more often than not he succeeded in achieving just that.
SAFFER, DAVID, Bobby Collins: Scotland’s Mighty Atom, NPI Media, 2004