A World War II veteran who made history at Crystal Palace and later worked for Manchester United and the England national team, Tony Collins is English professional football’s first black manager.
Raised by loving grandparents in west London, Collins was a talented youngster, who was forced to wait to get his football career underway after being called up to serve in the army at 18.
Stationed in Southern Italy, Collins captained the army football team in a local league where his ability reportedly caught the attention of Napoli, who at the time were trying to earn promotion back to Serie A.
But Collins’ platoon officer had other ideas. He used some contacts at the club he supported, Sheffield Wednesday, to arrange a trial for Collins who eventually joined the Owls after completing three years of army service.
Collins went on to play for York City before two spells at Watford, either side of stints with Norwich and Torquay. In 1957, the left winger made a historic move to south London to join Palace, becoming the first black player in the club’s history.
He joined Rochdale in 1959 and was elevated to the position of player-manager a year later, becoming the first black manager in English professional football.
Collins remained the only black manager to have worked in league football until Keith Alexander in 1993, but his only other managerial role was a spell as caretaker boss at Bristol City in 1980.
Collins guided Rochdale to the League Cup Final in 1962 which they lost to Norwich City, and he remains to this day, the only black British manager to take his team to a major cup final.
He left Rochdale in 1967, and although Collins applied for 13 other managerial jobs, he was not interviewed for any of them.
Instead, Collins worked as chief scout to the legendary Don Revie at Leeds, and compiled dossiers on international opponents when Revie later became England manager. He later scouted for Newcastle, Derby, Millwall, and the club he used to go and watch as a young boy, QPR.
Collins also worked for Ron Atkinson at Manchester United where he once scouted a young Ruud Gullit at PSV Eindhoven; Gullit was playing as a central defender when Collins watched him but United were looking for a midfielder at the time.
The Dutchman would later become the second black manager to lead his team out in a major final with Chelsea in 1997, 35 years after Collins became the first.
Collins, who is 94 and still reminisces fondly about his time in the game, was recognised with the Service to Football Award at the 2017 LMA (League Managers’ Association) Awards.
Watford should ‘celebrate’ people like Tony Collins
Watford local councillor Asif Khan has led calls for a review of road names in the town that are named “after people involved in the slave trade, colonisation and oppression”. He also wants future street names to reflect Watford’s diverse local heritage, where approaching half of the residents are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
Watford Borough Council has accepted a motion to review the road names, and Khan has told Sky Sports News that Collins, and other sporting names with a connection to Watford, ought to be considered for a lasting legacy in the town.
“We need to celebrate and honour Watford’s diverse heritage,” he told Sky Sports News.
“So many people have made a contribution to our town that often were overlooked – names like Tony Collins, who played for Watford twice and was the first black manager in professional football, Luther Blissett, John Barnes and Anthony Joshua.
“It’s a way of recognising their contribution and respecting our heritage but also shows Watford as a forward-looking dynamic town.”
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