Tony Collins, who has died aged 94, was the first black Crystal Palace player in 1957 – and the first black manager of a League, club, taking Rochdale all the way to the 1962 League Cup final.
He played as a left-winger for Sheffield Wednesday, York City, Watford, Norwich City, Torquay United, Crystal Palace and Rochdale.
He also worked as a scout for Leeds United and Manchester United, as well as for the England national team.
Among the players he signed for United was England winger Lee Sharpe and Paul McGrath.
Former manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: “I was really saddened to hear the news about Tony and send my deepest condolences to all of his family.
“One of my earliest recollections of Tony was of the very impressive job he did as manager of Rochdale, beating Blackburn to reach the 1962 League Cup final. I then got to know Tony personally when I joined Manchester United and Tony was the chief scout. As well as being a valuable, knowledgeable and respected scout, he had such an engaging personality and I always enjoyed our conversations.”
Tony was born in Kensington to a white mother – his black father was not named on his birth certificate.
Collins was adopted by his maternal grandparents and grew up in the Portobello Road area.
A promising schoolboy footballer, he played for local club Acton United and was due to sign for Brentford until he was called up for military service during the Second World War.
He was spotted in Army football matches and recommended to Sheffield Wednesday, joining them after being demobbed.
At the end of his first season at Rochdale, manager Jack Marshall left the club to join Blackburn Rovers.
Tony was encouraged by his teammates to apply for the post – and was appointed player-manager of the Fourth Division club in June 1960.
In his second season, Rochdale reached the League Cup Final, only to lose 4–0 on aggregate to Second Division Norwich City.
It is the club’s only appearance in a major final, and one of only two EFL Cup final appearances by a fourth-tier side. But offers from larger clubs failed to materialise.
Gradually tiring of the demands the job placed on his time and family life, he resigned in September 1967.
He then scouted for Don Revie, then Leeds manager, but continued to do so when he took the England hotseat – and was dubbed football’s “super spy” by the press.
The historical significance of Collins’ achievements only became well known in 2016 as a result of the publication of Tony Collins: Football Master Spy, a biography co-authored by his daughter.
He died on February 8, 2021, aged 94.
Howard Wilkinson, chairman of the League Managers’ Association, described him as “a true pioneer of the sport”.
Main Pic: The Bristol City side of 1978. Tony Collins, left, was assistant manager
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