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Tony Collins

Tony Collins made just 10 City appearances in his only season with City. A journeyman player, one of many to pass through our club's doors, he went onto have a lasting impact on the game

Tony Collins was born in Kensington, West London in 1926 to a white mother and a black father who wasn't named on his birth certificate. Adopted by his grandparents, it was a difficult upbringing although he excelled at football and was expecting to sign for Brentford when he received his call up papers.

After the war, he joined Sheffield Wednesday but didn't play a first team game in 2 seasons before he joined City in the summer of 1949. He barely faired any better with City, playing just 10 games and scoring once as City finished bottom of Division 3 North. A free transfer to Watford, vying for bottom spot in Division 3 South followed in August 1950.

He made his City debut on September 3rd 1950 in a 1-0 defeat at Tranmere, that appearance made him City's first ever black heritage player. He had to wait until October 22nd for his next appearance when he scored his only City goal in a 3-2 win at Chester.

There were rumours of discontent between him and club management.

At Watford, his career picked up, local newspaper reports noted he was watched by an England selector and that Watford wouldn't sell him for 12,000 GBP (it wasn't until 1973 and Barry Lyons that City paid that much for a player.

He later played for Norwich, Torquay (where he and his wife opened a B&B), Crystal Palace and Rochdale. In total, he played 337 games and scored 48 goals before retiring from playing in 1961.

By then, he had had a season as Rochdale's player manager, the first black manager in the Football League. As manager, he took Rochdale to The League Cup Final during the next season. After 7 seasons in charge, he resigned in September 1967, aged 41.

Later, he worked as assistant manager to Alan Dicks at Bristol City before becoming Don Revie's chief scout at Leeds United and later England. He also scouted for Brian Clough at Leeds as well as Ron Atkinson and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Many of the infamous dossiers that Don Revie relied upon were the work of Tony Collins. Paul McGrath and Lee Sharpe were 2 of the players he scouted for Manchester United.

His back room work earned him many plaudits, as evidenced by the managers who employed him and was once described as "a pioneer" by Roy Hodgson.

In July 2016, his biography, "Tony Collins: Football Master Spy" was published in a book co-authored by his daughter Sarita and Quentin Cope. The title being a nod to the nickname he earned in football circles as one of the game's shrewdest talent spotters.

In 2017, Tony Collins received the "Service to Football Award" at the League Managers Association Awards.

He was the first black heritage player at the first 5 clubs he played for (City, Watford, Norwich, Torquay and Crystal Palace). At his next club, Rochdale, he became the first black manager in the Football League.

Sadly he died in February 2021, although in his final year he was still imparting his wisdom with Watford's youth team. Sir Alex Ferguson offering a particularly heart felt tribute.

More: Facebook: Tony Collins Football

City's Black Pioneers

City's first black players were:

  • Tony Collins (signed from Sheffield Wednesday) became City's first black player when he made his debut on 3rd September 1949
  • Peter Perry, full signed from Rotherham played for City during the 1962/3 season (City debut 22nd September 1962). Part timer Perry had a footballing career in the Army and was a member of his home town's Rotherham's side that reached the first ever League Cup Final in 1961
  • Johannesburg born Gerry Francis (City debut, 21st October 1961)
  • Hackney born Dennis Walker (signed from Manchester United, City debut, 22nd August 1964)
  • Next was another South African born, ex Leeds player, Albert Johanneson (City debut, 15th August 1970).

Unfortunately, due to prevailing attitudes of the time, little is known about the early years of Collins (at least until his 2016 biography) and Walker, both were born to white mothers and black fathers. Both Francis and Johanneson travelled from South Africa in their early 20s seeking a career in professional football.

The following appeared in "Football's Black Pioneers" by Bill Hern and David Gleave (published by Conker Editions, 16 GBP) and was reported in TOOAB on 31st October 2020.

Dennis Walker: Manchester United's first and only black Busby Babe.

On 19th September 1981, 20-year-old Remi Moses became the second black footballer to play in the league for Manchester United in a 1-0 home win over Swansea. But Moses had been just two years old when United's first and only previous black player had debuted in 1963. A lot of people, including Viv Anderson when we interviewed him, think that Tony Whelan was United's black pioneer, but the club's current assistant academy director never made it into the first team. In fact, Tony regularly corrects people when they cite him as the first black player to pull on the famous red shirt, an honour which goes to Dennis Allen Walker.

Dennis was born at 28 Queen Street, Northwich, Cheshire on 26 October 1944 to single mother Mary Walker. Mary was born in Limerick and was white. Until recently little was known about Dennis' father, who isn't named on the birth certificate, though Dennis always described himself as Iranian / Argentinian.

Thanks to Nadine Ali, the daughter of Dennis and his fourth wife Paula, we learned that Dennis' father was indeed Iranian, of African heritage. Just as African people were enslaved in the Caribbean and the United States, many were also captured and taken to the Persian Gulf, where enslavement was declared illegal as recently as 1929. It is possible that Dennis' grandparents, or even his father, could have been born in Africa and forcibly taken to what is now Iran. Nadine's DNA confirms this African heritage.

The precise identity of Dennis' father remains shrouded in mystery. Dennis was told by his mother that his father had died at sea when he was a baby. Dennis was born during the second world war, so it is feasible his father may have been a soldier. Another mystery in Dennis' life is that he could speak fluent Farsi and Arabic, which one presumes he did not pick up in Northwich. Nadine also recalls that he used to correspond with and even visit family members in Iran. Clearly, his Iranian connection didn't end with the premature death of his father; but contact between the Walker family and relatives in Iran came to a halt before Dennis' death.

Dennis' footballing ability was spotted early and he was picked up by United at the age of 12. This means he was at the club at the time of the Munich air disaster in 1958 and became part of the second wave of 'Busby Babes', young players named after United's Scottish manager Matt Busby, a great believer in recruiting the best schoolboys and turning them into top-class players. Dennis was the first and only black Busby Babe. As a schoolboy Dennis was on the verge of the England schoolboys under-15 side. Had he been selected, he would have been the first black player to represent England at any level. Unfortunately he was ineligible as he had signed professional terms for United.

A right-sided midfielder or forward, Dennis signed as a full time professional in November 1961 but had to wait until the end of the 1962/3 season before making his first team debut. On Monday 20th May 1963, Manchester United's last game of a thus far disappointing season was away to Nottingham Forest. United had bigger fish to fry, however. Five days after the Forest game they had an FA Cup final against Leicester. Busby didn't want to risk key players in what was effectively a meaningless game. Forest, comfortably mid-table, had little to play for and though United had flirted with relegation they were safe. Busby rested several key players, quite an unusual occurrence in those days. Thus Dennis was selected in place of Bobby Charlton. The game finished 3-2 to Forest, David Herd and Johnny Giles scoring for United. But Busby's ploy of resting players would seem to have worked as United beat favourites Leicester City 3-1 in the Cup final, winning their first trophy since Munich. Dennis remained on the periphery of the first team and went on a pre-season tour of Italy before the 1963-64 season but didn't get selected for any of the matches – perhaps understandably struggling to usurp George Best, Charlton or Denis Law from the side.

There is some evidence that Busby could be unintentionally insensitive towards Dennis. In A Strange Kind of Glory, Eamon Dunphy wrote of the gambling that was endemic among the United players, and of money going missing in the changing room: "A meeting of staff was called to discuss the thieving. In passing 'The Boss' alluded to there being 'a n****r in the woodpile'. Dennis Walker one of the first black players to emerge in the professional game sat unperturbed at the offence".

United eventually released Dennis alongside other young players including a winger by the name of Barry Fry. Unlike Dennis, the future Birmingham City and Peterborough manager had yet to make a senior appearance.

On June 13th 1964 Dennis married Patricia Cropper in the parish church of St Clement, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, with former Manchester United teammate David Sadler as best man. Two months earlier Dennis had signed for York City, who had just finished third from bottom of the Fourth Division and had to apply for re-election to the League.

After 169 appearances (19 goals) for York, he joined Cambridge United in 1968 and played for the club first in the Southern League then in the Football League.

Dennis had always been something of an unsung hero at Old Trafford but his position as Manchester United's first black player has at last been fully recognised and a pavement commemorating his place in United history as a youth-team graduate is set to be unveiled. Key in ensuring Dennis got this recognition was Whelan, who helped trace the Walker family. Whelan has served the club from 1968 to date, now holding responsibility for the under-9 to under-16 player development programme.

Dennis became operations manager at the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester after retiring from football. He was on duty on 15th June 1996 when a telephone call came through claiming that a bomb had been planted in the Centre. Hoax calls were not unusual at this time, and any decision to evacuate would cause great disruption and financial loss. But Dennis had a gut feeling about this call and supported the decision to evacuate the complex. Seconds after ensuring everyone was safe a 3,300-pound IRA bomb was detonated, hurling Dennis across the road and into the window of Debenhams. Miraculously he was unhurt, and no one died in the incident.

Dennis' daughter Nadine is too young to recall her father's playing days but she told us that she remembers him as a larger-than-life character. He loved all sports, was highly competitive and excelled in everything he attempted, particularly golf. The house was always full of trophies. Tragically Dennis later suffered a massive stroke and lost the use of the right side of his body. This was difficult for a confident, outgoing man, but he faced things with his usual positivity. He was never to fully recover and died in Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, aged 59 on 11th August 2003.