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Adams and Bruce were Buster's premier pupils

By Patrick Barclay
Last Updated: 9:45pm GMT 06/03/2004

A few weeks ago, when life at Leicester was just a simple battle against relegation - halcyon days - Micky Adams told me how he had taken an interest in coaching at an early age. "When I first went down to Gillingham as a 16-year-old apprentice," he said, "I did one night a week - and it all developed from there. The idea came from the head of the youth scheme, Buster Collins. I wasn't the only apprentice he encouraged. I remember Steve Bruce doing a bit as well. Afterwards, Buster would take us into the social club and we'd have a half of lager with him and sit listening to his stories. He was a great character."

And still is. Adams and Bruce know because they keep in touch with the 84-year-old Ulsterman who retired in 1993 after devoting nearly half his life to Gillingham's young players, the successes and the failures. When I had coffee with Collins and his beautiful wife, Betty, at their home near Priestfield Stadium last week, he was no more proud of Adams and Bruce than of letters from less celebrated lads bringing him up to date with their news and thanking him once more for the help, advice and - above all, I sensed - standards he gave them. "I have two fine, honest children," wrote one, pointedly.

Men such as Collins are the heartbeat of football. Just as he was inspired by the old Liverpool goalkeeper Elisha Scott, under whose tutelage he came at Belfast Celtic, he taught Adams and Bruce. "Mind you," he said, "I didn't need to teach them to love the game. They played in the same youth team and it was funny because Brucie started in midfield and I said to the manager, Gerry Summers, that, while he had a magnificent attitude, we might have to move him back to centre-half. When Brucie's father heard about it, he rang me from Newcastle and protested that Steve had never played there before. 'Joe,' I said, 'he's going to play there now - and, if I'm right, he could go all the way'." Years later, Manchester United showed their gratitude by sending a strong team, Bruce included, for one of Collins's testimonials.


Collins hopes to be at St Andrew's next Saturday for the Premiership match between Bruce's Birmingham and the poor Adams's under-a-cloud Leicester. He knows he only has to pick up the phone and Bruce will send a car. "He always tells me 'Don't worry - you won't have to drive'. I'll be there as long as it's not too cold. The cold gets to my chest these days, I'm afraid. It's a legacy of working in the shipyard." He began at Harland and Wolff in Belfast shortly before the Second World War and, as a teenage apprentice welder, played for Distillery. "Day after day Hitler bombed the hell out of us," he said, "but at least we were exempted from military service. There were many worse off than us." But it did serious damage to Collins's footballing prospects. Although there had been rumours of interest from Manchester City, he moved only to Belfast Celtic during the war and was 28 when he crossed the water to join Luton and then Gillingham. He moved to a Kent colliery club before being called back to look after youth development, over which he was given full control by Freddie Cox in the Sixties.

"What I did," he said, "was teach good habits. I'd call it that rather than coaching. And I don't think you need a certificate to do it. The greatest lesson I ever had was going to Wembley to see the Hungarians beat England 6-3 in 1953. Our static system was exposed by their movement and and I said to the friend who was with me, 'There's only one way to counteract this football. Everyone's got to win the ball. Our front-runners have to be the first line of defence and so on, so we're compact. We're all defenders when they have the ball - and all attackers when we have the ball'. That was the Liverpool way when they were the kings of Europe and it was what I taught our apprentices and schoolboys."

Adams and Bruce both gave and took. "I didn't push them. I just asked if they wanted to come down and coach the younger lads once or twice a week. Which they did. They gave their time up, even after they'd become full pros. That's how they got into the coaching side of the game. Like all the lads, they'd often come round here for a bit of supper or a game of Scrabble." He laughed. "You want to see the words Brucie tried to put on a Scrabble board - they were Geordie things, he said. We had great times and I got to know the families as well as the boys. I'd always ask the mother. There's a special bond with the mother."

Betty, who had two daughters, said the boys were like sons to Buster and her. And then she asked Buster to tell me about the last time Micky Adams rang. "It was a couple of months ago," he said, "and he asked me how many managers there were in the Premiership. 'Twenty,' I said. 'Well,' he said, 'two of them are yours. So you must have been doing something right'."

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Patrick Barclay