Ernie Collumbine: Shire player who played revolutionary role in the game

Ernie Collumbine. Captain of the East Stirlingshire side that won promotion to the top flight in 1963. He is on the shoulders of his team-mates. '(picture: Bill Miller Photographers)
Ernie Collumbine. Captain of the East Stirlingshire side that won promotion to the top flight in 1963. He is on the shoulders of his team-mates. '(picture: Bill Miller Photographers)

He had the “heart of a lion”, was a ferocious competitor both off the park and on it, and was revered as a family man and a footballer.

However, on Thursday (today), friends, family and the wider Falkirk footballing community will say goodbye to a player who left his indellible mark on the Scottish game.

Ernie Collumbine, who was born in Carronshore in 1938, played for local teams including Bo’ness United and Stenhousemuir, but it was at East Stirlingshire in the 1960s where he was to play an integral part in a revolutionary new system.

The Steedman brothers, Jack and Charles, who owned the Shire at the time, had been abroad on holiday to watch continental football and were impressed with what they saw, so much so, that they adopted this new sweeper 4-2-4 formation at their own club.

It was a position that was made for Collumbine, he would later reveal. He had signed as a ‘wing half’ from Stenhousemuir but Jack Steedman saw the necessary attributes in Collumbine, which would see him become one of the first ‘sweepers’ in Britain and first in Scotland.

The tactic also had a lasting impact on then-Hibernian boss Jock Stein, who adopted the formation at Celtic – after seeing East Stirlingshire in action – and led them to European Cup glory in 1967.

Ernie’s son Brian told the Falkirk Herald: “My dad had a brilliant football brain, you could see the speed of thought and his movement.

“He was just a fantastic player. He could read the game brilliantly. I think he would have been a superstar in today’s game.”

Just like any top player Collumbine did everything he could to try to give himself the best chance of performing at his best on a Saturday – his methods might have raised an eyebrow or two today, but there was no doubting his commitment.

Brian said: “He was teetotal his whole career and totally dedicated. He would have raw eggs and milk whisked up before every game. He thought this would make him a better player. He was a real winner.

“His will to win was second to none – even later in life he wouldn’t even let the grandkids win at games! He was so competitive.

“I think that he’s recognised as the first sweeper in Scotland, maybe even Britain, is something he was very proud of, and enjoyed telling us that story when we were growing up.”

Collumbine started his career at Bo’ness United before joining Stenhousemuir in March 1958. He was an important part of the Warriors team before he joined East Stirlingshire in 1961. Collumbine would captain the Shire to Second Division success in 1963, when they pipped Morton to promotion to finish second and lead them to the top flight for only the second time in their history.

It was a great time to be around the club with crowds of up to 10,000 coming to watch them at Firs Park.

Brian said: “There’s a picture of him in the house of the players lifting him up on to their shoulders in the celebrations. It was a very proud moment for him and for us. There’s also pictures of him up against Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone and those two enjoyed a good battle.

“He told me that Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone had got past him two or three times in a game and he said he told Jimmy that he wouldn’t get past him again.

“Sure enough, Jimmy tried to jink his way past and Ernie went bang. Needless to say Jimmy wasn’t impressed. My dad was never sent off in his career and rarely booked. Of course, the game was different back then and you could get away with more.”

East Stirlingshire’s year in the top flight ended in disappointment as they were relegated the following season. Collumbine was one of the few players to move with the club the following year as part of the merger with Clydebank to become ES Clydebank - driven by the Steedman brothers. East Stirlingshire returned in 1965 after winning a court battle to have the club back at Firs Park, with 3000 turning up at their first match.

Collumbine, who also played for St Johnstone and later Clydebank, certainly made an impression on those he came up against, and a young Brian discovered first-hand the respect his peers in the game had for him.

Brian said: “I remember when I got to meet the Lisbon Lions. They were staying in a hotel in Airth after their European Cup success.

“They spotted my dad and they came over to chat. There was the likes of Johnstone and Bobby Lennox. I probably didn’t realise the significance of that at the time.

“Johnstone patted me on the head and because they came over and chatted and still remembered coming up against him a few years earlier meant a huge amount to my dad.”

Brian wanted to give his dad a special surprise video for his 60th birthday so spoke to former Scotland boss Craig Brown, Alex Totten and Jack Steedman about his career.

Brian said: “Jack spoke so highly of him, he told me how the system came about and my dad playing that role. He had a heart of a lion, he said. He never stopped speaking about him for 15 minutes.

“When we showed it to my dad he was overwhelmed. He was a very humble man, very shy but he could be brilliant company and the life and soul of a party. He loved dancing, family and obviously football.

“For the funeral we have chosen the Queen song ‘You’re my best friend’ that summed him up. I’m just sad I’ll never see him again.

“The biggest tribute that I can pay him is the legacy he has left to this family. He was family orientated; we all got together and he made sure of that. He was a proper family man.”

Brian revealed fans who watched him play 50 years ago have been in contact and sent the family messages of condolences.

Collumbine had one season at St Johnstone after leaving ES Clydebank but struggled to make the first team. He then teamed up with Steedman again who brought him to Kilbowie Park to play at Clydebank. He spent three years there, winning the player of the year award at the end of his first season. Collumbine suffered a bad injury against Queen’s Park in January 1969 and never made another appearance for the club again. After football he became a joiner with Falkirk Council.

Collumbine, who had Alzheimers, died last Wednesday, aged 80 after a short battle with cancer. He leaves behind his wife Sandra and his three children Brian, Ernie Jnr and Cindy. The funeral is at Dawson Mission. Carron Road and starts at 2.15pm today. There are toast and refreshments at the Plough Hotel in Stenhousemuir afterwards.