Tony Cummings: Stylish and reliable defender who helped Burnley win the League title

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The Independent Online

How fitting it was that towards the twilight of a football career in which he had shone steadily for more than a decade as one of the most stylish and reliable defenders in the English top flight without capturing any of the game's most coveted honours, Tommy Cummings of Burnley finally received his just deserts.

Though the veteran Wearsider wasn't always certain of his place during the tumultuous 1959-60 campaign in which the team from the middle-sized Lancashire cotton town outstripped much-fancied Wolves and the rest of the big-city battalions to become worthy League champions, he played in more than half the games that term and he was there at the climax, when the glittering prize was claimed with a nerve-shredding last-day victory at Manchester City.

Cummings was a thoroughbred performer, an invariably calm, assured centre-half whose exceptional fleetness of foot was matched by a quickness of thought which enabled him to interpret the action as it unfolded, typically snuffing out opposition attacks before they could threaten the Burnley goal. He was particularly impressive when faced by speed merchants such as Jackie Milburn of Newcastle United or Blackpool's Stan Mortensen, but he was prepared for a physical battle, too, bravely taking the knocks from the likes of Bolton Wanderers' dreadnought Nat Lofthouse and Trevor Ford, Sunderland's renowned tough nut.

The son of a miner, Cummings left school to work in a shipyard on the Wear while playing his football for local clubs Hylton Colliery Welfare and Stanley United. Trials with Blackpool and Tottenham Hotspur came to nothing but he enlisted with Burnley as a part-timer in October 1947 while continuing with an apprenticeship as a mining engineer. His working days were arduous and long, his shifts underground being followed by rigorous sessions on the training pitch, but Cummings persevered and was rewarded by a senior breakthrough midway through 1948-49 when the Clarets' stalwart stopper Alan Brown departed for Notts County.

Thereafter he matured so rapidly in Frank Hill's well organised side which usually finished in the top half of the First Division that soon he was on the fringe of international recognition, travelling as reserve when England faced Northern Ireland in Belfast in October 1950. Later that month he played for the Football League against the Irish League at Blackpool, but the only caps he was to earn was a trio for the "B" team during mid-decade, his path to the top honour being blocked by the doughty likes of Portsmouth's Jack Froggatt, Harry Johnston of Blackpool and, finally, the Wolves and England skipper Billy Wright.

At club level Cummings, who could occupy either full-back berth at need, remained a paragon of defensive consistency, missing only a handful of matches throughout the first half of the 1950s, although it is for a rare attacking adventure that many fans recall him most vividly. Near the end of a taut encounter with Newcastle on a snowy Turf Moor afternoon in January 1952, he dispossessed the Magpies marksman Jackie Milburn deep in Burnley territory, then surged past a succession of tackles before scoring with a searing edge-of-the-box left-footer to win the match.

Cummings was a delightfully modest individual and, asked at the time why he had embarked on such an uncharacteristic sortie, he offered the dry reply: "I looked up and I had nobody to pass to." But he was a colourful and imaginative raconteur, too, and in later years his comrades maintained that the number of tackles he had evaded during his majestic progress grew with each telling – what had started as four became six or seven or even more! What is not in dispute is that his goal was one of only three in his 15 years and 479 senior outings for the Clarets, for whom only a handful of men have played more often.

The hitherto serene momentum of Cummings' career, which included taking over from Harold Mather as captain in 1951, was rudely jolted in August 1956 when he suffered a knee injury which kept him on the sidelines for almost two seasons and it was feared that his playing days were prematurely done. But he fought back single-mindedly to regain his place in a side which was now even more purposeful and more impeccably drilled under the new manager Harry Potts.

In 1958-59, Cummings missed only three games as the Clarets finished in a creditable seventh place in the League table, but it was in 1959-60 that they experienced their ultimate glory. The obvious stars of Burnley's champions were the dazzling Irish play-maker Jimmy McIlroy, cultured wing-half and captain Jimmy Adamson and dashing England winger John Connelly. But every member of Potts' unpretentious, tightly-knit squad contributed nobly, including the ageing Cummings, who started the campaign at left-back, lost his place to the emerging Alex Elder but then recovered in the spring to perform magnificently alongside young Brian Miller, who was switched from central stopper to defensive wing-half to accommodate him. True, he was helped by a clash between Bobby Seith and the autocratic Turf Moor chairman Bob Lord which resulted in the Scot being axed, but Cummings made the most of his opportunity.

Indeed, having regained his berth and pocketed a title medal at the age of 31, he exhibited all of his former sure-footed solidity. In 1960-61 he helped Burnley to come fourth in the League and to reach the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the newly launched League Cup. Then in 1961-62 he was absent on only four occasions as the Clarets went agonisingly close to lifting the League and FA Cup double, finishing as First Division runners-up behind Alf Ramsey's surprise packet, Ipswich Town, and losing the FA Cup final 3-1 to Tottenham Hotspur.

By then approaching 34, Cummings played only twice more for Burnley, losing his place to the much younger John Talbut, then accepting an offer to become player-manager of Mansfield Town in March 1963. Unlike his auspicious team-mate McIlroy, whose simultaneous and hugely controversial transfer to Stoke City outraged fans, who maintained he was still in his creative prime, the defender slipped away almost unnoticed. However, he made an immediate impact at Field Mill, consolidating on the excellent groundwork of his predecessor, Raich Carter, by leading the Stags to fourth place in the Fourth Division, and thus to promotion that spring.

Now Cummings continued only briefly as a player, but he took naturally to management, almost guiding Mansfield to the second flight in the 1964-65 season, missing out only on goal average, the absurdly complicated precursor to goal difference as a means of separating clubs on equal points. There followed one poor season and one improved one at the Mill, after which he had established his reputation sufficiently to take on the reins of Aston Villa in July 1967.

This was not the powerful Villa of modern times, though, the Midlanders having just descended to the Second Division and being short of cash to revive their ailing team. Cummings brought in several new men, including top scorer Brian Godfrey from Preston North End, but they proved insufficient for a transformation and after one term of dire mediocrity was followed by a rotten start to 1968-69, the Wearsider was sacked in November with his charges at the wrong end of the table.

Later, briefly, he managed non-League Great Harwood and scouted for Burnley and Sunderland, but he went on to make his living outside the game, running a succession of pubs in the Burnley area. Later still there was a popular return to Turf Moor as a match-day host, where his lively recollections of that sensational goal some half a century earlier continued to rivet the punters.

Thomas Smith Cummings, footballer and football club manager: born Castletown, Sunderland 12 September 1928; played for Burnley 1947-63, Mansfield Town 1962-63; managed Mansfield Town 1963-67, Aston Villa 1967-68; married (one daughter, one son); died Queensgate, Burnley 12 July 2009.