TOMMY CUMMINGS 1928 - 2009
It had to happen. Another member of the great team of 1959/60 sadly passed away and this time it was Tommy Cummings.
What a lovely man he was. I met him several times over the years in his role as a host at the club on matchdays and sat with him at one of the dinners I was involved with. In truth you wondered how a man so gentle and courteous could ever have managed to ‘rough’ it with some of the brutish centre-forwards he had to face in his career. But face them he did, and with his pace and guile more often than not came out on top in what was the bruising world of football in the forties and fifties.
He was featured in No Nay Never Volume One for it was he who scored ‘Burnley’s greatest ever goal’ as it came to be known when he took the ball the length of the field from just outside his own penalty area, beat man after man and then crashed it home into the Newcastle net from 20 yards. Scored today this would be a goal played over and over again on TV. The goal itself was remarkable but even more so for being scored by a centre-half in an age when it was their job to stay in their own half. His simple modest explanation was that he just had no-one to pass to.
Born in the Castledown area of Sunderland in 1928 Tommy Cummings joined Burnley from Hylton Colliery Juniors in October 1947 for the usual signing on fee. Spurs, Huddersfield and Blackpool were interested but his father helped him settle on Burnley. The guarantee of a job at Bank Hall Pit and the persuasive powers of manager Cliff Britton were decisive factors. He made his first-team debut at Manchester City in December 1948 and after the transfer of Alan Brown to Notts County he made the position his own for a period spanning three decades. Back in ’48 he was the youngest centre-half in the division but he was so quick and sharp and could read the game beautifully. Despite his slight frame he was tough. He had to be.
From that first ever game he went on to play 479 games and reached the climax of his career at Burnley in the 1962 Cup Final. What is not widely remembered is that he nearly went to Strasbourg when he was 17 and had that happened Turf Moor would not have been the stage where he played with such distinction. The offer from Strasbourg came when he was a member of Hylton Colliery Juniors.
“We were one of the most famous youth teams in the country and went to play in an international tournament in France. Despite the cleverness of the foreign teams we got through to the Final only to be beaten by a team from Austria. After the Final there was a big banquet and an official of the French Club Strasbourg asked me to join them as they had been so impressed. For a few moments I had dreams of a remarkable Continental career but quickly decided I could do just as well in England.”
Thus he joined Burnley but whilst there received an offer to play in Bogota. The offer made to him was one of the first to any English player.
“First I knew of it was when a telegram came to my work asking me to telephone a certain number. I did do and was given an idea of the offer. The agent wanted to discuss it more fully and so I arranged to meet him in Blackpool. As seen as we met I recall that he asked if I smoked… and proceeded to ask for a cigarette. After thinking over the offer and trying to find Bogota in an atlas, I decided that sacrificing the chance of England honours was not worth this foreign gamble and I turned it down. The offer was £4,000 in the bank and a big pay increase and a bonus. It was tempting but only a little earlier I had been twelfth man for England and very much wanted a Cap.”
His trip as an England reserve was against Ireland in Belfast. He was just 22 and felt nervous at the prospect of meeting all the England stars at Lime Street Station in Liverpool. It was Stanley Matthews who ‘adopted’ him and put him at his ease. Ten days after this game he played for the Football League against the Irish in Belfast again. England won 6 – 3 but the Irish attack was a handful one of them being Billy Bingham. Cummings finished the game with a broken nose caused by an Irish elbow. In March 1953 he played for England B against Scotland B in Edinburgh with two team-mates, Bill Holden and Jimmy Adamson. He went on to win two more ‘B’ Caps. In the League he coped with all manner of centre-forward styles, from that of Jackie Milburn whom he rated as the fastest player he had to mark, to the traditional battering-ram style of Nat Lofthouse. The greatest header of a ball he rated as Tommy Lawton who started his career at Burnley. His most difficult-ever game, he said, was against Liverpool. Louis Bimpson scored four and ran them ragged.
Whilst never making the full England team there is no doubt that he was one of the best English centre-halves. Injury however kept him out for much of the two seasons from ’56 to ’58. Not until midway through the Championship season did he re-establish himself back in the side and the reward for over ten years of loyal service came at Maine Road with a winners’ medal.
His final game after a 14-year career and 479 appearances for Burnley was in a 2 – 2 draw against Bolton Wanderers at Bolton in August 1962. From 1961 until 1963 he was Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association. In March 1963 he was appointed player/manager at Mansfield and led them to promotion from Division Four. Two years later they missed promotion again by goal average. From Mansfield he went to Aston Villa but this post was short-lived. Returning to Burnley he ran various pubs until retirement.
Tommy Cummings until injury was a superbly gifted centre-half defying the general rule of the era that this position should be filled by someone who was simply big, strong and powerful and whose role was simply to play as a ‘stopper’ and boot the ball 50 yards upfield at every opportunity. At his best he was cultured, stylish and elegant and one of the fastest defenders in the game. How fitting it was that although he was unable to see Burnley at Wembley in May 2009, he at least knew they were back at the very top. The club meant the world to him.
Dave Thomas July 2009