THE EVERGREEN RONNIE SIMPSON (PART ONE)

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RONNIE SIMPSON, Celtic’s Greatest-Ever Goalkeeper – as voted by the Hoops supporters – was born on this day in 1930.

To celebrate this amazing individual, CQN will be publishing a week-long tribute to the netminder who was known as ‘Faither’ to his Hoops team-mates.

And to kick off the EXCLUSIVE series, author Alex Gordon, whose fifteenth Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’, is on sale now, has opened his files once again as we travel back in time to acknowledge the extraordinary career of an incomparable character.  

RONNIE SIMPSON should have finished season 1966/67 playing for Berwick Rangers in the old Scottish Second Division where they finished tenth in a league of twenty.

Instead, as the history books show, he picked up a European Cup medal, played his first game for the Scotland international side and was voted the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. Take into consideration the fact he also won medals in the league, the Scottish Cup, the League Cup and the Glasgow Cup.

Not bad for someone whose next birthday would see him turn 37.

Yet things could have turned out so differently for the Lisbon Lion, known affectionately to his team-mates as ‘Faither’ because of his advancing years. He had dropped out of the Hibs first team with Willie Wilson taking over the No.1 spot. His Easter Road career looked as good as obliterated and Berwick Rangers were searching for a new goalkeeper.

They turned their attention to Simpson and they were confident of landing the experienced professional. Hibs would hardly prove difficult to deal with as far as the transfer fee was concerned.

That was when fate stepped in to so rudely interrupt Berwick Rangers’ progress in their pursuit of Simpson. Celtic, too, were in the market for another keeper. John Fallon was the man in possession, but they did not have reliable cover.

The unpredictable Frank Haffey, who conceded nine goals to England at Wembley in 1961, had just been sold to Swindon Town for £8,000 in 1964. That opened the door for Simpson and he decided “it was worth a chance”.

However, he couldn’t have been best pleased when he was told, a year later in March 1965, that Jock Stein was about to take over as manager of Celtic. After hearing the news about the impending arrival of Stein, Simpson is reported to have gone straight home and told his wife: “Right, Rosemary, it’s time to pack. We’re on the move again.”

FIST IN TIME…Ronnie Simpson takes to the air to punch away a cross in the 3-3 friendly draw against Spurs at Hampden in 1967.

It was Stein, of course, as Hibs boss, who had sold Simpson for a transfer fee described by the the-then Celtic boss Jimmy McGrory as being in the region of “sweeties”. Most assuredly, glory, medals and international honours did not figure in the wildest dreams of Simpson at that stage of his career.

There had been talk of a fall-out between the player and the manager nearing the end of his days at Hibs. Neither Simpson nor Stein was ever eager to talk about any friction between the pair. Luckily for Celtic, if there had been any ill feeling between them, it never surfaced in their six years together in Glasgow.

Naturally, their finest moment came in the Portuguese capital against Inter Milan and, quite remarkably, that historic game came almost TWENTY-TWO years after Simpson made his debut, at 14 years and eight months, for Queen’s Park in a Summer Cup-tie against Clyde at Hampden in June 1945.

A YOUNG RONNIE…the keeper during his days at Newcastle in the fifties.

Remember, too, this was the goalkeeper who had represented Great Britain four times as an amateur and played twice in the 1948 Olympic Games. He had also earned two English FA Cup medals in 1952 and 55 with Newcastle United. Those not-inconsiderable achievements might have been more than enough for most individuals. Simpson had also served Third Lanark in his distinguished career before eventually landing at Celtic.

Jock Stein, in fact, did keep faith with John Fallon when he took over in 1965. And it was Fallon who was in goal a month later when Celtic defeated Dunfermline 3-2 in a dramatic Scottish Cup Final with Billy McNeill claiming the winner with a typical soaring header from a Charlie Gallagher left-wing corner-kick as the game nudged towards full-time.

AIR WE GO…Ronnie Simpson leaps above skipper Billy McNeill to punch away a cross in a game against Rangers at Hampden. Charlie Gallagher looks on while rival striker Jim Forrest waits to pounce on any slip. He was out of luck.

But a year later it was Simpson who was in charge when Celtic again made their way to Hampden for another Scottish Cup climax against Rangers. Unfortunately, for Ronnie and his team-mates, it wasn’t to be a happy conclusion on this occasion as the Ibrox side won 1-0 in a tension-laden replay after a goalless draw in the first confrontation. Simpson, as usual, was blameless as a thumping first-time effort from the Ibrox side’s right-back Kai Johansen almost burst the net.

Better times were ahead, of course. And everyone who can remember the Lisbon encounter with the stylish Italians still talk about Simpson’s cheeky back-heel to team-mate John Clark when he was out of his penalty area with Inter Milan centre-forward Renato Cappellini charging down on him.

That was typical Simpson, though. A marvellous piece of improvisation from a goalkeeper who often said: “I don’t care how I keep the ball out of the net. It can hit my elbow, my knee, my backside – just so long as it doesn’t cross the line. That’s my only concern.”

Ronnie Simpson was a one-off. He thoroughly deserves his place in Celtic legend.

* TOMORROW: PART TWO: How a Celtic legend rated the extraordinary goalkeeper.

 

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