Celtic’s Greatest Ever goalkeeper – as voted by the Celtic supporters – is Lisbon Lion Ronnie Simpson. Here Alex Gordon gives us a splendid insight into the man the other Lions simply called Faither…
RONNIE SIMPSON should have finished season 1966/67 playing for Berwick Rangers in the old Scottish Second Division where they finished 10th in a league of 20.
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 remarked: “Right, Rosemary, it’s time to pack. We’re on the move again.”
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 22 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.
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.
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.
Here is the considered thoughts and opinion of the Celtic captain in Lisbon and in part 2 of this feature the other remaining Lions pay their own glowing tributes to the colourful character who, sadly, passed away of a heart attack on April 19, 2004 at the age of 73.
Faither was quite magnificent, as simple as that. You always felt safe when he was behind you. He talked you through a game and must have been exhausted even though he might have had very little to do.
Being a Celtic keeper back then was either the best job in football – or the worst. Because we had the ball in our opponents’ half most of the time, Ronnie would be virtually unemployed. I know some keepers much prefer to be in the thick of it. Obviously, if you are busy it helps you keep your eye in. You’re on the go all the time and that is no bad thing.
In Ronnie’s case it was all about concentration. And, my goodness, did he possess that much-needed commodity in plentiful supplies. He could have been asked to do nothing for 89 minutes and then produce a wonder save in the last minute. It really was a gift and he put every ounce of his vast experience to a good use.
Although fans say he was an unspectacular goalkeeper, relying solely on anticipation and positioning, I can tell you he still managed to pull off some breathtaking saves on the odd occasion when the situation demanded it. I can recall a save he made from Rangers’ Orjan Persson in a game at Celtic Park that defied belief. I still don’t know how he managed it. Persson first-timed an effort from goal, low, hard and accurate, to Ronnie’s left. It was from about eight yards and Rangers’ Swedish forward packed quite a wallop. It looked a certain goal, but my moan was immediately stifled when Ronnie sprang to his left and, not only got to the ball, but held it.
If Ronnie had made that save in a World Cup Final or a European Cup Final you would still be watching it on television replays today. Yes, it was that good. Ronnie did, of course, make a very good stop against Inter Milan, but, because of everything that happened that day, it, too, seems to have been swept away in the mists of time.
Even before the Italians got their early penalty-kick, Sandro Mazzola snapped in a wicked close-range header from a left-wing cross. There was a lot of power in it, but Ronnie, as ever, was alert and threw himself to his left to parry the effort and the danger was cleared. If Faither had made that save at the end of the game and kept the score at 2-1 for us everyone would have been raving about it.
It was a pleasure to play in front of Ronnie Simpson. He was the best.
Please read Part 2 of our feature on Ronnie Simpson – where more of his fellow Lisbon Lions have their say on their goalkeeper.
* This is an extract from ‘Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary’ by Alex Gordon, originally published in 2007.