Part 2 of our feature on Celtic’s Greatest Ever goalkeeper – as voted by the Celtic supporters – Lisbon Lion Ronnie Simpson. Here his fellow Lisbon Lions give us a splendid insight into the man they simply called Faither.
Ronnie may have been the oldest guy in the team, but he was also one of the most agile. Age hadn’t robbed him of his flexibility. He was good fun, too. I’ll tell you this, though – he was a bit of a cheat. I well remember our team photographs back then when you had the likes of Billy McNeill, Tommy Gemmell and myself standing in the back row alongside Ronnie.
Now Ronnie used to tell people he was around 5ft 10in or so. But when he stood alongside us – and we were all 6ft-plus – he would get up on his tip-toes to appear taller. What height was he? I never found out, but I still think he was maybe just a wee bit shorter than two inches short of 6ft!
Mind you, it didn’t really matter because Ronnie had all the ability in the world. His experience was invaluable to Celtic. It was always kind of difficult to believe that our goalkeeper was making his debut for Queen’s Park when most of the Lisbon Lions were still in nappies!
Ronnie’s presence in goal undoubtedly had a calming effect on our back four, including me. He always looked in charge although, of course, he was not the most imposing of figures. Big Jock had a thing about goalkeepers and I’m not too sure he trusted any of them. They were a necessary evil in a team where all the other performers used their feet. Maybe Big Jock had played in front of a few accident-prone keepers during his time as a centre-half and that had a bearing on his thinking later in life.
Critics have often said spotting a goalkeeper was Jock’s Achilles heel and they may have had a point – certainly he brought plenty to the club during his time there. I can recall playing three games inside 10 days back in 1965 when Jock selected three different goalkeepers for each match! John Fallon was the man in charge when we beat Raith Rovers 8-1 in a League Cup quarter-final tie on September 15. A week later an Irishman named Jack Kennedy was between the sticks for the second leg and we won that one 4-0. Three days after that and Ronnie was in for a league game against Aberdeen which turned into a 7-1 rout for us.
Jock had seen all three in action, but still couldn’t quite make up his mind. He recalled Fallon for a league match against Falkirk at Brockville. We escaped with a 4-3 victory, but Jock wasn’t too convinced with the form of his goalkeeper. The penny dropped, in came Ronnie and he was there until the end of the season. By the way, I don’t think that bloke Jack Kennedy ever got near the first team again. He didn’t lose a single goal throughout his Celtic career. There are not many who can say that!
Ronnie was brilliant to play alongside, but I also recall he lumbered me once when he had to go off with a shoulder injury in a Scottish Cup-tie against Clyde at Shawfield. That was on February 12, 1969 and, ironically, he sustained the knock going down on the flint-hard surface at the feet of Jimmy Quinn, who was on loan at Clyde from Celtic at the time! You didn’t have substitute goalkeepers for domestic games in those days and yours truly was given the No.1 jersey.
Bertie Auld was our sub that day and he came on and went into his usual midfield berth. And, just like that Kennedy chap, I kept a clean sheet, we got a goalless draw and won 3-0 in the replay. Celtic lifted the trophy that year, beating Rangers 4-0 in the final with John Fallon back in goal with Ronnie sidelined. Thankfully, I was left-back that day and feeling much more comfortable.
Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end for Ronnie and, just before he turned 40, he hung up his gloves. I, for one, missed his presence in the team, as well as in the dressing room. He didn’t say an awful lot, but when he had something to air it was always well worth listening to. What memories he left us with, though. A magnificent professional and a great bloke.
Ronnie Simpson got everything he deserved in football. It would have been a travesty if his career had just drifted away into oblivion; another of football’s forgotten performers. Of course, that came so close to being the situation before he joined up at Celtic Park.
We all know of his qualities and he was a genuinely funny man. He could be every bit as droll as the great Chic Murray, a fairly unique Scottish comedian in his day. There was no chance of anyone getting big-headed when Faither was around. His one-liners would soon put someone in their place if he thought they needed it.
Like Big Billy mentions, Ronnie was a real treasure to play in front of simply because of his steady stream of advice throughout the 90 minutes. I hadn’t encountered that before and it did make life that little bit easier. He would spot someone making a run and let you know right away. “Luggy, watch your left” or “Luggy, jockey him, keep him on his right.” It was all appreciated and he was spot-on every time.
The consistency of the man was quite incredible, too. Like any goalkeeper, he may have let in one you thought he might have done better with, but I can’t think of too many. There must be one out there somewhere, but it doesn’t come easily to mind. That merely emphasises just how good Ronnie was. Opposing forwards had to work hard for anything they got from Celtic back then.
How many times you see Ronnie racing from his goal and plucking the ball off the toe of an advancing forward? I know he did it to me often enough when he was at Hibs and Celtic while I was at Hearts. His timing was nothing short of immaculate.
I reckon his eye-to-ball co-ordination was all down to golf as much as anything else. Ronnie was an excellent golfer and his putting was one of his strengths. He would take his time lining up the shot and then roll it with ease towards that little hole. If you didn’t know it was Ronnie out there and someone had told you that you were, in fact, watching a top pro you wouldn’t have argued.
Of course, he took that timing into football and I couldn’t even start to count the many occasions he made a late dash from his goal-line to snatch the ball away from an opponent. If he does it once, you might think he was fortunate. If he does it twice, you might think Dame Fortune is still smiling on him. However, Ronnie did it time after time and you knew he never left anything to chance.
Like the other Lisbon Lions, Tommy Gemmell and Bobby Lennox, it was a real pleasure to be at Wembley a month before Lisbon in 1967 when Ronnie, belatedly, but quite rightly, won his first international cap. If England thought our 36 year old goalkeeper was a weak link they were swiftly put right. Wembley against the world champions was an extraordinary setting for an extraordinary character. And, once again, Ronnie emerged victorious. The man was a winner.
Ronnie and I missed our vocation, of course. The world of golf was robbed of two top performers when we took up football. I suppose as footballers we were good golfers and as golfers we were good footballers. Ronnie’s sense of humour would unravel that comment.
I liked the guy a lot. Bit of an understatement there, I can assure you. Celtic used Seamill as our training HQ before big games and Ronnie and I always made sure we had our golf clubs packed in with the football stuff to make sure we enjoyed their facilities. It was a smashing way to relax and, take my word for it, Ronnie could have been a top-class golfer if he had chosen that profession. I should know what I’m talking about. I’m not too bad with the sticks, either, even if I do say so myself, but I never beat him.
And he was difficult to beat, too, as a goalkeeper. Again, I am speaking from experience. I played against him a few times when he was at Hibs in the late Fifties and early Sixties and I don’t recall ever getting too much joy out of our meetings. I had to laugh – and I’m sure Ronnie would have seen the funny side, too – when I was reading an old football book not so long ago. There is a sentence that went along the lines of: “Hibs have signed Ronnie Simpson, the 30 year old goalkeeper of Newcastle United, who is thought to be past his best.” Is that the same Ronnie Simpson who would win a European Cup medal and everything else six years later!
Of course, he made his international debut in 1967, too, when Scotland beat world champions England 3-2 at Wembley. Jim Baxter took most of the headlines with his mickey-taking and keepy-uppy routines against Bobby Moore and Co, but Ronnie, in my opinion, was a genuine stand-out that afternoon. If you get a chance, have a look at that game again – Ronnie made some superb saves against the English. And his distribution, as ever, was exemplary. No-one could turn defence into attack quicker than Ronnie.
He was a great all-rounder and he brought stability to a defence that may not have enjoyed that luxury too often beforehand. Big Jock may have changed his forward line around quite a bit to keep us all sharp and on our toes, but our fans got used to the first five names that were read over the tannoy on matchday: Simpson; Craig and Gemmell, Murdoch, McNeill and Clark. They came as a unit and Ronnie was in with the bricks. He thoroughly deserved to be, too.
Ronnie came in at just the right time to solve our No.1 problem. Absolutely no disrespect to anyone who was there before him, but we never really attained consistency in that position and Ronnie, with all his experience and vast knowledge, brought that with him. Before Ronnie, most of the Celtic goalkeepers thought the net behind them was for stopping the ball!
I know he really helped settle the defence because he was a shouter. Possibly, they hadn’t been used to that before, but Ronnie would fire out instructions left, right and centre throughout a game and tell them what was happening on their blindsides. John Clark, of course, was the sweeper who did some great work behind Jim Craig, Billy McNeill and Tommy Gemmell. However, Ronnie was a bit of a sweeper, too, who covered for Luggy! He just read the game so well.
He may have been a bit unorthodox, but he didn’t give a monkey’s how he kept the ball out of the net, as he often said. I remember our Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen at Hampden in 1967, only a few days after Faither had put up the shutters in the European Cup semi-final against Dukla Prague in Czechoslovakia. We were leading 2-0 through two goals from Willie Wallace at the time, but the Dons were determined to get something back to stage a grand finale. They weren’t going to give up without a fight.
One of their guys, I believe it was a Norwegian player called Jens Petersen, got a chance close in after a cross had come over from the right. Ronnie was at his near post and the Aberdeen guy was all smiles when he saw he had an empty net smack in front of him, about 10 yards away.
He rolled the ball forward and was startled to see our keeper race across his line and KICK it to safety. Ronnie didn’t have time to re-adjust his shape to dive at the effort, so he simply improvised and booted the ball away. It may not have been the way Lev Yashin would have dealt with it, but it was effective and Ronnie had kept another clean sheet.
“That’s what it’s all about, son,” he would say.
Who could argue?
Ronnie was the wittiest, coolest guy I knew. He could cut you in two with his remarks. I remember a few years ago when I was invited along to a Supporters’ Association function when they unveiled the 11 players who were named as Celtic’s Greatest-Ever team.
I was lucky enough to win the No.11 place in that formidable line-up. As I stepped up to receive my award, I was handed the microphone to address the guests. I started: “I’m really surprised to be given this honour.” From behind me I could hear the unmistakeable drone of my old colleague: “Aye, and so are we!”
On another occasion, Ronnie and I were in Ireland and decided to take in some Gaelic football. You know, the game where they have the nets and the rugby goalposts. I believe you get a point for the ball going over the bar and through the posts and three for actually hitting the net. Most of the efforts seemed to be flying over the bar and Ronnie turned to me and said: “Lennox, you would have been a star at this game.”
I was so happy to play at Wembley in 1967 when Ronnie made his debut at the grand old age of 36. Imagine taking your international bow at that age. Ronnie was as calm and collected as ever, though.
We came out to have a look at the pitch before the game and already the Scottish fans were everywhere. Wembley already looked packed and there was still about an hour or so to go to kick-off. Lion Rampant flags were flying everywhere, the Scottish fans were singing their heads off and Ronnie turned round and said: “Hey, Lennox, is there a game on today?”
I scored that day, of course, as did Denis Law and Jim McCalliog, who like, Ronnie, was also making his debut. Mind you, there was the little matter of a 17-year age difference between Ronnie and our young goalscorer!
Please see Part 1 of this feature at www.cqnmagazine.com – click on the Lions and Legends button.
* This is an extract from ‘Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary’ by Alex Gordon, originally published in 2007.