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April 2004
Ronnie Simpson Dies
Celtic Win SPL











His career started before the end of the Second World War and finished after man had walked on the moon. Such was the remarkable sporting longevity of Ronnie Simpson who has died of a heart attack, aged 73.

Simpson started out as a goalkeeper with Queen's Park in the summer of 1945, aged just 14 and only the fact that the 1945-46 season is regarded as 'unofficial' prevents him from finding a place in the record books as the youngest ever to play first class football in the UK.

Even so, his first 'official' appearance - against Hibernian on August 17th 1946, aged 15 years and 310 days, makes him one of the youngest Scots to play senior football.

Queen's had snapped up the young Simpson from King's Park Secondary School and he came with a fine footballing pedigree. His father Jimmy was a centre-half and multiple honours winner with Rangers and Scotland and remained a strong influence on Ronnie throughout his career, even approving of his decision to move to Celtic in 1964.

All that lay in the future for the young Simpson as his teenage days were spent keeping goal for Queen's Park and doing his national service. His amateur status enabled him to represent Great Britain at the 1948 Olympic Games where they finished fourth. He also represented Scotland when amateur internationals resumed in 1948-49.

Despite the disruptions caused by national service he was first-choice keeper for Queen's Park for four full seasons and by the time he signed professional forms for Third Lanark in the summer of 1950 he had already played more than 100 times for the Spiders and suffered the agony of relegation.

All this and his amateur international experiences too and Simpson had yet to turn 20!

Joining Thirds took him back to the 'A' Division and his superb performances for the Cathkin side put him straight into the shop window. In February 1951 Newcastle United came in with an offer of £8,750 (big money for the early 1950s) and Ronnie joined the Geordies.

It was at St James Park that he truly became a star. He played no part in the victorious FA Cup run of 1951 but shortly after the start of the 1951-52 season he took over in goal from the veteran Jack Fairbrother. For most of the decade he was to make the position his own.

He took his place in the team that clinched a second successive FA Cup win in 1952 - the first side to win two in succession in the 20th century. For Simpson the Final was a memorable affair as he kept a clean sheet against Arsenal, then, as now, one of the biggest names in the English game.

In 1953-54 he was an ever-present in the League and more success followed the next season. Once again Newcastle stormed their way to Wembley and once again Simpson was in goal when they lifted the FA Cup. Jackie Milburn scored one of the fastest Cup Final goals ever and opponents Manchester City - led by Don Revie - were beaten 3-1. City's goal that day was scored by another departed legend of the Scottish game - Bobby Johnstone, one of Hibernian's 'Famous Five.'

At the age of 24 Ronnie had become the first goalkeeper to win two FA Cup winners medals since Dick Pym won three for Bolton in the 1920s.

What surprises many is that, at this stage of his career, Ronnie Simpson was somehow overlooked by Scotland. The 1950s were not exactly a vintage decade for Scottish keepers (when, you may ask, was there ever such an era?) and here was a man playing regularly for a top side in the English First Division. Yet the only recognition that came his way was in the muted form of two 'B' internationals against England almost four years apart. The games in March 1953 at Easter Road and February 1957 at St Andrews, Birmingham looked to be scant reward for such a fine keeper.

Simpson retained the keeper's jersey at Newcastle for several more years and made 297 first team appearances in total but he was languishing in the reserves for his last couple of seasons on Tyneside. So it was that in October 1960 a week before his 30th birthday he moved back north of the border to Hibs.

It appeared to be the last move in a career that was winding down. Newcastle were the first, but not the last, to make that mistake. The Geordies ended the season relegated.

Ronnie Simpson: a sporting legend

Ronnie Simpson seemed to find a new lease of life at Easter Road and he was a regular for the next four seasons, being an ever-present in 1961-62. And although Hibs often struggled domestically they performed well in Europe. At the age of 30 Simpson took part in European competition for the first time. He would stride the European stage for eight of the next nine seasons. It was simply the latest move in what was already a marvellous career.

He played in the Hibs team that reached the last four of the Fairs Cup in 1961 but would probably have preferred to forget the semi-final play-off defeat away to Roma when six goals flew past him for no reply.

But in 1964 his seeming Indian Summer in Edinburgh came to an end. There was a new manager at Easter Road and Jock Stein saw no place for Ronnie Simpson in his plans. Simpson was transferred to Celtic in the knowledge that, at close to 34, this was a short-term move as back-up to John Fallon.

The first opportunity to do so came in the Camp Nou as Simpson made his Celtic debut in a 3-1 defeat by Barcelona in the Fairs Cup. Celtic crashed out of the competition but Simpson could take a lot of personal credit from the second leg which was scoreless.

However he made just eight league appearances in 1964-65 and when the man who'd got rid of him from Edinburgh -Jock Stein - arrived at Celtic Park as manager in March 1965, he must have given serious thought to packing his suitcases once again.

Let's clear up one of the two great myths surrounding the playing career of Ronnie Simpson. He did not, as some believe, come to Celtic with Stein. Nor was he, as others suggest, sent on ahead to prepare the way for Stein.

Stein was a clever man who could be Machiavellian in his thinking but this is a theory too far. Stein saw no future for Simpson at Hibs. When he arrived at Celtic Park he felt the same. Events were to conspire to link the two mens futures together.

Simpson played no part in the successful Scottish Cup campaign of 1965 but Stein decided to keep on the players he had inherited and shortly after the start of the 1965-66 season he gave Simpson his chance in goal.

The keeper never looked back. He played in the Celtic team that won the League Cup in October 1965 to pick up his first winner's medal in Scotland and made 30 league appearances as Celtic won their first title since 1954.

But that was a mere aperitif for the year that lay ahead. 1967 was the highpoint of Ronnie Simpson's long and distinguished career.

Simpson's form was so outstanding in 1966-67 as Celtic swept all before them that the clamour for belated international recognition for the veteran could no longer be ignored. On April 15th 1967 at the age of 36 years and 186 days he became the oldest player to make his debut for Scotland.

And what a match and what a debut as the Scots outplayed England at Wembley. The 3-2 scoreline pays scant justice to Scotland's overwhelming superiority as they became the first to lower England's colours since their controversial World Cup victory the previous year.

Simpson kept his place for the next two games - both defeats - against the USSR at Hampden and Northern Ireland in Belfast. He returned to face England in the 1-1 draw at Hampden in February 1968 which ended Scotland's European Championship hopes and then in November that year, aged 38, he made his fifth and final international appearance, helping Scotland get off to a winning start in the 1970 World Cup qualifying campaign against Austria at Hampden.

But of course it is Lisbon and May 25th 1967 which provided the single most important match of his career as Celtic defeated Inter Milan to become the first British side to win the European Cup. But in truth he had little to do in the game itself. He had no chance with the penalty the Italians scored early in the match and was a virtual spectator for the rest of the game as Celtic pressed for the equaliser. He had just two saves to make in the 90 minutes as his team-mates stormed back to win the match 2-1.

The European Cup medal was added to his growing haul which included another Championship and League Cup medal as well as a Scottish Cup winner's medal to go alongside his English pair.

And if there was any space left in his trophy cabinet it had to be given over to the 'Player of the Year' award issued by the Scottish Football Writers Association.

Lisbon 1967. Scene of Simpson's greatest triumph

In November 1967 Simpson was struck by a missile while warming up for the return leg of Celtic's World Club Championship match with Racing Club in Buenos Aires. With blood pouring from a huge gash in his head he was forced to leave the field. John Fallon - now the understudy to Simpson - took over in goal.

At least Simpson was spared from becoming involved in the violence of both this game and the decider in Montevideo three days later.

The week before the trip to South America he had collected his third successive League Cup winner's medal and his recovery was swift enough for him to resume his usual place between the sticks domestically as Celtic took their third League championship in succession.

By now time was beginning to catch up even on Ronnie Simpson. Injuries were taking their toll and he wasn't a regular in 1968-69 yet still played often enough to win a fourth title medal as well as make that final international outing.

But all careers have to end sometime and Simpson's came to a finish in 1969-70. John Fallon and Evan Williams disputed the goalkeeping place but Simpson made two more appearances to ring down the curtain. On October 4th 1969 he said his goodbyes to the Parkhead fans in a 7-1 win over Raith Rovers and a week later, on October 11th, played his final game for Celtic, away to Airdrie. Fittingly, he kept a clean sheet as Celtic won 2-0.

It was also his 39th birthday. And after a quarter of a century and almost 800 games it was time, at last, to call it a day.

Simpson retired at the end of the season and after a spell coaching and scouting for the Parkhead club took over as manager at Hamilton in October 1971. Management wasn't his style though and he left after less than a year. Later, he became a member of the Pools Panel, sitting in judgment on postponed matches.

We should also debunk the second great Simpson myth - that he came back for one last game as the Lisbon Lions played together for the final time. While it's true that Jock Stein announced the Lions last match would be against Clyde in May 1971 and that game marked the end of their Celtic careers for several of the side, Ronnie Simpson had already been retired a year.

Evan Williams kept goal that day but Simpson joined his ten team-mates in a salute to the crowd. In any case Simpson's incredible story needs no further embellishment.

His career was a truly amazing one. From teenage prodigy to the old man of Celtic and Scotland. With his passing another link with what is increasingly viewed as Scottish football's golden age is lost.

And we are all the poorer for it.



This season's SPL could have been prefixed with "They think it's all over" sometime back in October. As expected, Celtic clinched the title before the ludicrous 'split' by winning 1-0 away to Kilmarnock. But the manner of their triumph was inconsistent with their season. Coming three days after being knocked out of Europe by Villareal the title-clinching 'party' at Rugby Park was a bit flat.

Killie's fine performance had something to do with it too. Anyone who thinks that Kris Boyd's strike at 0-0 would have been ruled out had it come from a Celtic player as the match entered its closing stages probably still puts out sherry and mince pies by the fireplace in all good faith every December 24th.

Incidentally, for anyone wondering what Setanta's coverage will be like next season, this match was an unwelcome preview. The Irish broadcaster lost sound and vision at Rugby Park around 30 seconds before the final whistle. It wasn't restored until some minutes later and after the end of the scheduled programme the 'lost' sequence was broadcast, but without the slightest hint of an apology to the thousands of Celtic fans watching worldwide who had been denied live coverage of the moment their team won the League.

Still, Celtic are the champions and worthy ones too. Their domestic dominance is greater than at any time since the Jock Stein era and like those halcyon days (I nearly typed 'bygone' there!) they are significant players in Europe too. Their achievements over the past two seasons in that arena shouldn't be downplayed. True, unlike Stein's team they have failed to make an impact in the European Cup. But Stein had only one contender each from England, Spain and Italy to face, not three or four as now.

Even so and while freely admitting that Martin O'Neill's side are easily the best Scottish team in Europe for at least a decade,it's difficult to conceive of any team of Jock Stein's losing six away games in succession.

That away form remains O'Neill's biggest problem. Assuming (and it's a big assumption) he is still at Parkhead next season, progress in the Champions League must be his main aim. The dropping of the League format for the second stage shows that anything is possible in the European Cup, as Deportivo, Monaco and Porto have proven this term.

Quite how O'Neill does that without Henrik Larsson is another matter entirely.

Meanwhile the SPL season meanders to a close. The last five weeks will be agony as there is virtally nothing left to play for. Dunfermline's win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in a thrilling Scottish Cup semi-final replay takes them into their first Final since 1968. It also guarantees European football at East End Park for the first time since 1970 and congratulations are due to Jimmy Calderwood and his team. Praise too for Aberdeen for ending Celtic's three years long unbeaten home record and inflicting Celtic's first domestic League defeat for a year.

But the "race" for a UEFA Cup place in the League has been reduced to a farce. Motherwell and Dundee United are ten and twelve points respectively behind Hearts with five games to play. The stumbling Jambos could make a fall of Devon Loch proportions and still claim the place on offer.

At the foot of the table, those who cling to a belief in miracles (the sort of people who DO think that if it had been Chris Sutton, not Kris Boyd, that Mike McCurry would have reacted just the same at Rugby Park) will have noted that if Partick Thistle win all five remaining matches, they could escape relegation provided Kilmarnock lose all of theirs.

Those of us not on any form of chemical assistance will merely note that Thistle have managed to win just four out of 33 thus far.

So, there are thirty long, drab, meaningless SPL matches between now and a merciful end to the League season. Roll on the Scottish Cup Final. We just might get a match worth watching.



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