Tom Wright details the extraordinary and illustrious career of former Easter Road goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson.
When Ronnie Simpson became the oldest player ever to make his full international debut for Scotland in the famous 3-2 victory over England at Wembley in 1967, it would perhaps be the crowning glory of a remarkable and chequered career for the veteran goalkeeper, a true ‘Roy of the Rovers’ fairy tale.
Born in Glasgow in 1930 and the son of a Rangers and Scotland centre-half, the young Simpson had shown an early aptitude for the goalkeeping position and although he had been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the Ibrox side, instead, while still at school he elected to join the local Queens Park side.
Replacing the regular Queens Park goalkeeper Bobby Brown who could not be released from duty in the RAF, Simpson made his first team debut in a Summer Cup game against Clyde at Hampden in May 1945, still several weeks short of his 15th birthday to become the youngest ever player to represent a Scottish league side.
With Brown now at Rangers, on 17th August 1946 Simpson, then still only 15, made his league debut against Hibs at Hampden to become at that time the youngest player in the country to take part in a competitive game. By now a near regular in the Queens Park first team, his impressive form would soon earn him a place in the Scottish Youth team against England in 1947 and also in the Great Britain side that reached the semi-finals of the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
Among his teammates in the Great Britain side was his Queens Park colleague James McColl, son of the then Easter Road trainer Jimmy, and the celebrated amateur player Bob Hardisty who had guested for Hibs during the war.
After four seasons at Hampden, in the summer of 1950 Simpson was transferred to Third Lanark but would spend less than six months at Cathkin before joining Newcastle United in February 1951 for a reputed fee of £8,750.
Initially expecting only to be back up to established goalkeeper, an early season injury to Jack Fairweather gave Simpson his opportunity in English football and he never looked back, going on to win the FA Cup in the 1952 and 1955 finals, and he would go on to make over 260 appearances for the St James’ Park side. It was while at Newcastle that Simpson would make the first of his two Scottish ‘B’ international appearances in a 2-2 draw with England, the game somewhat ironically played at Easter Road.
During most of his nine seasons on Tyneside, Simpson would be the regular first choice goalkeeper but an injury received during Newcastle’s pre season trip to Romania in 1958 would keep him out of the game for almost two years. By then considered to be at the veteran stage of his career, after his recovery he would make very few outings for the first team, one when he made an unexpected first-half appearance against the Edinburgh Select at Easter Road in 1959.
By the start of the new decade, Hibs were a side in transition. A 4-1 defeat by Hearts at Easter Road on the opening day of the 1960/61 league season would be followed by a further five games without a solitary point. Now entrenched firmly at the bottom of the table, clearly something had to be done and in October Simpson was signed from Newcastle for around £2,000 along with Sammy Baird of Rangers, both making their debuts along with the teenager Eric Stevenson in a 2-0 defeat against St Johnstone at Muirton.
Soon however, there would be a slight but definite improvement, much of this down to the experience of Simpson. Hibs would lose only three of the following 13 games and by the turn of the year they had risen to 14th place in the table. By this time Simpson had gained a reputation as a ‘penalty king,’ his save from the spot in the New Year’s Day game against Hearts, which secured a 2-1 victory for the visitors, was his sixth consecutive success from the spot that season.
Simpson’s ‘trick’ at penalty kicks was to stand slightly nearer one post than the other, seemingly by accident, almost inviting the kicker to aim for the larger area, which off course Simpson had already anticipated.
He would make another save from the spot against Rangers a few months later, before his ‘record’ was finally broken by inside-left Hartley who scored twice with a penalty in a 6-1 defeat by Third Lanark at Cathkin during the final league game of the season before Hibs faced Roma in the Fairs Cup Semi-Final third game play-off in Italy.
Against Roma, Simpson would again save a penalty but it would all be in vain when Hibs went down 6-0 to the Italian side, the heavy defeat owing much to the Scottish season having ended almost a month before.
During the season just past, Simpson had taken part in several prominent European games including the famous 3-2 victory over Barcelona at Easter Road and all three games against Roma, the side eventually ending the campaign in an otherwise respectable seventh place in the table.
The following season, there would be further international recognition for Simpson when he was selected as reserve goalkeeper for the Scottish League team against an Italian League side featuring Torino’s Denis Law at Hampden.
It was later that season during Dunfermline’s 4-0 home victory against Hibs in March that the 16-year-old Alex Edwards became the youngest outfield player in the country to make his league debut. Ironically, both Edwards and Simpson had made their debuts against Hibs and both would go on to play for the Easter Road side.
During his four seasons at Easter Road, Simpson would make 179 appearances, many during the near disastrous 1962/63 campaign when relegation had only been secured on the very last day of the season.
In April 1964, the former Dunfermline manager Jock Stein replaced Walter Galbraith at Easter Road, but it would prove to be the beginning of the end for Simpson. A fall out between the pair would soon lead to Stein informing the veteran goalkeeper that he would never play for Hibs again and he was replaced in the side by Willie Wilson.
At the end of the season, Simpson had evidently been about to accept the player-manager position at Berwick Rangers when out of the blue he had been contacted by Sean Fallon at Celtic who wanted him as reserve goalkeeper to first choice John Fallon, whilst also to coach the young goalkeepers at Parkhead in the evenings. Consequently a fee of around £2,000 was agreed by the clubs, Simpson moving to Parkhead and the rest as they say is history.
One of his first games for his new club would be a 6-0 victory for Celtic reserves against Hibs’ second team in a cup tie at Easter Road. However, several poor performances by Fallon, including a 2-1 defeat by Rangers in the League Cup Final would see Simpson promoted into the first team for the 3-0 home victory against Falkirk on 21st November 1964, although Fallon would return to the side in time for the 3-2 Scottish Cup victory against Dunfermline.
By this time however, Stein had taken over as manager at Parkhead and although Fallon would start the following season he would soon be replaced in the side by Simpson, permanently as it would turn out and the former Queens Park amateur would form an integral part in what was considered by many to be Celtic’s greatest ever side, one that would go on to win a then Scottish record nine consecutive championships.
During his time at Parkhead, Simpson would win four championships, three league cups, and one Scottish cup to go along with the European Cup medal won after Celtic’s historic victory in 1967.
Although he would go on to collect five international caps, Scotland’s victory against England in 1967 would perhaps be a fitting climax to a wonderful career.
Ronnie Simpson celebrates Scotland's famous win over England with teammate Jim McCalliog (pic: Daily Mirror)
Injury would mean Simpson missing Celtic’s losing European Cup final against Feyenoord in 1970 and after 25 years, Simpson would retire from the playing side of the game to manage Hamilton Academicals for a season, before turning his back on a glittering career to concentrate on his sports business in Edinburgh.
In his book ‘Hibs Through and Through’, Eric Stevenson describes Simpson as the best goalkeeper that he had either played alongside or faced as an opponent:
‘Extremely agile with wonderful reflexes, he had great anticipation, was brilliant with crosses and when he punched the ball it would travel 30 or 40 yards and well away from danger. He was also fantastic on the ground saving with every part of his body far too often to be accidental. Joining Hibs was meant to be his swan song but history would write another script.’
Ronnie Simpson died in 2004 aged 74 and was inducted posthumously into the Scottish Hall of Fame.
Written by Tom Wright