FA Cup Final: Glory daze of Ronnie

As the Geordies prepare for a day they will never forget, their golden goalie struggles to recall Wembley
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The Independent Online
Simon Turnbull

talks to an heroic survivor of Newcastle's last Cup-winning side

RONNIE SIMPSON was very apologetic. "I just can't remember that much about it," he said. "It was a long time ago, you know. What's it... nearly 45 years now?" It is in fact 43 years since Newcastle United last won a major domestic trophy. The date was 7 May 1955. The Warsaw Pact was signed a week later. Kenny Dalglish was two months and three days past his fourth birthday. It is such an historical feat, indeed, just four of the men who achieved it are still alive. Simpson is one of the survivors. Only he, Tom Casey, Vic Keeble and Bob Stokoe are still around to tell the tale of how Newcastle beat Manchester City 3-1 in the 1955 FA Cup final.

It is a tale not unlike the one which has preceded Newcastle's final chapter in the competition this season. Board-room passions were inflamed, though not by scoring missions to the continent. It was in the County Hotel, opposite Newcastle Central Station, that Newcastle became a club dis-United 10 days before the final. Duggie Livingstone, the manager, had been asked to present his team sheet at a board meeting. It was crumpled up and thrown in the waste-bin. It did not include the name of Jackie Milburn. The Wembley line-up was not only re-selected on Livingstone's behalf, within 48 hours he was banished from the manager's office at St James' Park to a cubby-hole set aside for referees, and after the final was sent to work with the junior team.

Simpson chuckled at the memory. "The board picked Jackie for the final," he recalled, "and they were proved right. They made the manager look a bit silly." After 45 seconds of the final Milburn headed Len White's right- wing corner past Bert Trautmann into the Tunnel End goal. It was Wembley's fastest goal until Roberto Di Matteo beat it by three seconds last year. "I can remember Jackie scoring," Simpson said. "He didn't score many with his head. I remember Bobby Johnstone equalising just before half-time and Jimmy Meadows being carried off injured. But that's all. I don't even know who the other scorers were...Did George Hannah get one ?"

He did indeed. And Bobby Mitchell was Newcastle's other goalscorer that day. Simpson was their goal-saver. And a better job he made of it than of saving his memories. He cannot even recall the reward the Newcastle directors gave their Wembley winners: a silver-plated bon-bon dish. But, then, Simpson won so much and accumulated so many magic moments in his remarkable career it is hardly surprising his memory bank has become a little clouded.

He played for Queens Park at 14, won the FA Cup twice, was a member of the first British team to win the European Cup, and made his international debut for Scotland at the age of 36. Ask the 67-year-old to select his most coveted achievement and he throws up his arms in exasperation. "You try and pick one out of that lot," he said, reaching forward for another cup - of tea - in the living room of his Edinburgh bungalow. "Ach, you could make a case for any of them."

You could, too. Simpson was a 14-year-old pupil at King's Park Secondary, in his native Glasgow, when Queens Park picked him to play in a Scottish Cup tie against Clyde in 1945. He remained as an amateur with the club while training as a sub- editor on the now defunct Glasgow Bulletin and played in the Great Britain team managed by Matt Busby at the 1948 Olympics. He turned professional with Third Lanark in 1950, moved to Newcastle a year later, and in 1952 kept goal in the FA Cup final.

Newcastle's opponents that year were Arsenal. Simpson kept a clean-sheet against them. George Robledo headed the only goal and Simpson and his team-mates collected winner's medals from Winston Churchill. Though a semi-professional follower of the form book these days, as a member of the Pools Panel, Simpson does not rule out the possibility of Newcastle spiking the Gunners again on Saturday.

"I don't think Arsenal are the certainties people are making them out to be," he said. "Newcastle have done nothing in the last few months but they can turn it around in this one match. Football's like that. You wouldn't mortgage your house on any game."

Certainly, you would not have bet on Simpson recapturing his own medal- winning glory days when he was off-loaded by Newcastle in 1960. Aged 30, he returned to Scotland and worked for an oil company while playing as a part-timer for Hibernian. Four years later he was in the reserve team at Easter Road. "Jock Stein was the manager," Simpson recalled, a glint in his eyes, "and he wanted rid of me. He got rid of me alright. I very nearly joined Berwick Rangers but he sold me to Celtic. Then, six months later, Jock moved there, too. I thought I was on my way again. I was in the reserves at the time but Jock eventually gave me a game in the first team and he kept me in."

Such was Simpson's form at Parkhead, he was the first name on Stein's team-sheet at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon on 25 May 1967. Sandro Mazzola beat him from the penalty spot after seven minutes that night, but Simpson was one of the Celtic heroes who fought back to win the European Cup final. They beat Helenio Herrera's Internazionale 2-1, with second-half goals by Tommy Gemmell and Steve Chalmers. They have been lionised ever since as the Lisbon Lions, though some of them were toothless. In addition to keeping goal, it was Simpson's job to keep the false teeth in a spare cap in the net. "There were a few of us who had them," he recalled. "It was a scrummage trying to get them when the final whistle blew but we managed it in the end."

The previous month, in April 1967, Simpson had finally played for his country. At the age of 36 he made his Scotland debut - in the team that famously beat England 3-2 at Wembley. In doing so, he followed in the stud-marks of his father, Jimmy, who played centre-half for Scotland in the 1930s. Simpson senior was an idol at Ibrox. Simpson junior, by the time he finally hung up his goalkeeping jersey, at the age of 40 in 1970, had earned a place in the pantheon of Parkhead greats. He had also crossed playing paths with the man who will lead out Newcastle at Wembley on Saturday.

"Aye," Simpson mused, "Kenny was a boy at Celtic when I was there. I played in a few matches with him before I retired. He was always highly thought of by Jock and the staff. You could see there was a player there. It was just a matter of the boy developing."

Now, for Kenny Dalglish, it is a matter of developing the kind of trophy- winning touch Newcastle United possessed in Ronnie Simpson's time at St James' Park. He should, at least, manage to get his Wembley team sheet past Sir John Hall - and with Alan Shearer's name on it.

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