Obituary: Billy Simpson, ex-Rangers and Northern Ireland footballer

Billy Simpson in action for Rangers. Picture: rangers.co.uk
Billy Simpson in action for Rangers. Picture: rangers.co.uk
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Born: Belfast, 12 December 1929. Died: Glasgow, 27 January 2017, aged 87.

Billy Simpson, who has died aged 87 after a lengthy fight against dementia, was an outstanding centre-forward of the 1950s for both Rangers and Northern Ireland.

Born on Donegall Road in South Belfast, Simpson first came to prominence with Linfield after signing from Roosevelt Street Boys Club. With the Belfast club, the apprentice joiner won a stack of Irish medals – two Irish League championship medals, two Irish Cup-winner’s medals and a clutch of minor Irish League trophies after making a scoring debut against Cliftonville in March, 1947.

He was from a footballing family, his elder brother Reggie was already well-known as a Belfast Celtic player.

Over the next three and a half years he proved himself as an exceptional goal-scorer and a true penalty box predator. He scored 85 goals in 129 appearances for the Blues, made four appearances for the Irish League XI and one for a Northern Ireland FA XI which beat the US Olympic Games team 5-0 in Belfast in 1948.

With their connections in Northern Ireland he soon came to the notice of Rangers, who were seeking a young goal-scorer to succeed Willie Thornton in the Number nine shirt. The Ibrox club paid a then club record fee of £11,500 to bring Simpson across the water, in October, 1950 – he was recommended to the club by Ibrox legend Torry Gillick.

Simpson arrived in Glasgow off the overnight boat at 9am on a Saturday morning, was taken to Copland Road to meet Bill Struth and put straight into the reserve team to face Queen’s Park Strollers at Hampden that afternoon. Then, when he made his first team debut, against East Fife, on 23 December, 1950, he announced his arrival with a hat-trick, the first of the 172 goals he would score in 260 appearances in Light Blue.

In April of 1951 he made the first of his 12 appearances for Northern Ireland in the Home International Championship meeting with Wales at Windsor Park. Wales lost 2-1, with Simpson scoring, the first of five he would score for his country.

Arguably the most important of these international goals was his fourth, the winner in Northern Ireland’s seminal 3-2 win over England at Wembley in November, 1957 – their first win over the English at Wembley. That Northern Ireland team, managed by the great Peter Doherty and captained by Danny Blanchflower, then proceeded to beat Italy and qualify for the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.

Simpson was in the 16-man squad in Sweden, but he picked up an injury in training just days before the opening game and was a frustrated and unused spectator as the Irish reached the quarter-finals, where they lost to France, who had earlier put out Scotland.

He returned to Rangers, but, with competition from the younger Don Kitchenbrand and Max Murray, he was becoming a peripheral player at Ibrox – although he did play in six of their early European Cup games, scoring two goals, and, in March, 1959, not having played a first-team game since November, he was transferred to Stirling Albion.

During his Rangers career, he scored 172 goals in 260 games, a hugely impressive 0.66 goals per game and won three League Championship and one Scottish Cup winner’s medals. Some of these goals were worthy of special note. There was a flying header against Hearts, at Tynecastle, in April, 1957 – he had scored his 100th Rangers’ goal against the same opponents earlier that season.

The April one, however, sealed a 1-0 win and took Rangers above Hearts in the table – having at one time trailed the Gorgie team by seven points – and on their way to the League Championship.

He scored the only goal of the 1953 Scottish Cup final replay win over Aberdeen, but, less-memorable was another cup final goal – Rangers’ consolation strike as Celtic beat them 7-1 in the 1957 League Cup Final. Simpson always claimed his goal was the best of the eight; however, his great friend Johnny Hubbard, who played outside left that day, always told him: “Billy, if you’d taken the seven chances you missed, we’d have won 8-7.” He also scored Rangers’ second European goal, the winner in a 2-1 Ibrox defeat of Nice in the club’s inaugural European Cup campaign in season 1956-57.

After moving to Stirling Albion a cruciate ligament injury all but finished him; he only managed eight games at Annfield, half a dozen in a short spell at Partick Thistle and 11 games for Oxford United, then a non-league team, before he hung-up his boots at the end of the 1960-61 season.

Over his 14-year senior career, Simpson scored 259 goals in 446 games, a goals per game ration of 0.56, which is above the benchmark of a goal every other game – the mark of a genuine top-class striker. He was brave in the extreme, often risking injury to try to convert goalmouth half-chances and a fine header of the ball – that iconic Wembley goal against England was a header. He put this part of his game down to advice and guidance from Thornton in his early days at Ibrox – when he was also sent along to Bellahouston Harriers for specialist sprint training.

He settled in Glasgow after football, working at the Remington Rand factory in Hillington, where one of his apprentices was a certain Alex Ferguson, then later as a cooper in KGV dock.

Away from the game, he was an excellent golfer, an honorary member at Haggs Castle, while in his younger days he had kept greyhounds and been a regular at Shawfield.

Simpson, remembered by his team-mate, former Scotland goalkeeper and manager Bobby Brown, as: “A lovely man, with a pleasant smile and a philosophical outlook on life”, was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in recognition of his service to the club.

Billy Simpson is survived by wife Margaret, children Maureen, Brian and Colin, and 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.