Interview: Aberdeen legend, Neil Simpson
WHEN he was a lad, growing up in Newmachar, Neil Simpson would play for his boys club on a Saturday, then head down to Pittodrie in time for the second half.
His clearest memory is of a 3-2 defeat by Celtic in 1972, when Zoltan Varga scored two goals at the Beach End, and Kenny Dalglish netted with a diving header. “I can remember being in the South Stand, where all the Celtic and Aberdeen supporters were standing together. Some of them were saying, ‘watch yourselves lads, there’s a wee boy here. Make room for him’.”
Within six years, that “wee boy” was signing for Aberdeen. Five years after that, he was playing for them, and winning, against Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. Later still, after a playing career in which he also won two league titles, three Scottish Cups and a League Cup with Aberdeen, he took up a post in the club’s community department, and dedicated himself to the development of local players.
No wonder the Aberdeen fans have been demanding for years that Simpson’s long service, as both a player and coach, be recognised with a testimonial match. For too long, the club resisted, fearful perhaps that it would open the floodgates to a number of former players, but on Tuesday night, at a packed Pittodrie, he will at last be honoured in a benefit game against Manchester United.
Simmy, as he is known in these parts, will take the kick-off. His youngest son will be the mascot. His older ones will conduct the half-time draw. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are expected to play, together with a few golden oldies, on what will be a special night for the 50-year-old former midfield player, now head of Aberdeen’s youth academy.
“I think I’m quite a strong character, but something like this might be very emotional,” says Simpson. “The whole spotlight is on you, and it will be a full house. I’m not silly. I know that Manchester United have helped that to happen, but I’m also aware that there is a nice feeling among supporters towards myself. They have always treated me well.”
In 1978, when Simpson was about to sign for Billy McNeill’s Aberdeen, a former player advised him to accept an offer from Middlesbrough instead. He told him that local lads were given a hard time by the Pittodrie fans, and that it would be a mistake to start his career there. “How wrong could he be?” smiles Simpson, whose whole-hearted contribution to the Aberdeen midfield went down a treat with supporters.
At 20, he lifted the Scottish Cup. At 21, he conquered Europe, becoming an Aberdeen legend in the process. In which light, it seems ludicrous to suggest, as many still do, that Simpson’s story should begin and end with his infamous tackle on Ian Durrant in 1988, although he will later admit that it sometimes seems that way.
As quiet and unassuming off the pitch as he was committed on it, he is the classic local boy made good, respected by supporters for his tireless contribution to the most celebrated era in the club’s history. Not only did he play in every round of Aberdeen’s run to Gothenburg in 1983, he scored in the famous quarter-final against Bayern Munich, and in the semi-final against Waterschei. He even found the net later that year when Aberdeen beat Hamburg in the Super Cup final.
Later this season, it will be the 30th anniversary of their Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, his best memory of which was the victory parade, when a sea of people flooded into the centre of Aberdeen to greet them. “When we turned at the top of Holburn Street into Union Street, it was like ‘wow, we must have done something really special here’. It was quite emotional seeing that, something that will live with me forever. Just magical.”
Not all of Simpson’s Gothenburg tales are quite so uplifting. On the flight home, he so enjoyed the prawn cocktail that, when one or two others did not share his enthusiasm for the dish, he offered to help them with it. Notorious for his appetite, he had another, then another until, by the time they touched down in Scotland, he had demolished 11 of them. “I was fine that night, but the following day, I was like ‘oh, my tummy’, and I came down with sickness and diarrhoea. I couldn’t play against Hibs in our last league game of the season. I couldn’t get off the [toilet] seat.”
Of course, Aberdeen’s achievements in those days would not have been possible without Sir Alex Ferguson, who will be back at Pittodrie on Tuesday night with Manchester United. Even when he started out on the managerial ladder, Ferguson was getting the best out of his players with a mixture of intimidation and clever man-management. “How’s my favourite midfielder?” he would ask Simpson when he passed him in the corridor, at which point Simpson grew a couple of inches. Only later in life, when Simpson spoke to Gordon Strachan and Neale Cooper, did he realise that it was the kind of thing Ferguson said to all of his players.
They lived in fear of him. Simpson recalls the time Brian Mitchell, a full-back, was confronted with an open goal in an indoor match against the manager. Anxious not to be accused of spinelessness, Mitchell promptly converted, at which point Ferguson ordered him out on to the pitch, where he was to run around the track until he was told to stop. “An hour and a half later, Fergie and Archie Knox [his assistant] were having a cup of tea, when they realised that they’d forgotten about Mitchell. They went out on to the pitch, and there he was, still running, round and round.”
Simpson would not describe Ferguson as a close friend, but if he needed advice, he would call him. He has been to Old Trafford four times in the past five years to see how they run their youth academy. And, when the testimonial was announced, Ferguson told MUTV that he could not understand why it had taken until now to grant him one.
The fans have been calling for it since he returned to the club as a coach 11 years ago. There was a similar clamour towards the end of his playing days, but with fellow midfielders Jim Bett, Robert Connor and Brian Grant to contend with, as well as a series of debilitating injuries, he left Pittodrie to spend the final three years of his career with Newcastle United and Motherwell.
Simpson’s last days at Pittodrie were also overshadowed by the tackle on Durrant, which put the latter out of football for two years. After Durrant sued for damages, the matter was settled out of court, but it has since become a symbol of the bitter rivalry between Aberdeen and Rangers.
Gallingly for Simpson, many in the Central Belt still regard it as the incident that defines his career. He resolved long ago not to talk about it, an unfortunate consequence of which is that he has been unable to alter his public image as a heartless midfield clogger. “One of my best mates is a Rangers supporter, and he couldn’t care to be honest. But when he mentions my name to people, they say, ‘oh, he must be a right animal’. He has to tell them that nothing could be further from the truth.
“It just seems strange to me that it’s continued to be a focal point when there’s so much more to football. When I joined Aberdeen in 1978, do you think we were speaking about things that happened in the 1950s? Everybody makes mistakes. And I’d have to accept that I wish something like that hadn’t happened. But it did, and you just have to deal with it. I think I’ve done that quite well. I’ve tried to draw a line under the thing.”
Simpson has moved on, albeit not into management, like many of Ferguson’s players. By his own admission, he is not cut out for that, preferring to guide youngsters than be on their case 24/7. He is excited about the proposed new training facility in Cove, and says it will be more important to the club than the new stadium, which is again on hold.
Simpson is also optimistic about the first team this season, more so than he has been for a while. “The squad we’ve got now is probably the best since we got to the UEFA qualifiers a few years ago. Even the corridor looks fresher. We’ve got four new boys with good pedigrees. They add a bit of pace which we haven’t had for two or three years. Niall McGinn looks really quick and has done well in the games I’ve seen. Jonny Hayes is the kind of player we’ve been missing, somebody who gives us a bit of trickery so that we’re not just playing in straight lines. There’s an expectation that we will do better this year.”
There always is at Aberdeen, thanks largely to people like Simpson, whose achievements 30 years ago will never be repeated. He is nervous about Tuesday night, but says he will soak up every minute of it, and be sure to show his gratitude. Some 22,000 fans will be there to return the favour.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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