Death of Rangers goalkeeper Niven
GEORGE Niven, who has died aged 79, was at the same time one of the best and one of the unluckiest goalkeepers in Rangers' history.
A Fifer from Blairhill, he arrived at Ibrox in 1951 from junior side Coupar Angus, as back-up to Scottish internationalist Bobby Brown. The legendary "Iron Curtain" defence of the 1949 treble winners was breaking up with Johnny Little replacing captain Jock "Tiger" Shaw at left-back, but Brown, George Young, Ian McColl, Willie Woodburn and Sammy Cox were still there.
Niven was blooded in the final game of the 1951-52 season, a 1-1 draw with Aberdeen at Pittodrie, but after Brown carried the can for a 0-5 League Cup drubbing by Hearts in the second match of the 1952-53 season Niven became first choice No 1. It was a position he was to hold until Billy Ritchie replaced him a decade later.
Fifties goalkeepers were not the untouchables of today, frequently sustaining injuries as forwards used their licence to "rummel 'em up". Niven had more than his share of knocks, for instance he was carried off with a cut head after 27 minutes of the 1953 Scottish Cup Final, sustaining the injury when diving at the feet of Dons centre-forward Paddy Buckley.
This brought about the sight of the much larger George Young shoe-horned into Niven's jersey as temporary goalkeeper, since there were no substitutes back then. Niven had four stitches put in his wound and reappeared, head bandaged, in the second half of a match which ended 1-1.
He sported a "Biggles style" leather helmet for the midweek replay and played his part in Rangers' 1-0 win which completed a league and cup double. These were the first of eight medals Niven was to win in his time with the club, during which he played 327 first team games.
In all, he won winners' medals for five League Championships, two Scottish Cups, and one League Cup. His matches for the club included 15 in Europe. And he is believed to have played more first team games for the club than any other Scotsman without winning a full Scotland cap.
This failing however is largely down to bad luck. He made seven appearances for the Scottish League side – an honour greater than some of the giveaway caps won in today's international games. He travelled with the Scotland party to Austria, Hungary and Turkey in an end of season tour in 1960 but he didn't play.
Indeed the closest he came to a full cap was early in 1960 when, with regular Scotland goalkeeper Bill Brown not released by Tottenham Hotspur, Niven was chosen for the game against England at Hampden. Sadly for him, he was injured and Frank Haffey of Celtic won an 11th hour call-up.
A year later with Brown again unavailable due to club commitments and Lawrie Leslie of West Ham, Scotland's first choice goalkeeper that season, injured, Niven was called up for the game at Wembley. Again injury prevented him from playing, Haffey once more getting the late call-up – and conceding nine goals in the infamous 9-3 defeat.
Although small for a goalkeeper Niven was rarely caught out; he was agile, commanding and a good decision maker. He had few bad games for Rangers although, like the entire defence with the exception of Eric Caldow, he was lambasted for his performance in Rangers' 1-7 League Cup final defeat to Celtic in 1957.
Niven held his place after the game, with the bulk of the blame falling on centre-half John Valentine. That defeat also produced the apocryphal joke about Celtic's Charlie Tully passing Niven in Buchanan Street on the Monday morning and nodding a greeting whereby Niven dived through one of Fraser's plate glass windows.
As the Fifties gave way to the Sixties and new Rangers players such as John Greig, Ron McKinnon and Jim Baxter broke through, Niven found his place under increasing threat from the patient Ritchie.
Inevitably in time the younger man was preferred, and with the younger still Norrie Martin in reserve Niven was released to join Partick Thistle where he continued to show what a competent and consistent keeper he was before Ritchie in turn followed him to Queen's Cross and again superseded him. He retired in 1968, having played 232 games for the Firhill club. In the later years of his career he went into business co-owning with Young a popular coffee bar in Glasgow's Renfield Street.
Rangers goalkeepers were known for efficiency rather than flamboyance – until Chris Woods and Andy Goram came along – and Niven certainly fitted that template.
He was first choice at a time of change at the club. It was surely easy to come in and play behind the best defence in Scotland, less easy to backstop Rangers during the turmoil which followed Woodburn's suspension and Young's retirement in 1957.
It says much about Niven that his finest years for the club came between the eclipse of the first "Iron Curtain" defence and the rise of the second, the Ritchie, Shearer, Caldow, Greig, McKinnon, Baxter back six of the early Sixties. During those years of transition Rangers needed a first-rate goalkeeper, and in George Niven they had one.