Obituary: John Niven, footballer

Goalkeeper from post-war era who enjoyed League Cup success at Hampden

John Niven, footballer.

Born: 15 May, 1921, in Coatbridge.

Died: 4 April, 2011, in Neilston, aged 89.

AS A League Cup winner with a team who beat all the odds to triumph at Hampden Park, John Niven enjoyed a football career that took him right to the top of the game in Scotland during the thrilling years of the immediate post-war era.

The East Fife goalkeeper played a big part in guiding his team to success in the 1947 League Cup final at Hampden, knocking out Hearts and Aberdeen before taking on Falkirk in the final.

The match at Hampden went to extra time and then a replay, and faced being settled by a countback of corner kicks until Davie Duncan completed a hat-trick to take the trophy back to Methil - the first time it had been won by a team from the second division, and a record matched only once since then, by another Fife side, Raith Rovers, in 1994.

Jack Harkness, the Scotland goalkeeper from the famous Wembley Wizards team, described Niven's cup final performance in his Sunday Post match report as "stylish, clean-cut, immaculate" under the headline "This was real history-book goalkeeping".

Niven would later recall: "Winning trophies with East Fife was terrific that season, especially winning the League Cup at Hampden, although that was a team that played with great confidence and almost expected to win.

"There was great camaraderie, and the players mixed very well. I was in a team of players who wanted to play good football."

The single goal conceded by Niven in those three and a half hours of cup final football was a major contributory factor in the story of the Fifers' victory.

Falkirk should not have been surprised by this level of resistance, because Niven had earned a reputation for keeping teams at bay. The previous season, East Fife had completed their six-match group section of the League Cup without conceding a goal, with the agile Niven the last line of defence.

Further success came Niven's way when East Fife put the Division B championship trophy alongside the League Cup in the Bayview trophy cabinet, and the following two seasons brought Scottish Cup quarter-final and semi-final appearances against Rangers in front of 90,000 and 100,000 spectators.

But season 1949-50 brought terrible bad luck at a time when Niven should have been adding to his football honours.

He was injured before the League Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden, when the Fifers recorded their first ever win against the giants of Scottish football with a dramatic extra-time goal from Charlie Fleming. The Fifers finished off the job by beating county rivals Dunfermline in the Hampden final, but Niven was still injured and missed the match.

He returned to fitness that season and regained his place as East Fife reached the Scottish Cup final, a rematch with Rangers.But the Fifers were forced to play a league match away to Motherwell five days before the final, and although a largely second-string team was fielded to avoid injuries, Niven played in goal.

A collision with one of his best friends, Motherwell player Jimmy Forrest, ruled Niven out of the showpiece final. His stand-in was 21-year-old Gordon Easson, a third-team player making his senior football debut in front of 118,000 fans and more particularly a rampant Rangers centre forward in the shape of Willie Thornton. Tiger Shaw lifted the silverware after a 3-0 win for the Ibrox side.

That season marked the beginning of the end of Niven's nine-year spell in Fife. He lost his mentor, John McArthur, when the Bayview chairman collapsed and died of a heart attack at the famous first win over Rangers in the League Cup semi-final, collapsing in the stand as Fleming struck the winning goal.

Niven had moved into senior football when he was spotted by McArthur - then acting as the club's manager - while playing for Renfrew Juniors, and signed for the Fifers in 1942, travelling to Methil on match days while working - in a reserved occupation - and living in Paisley.

His first senior match turned out to be for Hibernian, however, when McArthur answered an SOS call from Easter Road to fill the Edinburgh club's temporary goalkeeping void with his young new signing, who was promptly thrown in at the deep end away to Celtic in March 1942. There was a further loan spell with Dundee before he made the breakthrough at Bayview, where he was first-choice until season 1950-51, when he was transferred to Kilmarnock.

Although this represented a step down to a lower league, Niven was soon back at Hampden when Kilmarnock reached the 1952 League Cup final, going down 2-0 to Dundee.

He retired from senior football in 1953 after two seasons with Kilmarnock, and pursued a career as a mechanical engineer with Sir William Arrol & Co, then set up his own motor factor business, which he ran until he retired in 1988.

He was active in the local church, and was an elder at Arthurlie Parish Church in Barrhead.

In 2008, Niven returned to Fife as guest of honour when the Third Division championship flag was unfurled to mark East Fife's first league title since Niven's team won Division B exactly 60 years earlier, and was also voted one of the club's all-time greats by supporters.

He fought Parkinson's disease over the past ten years and passed away earlier this week, a few weeks before what would have been his 90th birthday.

John Niven is survived by wife Mary, daughter Norma and son Gordon. The funeral takes place at Woodside Crematorium, Paisley, on Monday, 11 April, at 1pm.