Unmodern Man Interview: Neil Simpson

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The following article is the first in a series of interviews with the members of Aberdeen’s European Cup Winner’s Cup winning side of 1983. The conversations are intended to give a deeper insight into the members of that great side while raising money for Archies, CLAN and Stand Free Youth Development in the process.

Once the interviews have been concluded, three match programmes fully signed by all members of the team will be auctioned off to raise money for the above charities. Details of how to bid on these items will be available as the project progresses.

While the tiled floor of the dressing room lay sodden with pools of rain, the air burned with recrimination. Angry words and accusatory jabs of the finger were exchanged across the tight confines. You’d never have guessed the scores were level at half time.

The spectre of the dramatic final day defeat to Valencia a week before, a result which denied Madrid the league title by a single point, had cast a long shadow over the squad but the chance of European silverware against the unfancied Aberdeen afforded the chance for immediate redemption. The typically bombastic Madrid newspapers had said as much; certain the domestic trauma would propel the Madridistas to a comprehensive demolition of the Scottish minnows.

Preparations for the game had been as meticulous as ever; whilst studying the weather charts, boss Di Stefano spotted a low-pressure front heading for the southern part of Sweden and ordered his players to train at a rain-lashed Bernabeu in the build-up. Madrid felt ready for any eventuality.  

Just as Di Stefano had forecast, the rain bucketed down during the first half of the Gothenburg showpiece. What the sage Spaniard had failed to predict was his team being outplayed with the Aberdeen midfielders completely dictating the play. The intensity of the pressing from the Scots, lead by the swashbuckling central midfield duo of Neil Simpson and Neale Cooper, had overwhelmed the Spanish giants. It was the startling balance of play, rather than the 1-1 scoreline, which caused so much consternation in the muggy dressing room at the end of the first 45 minutes.

Di Stefano and the captain Santillana assumed their normal positions on the periphery of the space, impassively perched on benches. The stock figure of Jose Antonio Camacho paced the centre of the floor, the bullish defender assuming his customary role of chief interrogator; his line of questioning directed squarely at Uli Stielike. Following a three month injury lay-off, Stielike, who could justifiably claim to be one of the best midfielders in Europe at the time, had been reinstated to the side specifically to combat the exuberance of the Aberdeen midfield. Camacho demanded to know how a player of Stielike’s calibre could getting overrun by these “nadie de la nada” (nobodies from nowhere)? As tensions rose and fists were primed, the two had to be separated by teammates but Camacho left Stielike and the others in no doubt that a repeat performance in the second half would not be tolerated.

With Camacho’s words ringing in their ears and resonating through their approach, the referee’s whistle at the start of the second half signalled a ratcheting up of the Madrid aggression.  Studs were left a little longer in the tackle, puddle-assisted sliding tackles were initiated from 5 yards further away, any slightly dubious Aberdeen tackle was met with a melee of white shirts surrounding the perpetrator – the increase in Spanish blood pressure was palpable.

There is a moment early in the second half which perfectly encapsulates this shift in mood. As Madrid centre half Bonet drives with the ball from his own half towards the Aberdeen goal he comes shoulder to shoulder with Neil Simpson. Simpson, full of his usual bustling energy, matches the surging run of the Spanish international stride for stride before a flying elbow catches the young Aberdonian flush on the bridge of the nose. The act of savagery goes unnoticed by the referee.  Simpson’s reaction would be the litmus test.

With the match ultimately heading for extra time in energy sapping conditions, a red card for retaliation would surely have grave consequences for his team. A lesser character may have used the excuse of a badly broken nose to seek the respite of a substitution or at least subconsciously assume a more passive role in the game, but not Neil Simpson. He drags himself back to his feet, barely acknowledges the assault and throws himself into the game with renewed vigour.  If anything, the incident only served to motivate Simpson to exert an even greater degree of influence as the game degenerated into a battle of attrition in the deepening quagmire.

Big games don’t always hinge on dramatic moments; the goals, the saves and the red cards. Often fleeting, seemingly innocuous instances are much more pivotal in shifting the balance of a match. Simpson’s steadfast reaction in the face of such provocation must have physiologically impacted those Madrid players. The message the youngster relayed was unequivocal: there’s nothing you can do to stop us from winning this trophy – we simply won’t be bowed.

This display of steely resilience in the face of adversity typified Neil Simpson’s career. His contribution to Aberdeen’s success during the 1980s is greatly underappreciated by those outside the Granite City. Simpson’s attributes, so lauded in other Scottish players of his generation, are often overlooked in favour of his flashier Aberdeen counterparts. The truth is that Neil Simpson was the on-field embodiment of Alex Ferguson’s own character – a player brimming with relentless drive and determination – who dragged his boyhood heroes to untold heights.

Raised in the bucolic surroundings of rural Aberdeenshire, Simpson’s formative years were far removed from the Scottish stereotype; no tanner ba’ kick-abouts on red blaize pitches against a backdrop of heavy industry here. Yet Simpson bore all the hallmarks of the folklore prototype: a dogged determination allied with a healthy dose of skill, Simpson’s grit underscored everything good about Ferguson’s Aberdeen side. This was the era when a central midfielder’s remit extended far beyond that of the modern defensive shield. Simpson was the archetypal box-to-box player: his relentless energy and tenacious verve for winning the ball were coupled with pin-point distribution and well-timed arrivals into the attacking third. His dynamism and indefatigability were absolutely key to the Dons’ style of play.

Anyone unfamiliar with Simpson’s attributes need look no further than his goals in the Bayern Munich and Waterschei games which preceded the triumphant culmination in Gothenburg. Both finishes perfectly encapsulate what Simpson was all about; the ball almost being run into the net through sheer force of character on both occasions, Simpson almost oblivious to the opposition players blocking his path, you get the feeling he’d have run straight through them if required.

The history books will tell you that in that 82-83 season, where the Dons emerged not only with the European Cup Winner’s Cup but also claimed the Scottish Cup a matter of days later, Simpson made 51 appearances, weighed in with ten goals and was one of only four players to play all 11 games in the triumphant continental campaign. But the cold facts don’t even begin to describe the magnitude of his contribution and how they should place him among the bastion of Scottish footballing greats.

The best barometer by which to measure Simpson’s performances during that period – still just 21 years old and playing in only his second season as a starter for the club – is the fact that on that rain soaked night in Gothenburg, Simpson and fellow local boy Neale Cooper – with a combined age of 40 years and 355 days – became the youngest central midfield partnership to ever win a European club trophy, narrowly pipping the much-vaunted Ajax partnership of Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf to the accolade. Let that resonate for a moment.

Think of the scores of supremely gifted young midfielders who have graced the European stage over the decades. Then consider that two young boys from North East Scotland, brought through the youth ranks at Pittodrie, had the ability and maturity to dominate a colossus of the game in Uli Stielike – not to mention the likes of Bayern Munich’s Paul Breitner en route to the final.

Simpson credits his ability to handle the pressure of these huge occasions at such a young age to the wealth of experience he amassed while playing for Scotland at youth level.

“I would have probably played thirty times against foreign opposition by that point. Us younger players had heaps of experience of going abroad. The smells of different countries, the different types of players, the preparation required. I’d played for Scotland 17s, 18s and 21s. Scotland were winning most games in my age group. We won a tournament in Las Palmas, we came third in a tournament in Monte Carlo, we beat Germany in Germany where I was up against Lothar Matthäus. We also lost on penalties to Holland in the European championships and I was up against Ruud Gullit”.

“I think everyone gets nervous before a game but it didn’t bother me if it was Lothar Matthäus or someone from Albion Rovers, it didn’t phase me who I was playing against. You just went out and did your best, you knew you always the manager behind you but there was always that worry that if you didn’t play well somebody was just ready to take your place, and that drove you on”.

Simpson is humble enough to realise his rapid ascension to first team stalwart was eased by the calibre of players around him. He cites a photo (below) from the early 80s as evidence of the quality and depth of experience that Aberdeen possessed at the time.

As well as the wealth of foreign experience to draw upon, Simpson and his teammates had another secret weapon at their disposal: fearsome fitness levels drilled into them by Ferguson and his assistant Archie Knox. Whether pounding the shoreline of the city’s beach, enduring punishing shuttle runs of the Broadhill overlooking Pittodrie or making do on the blaize car park across from the Main Stand, the management ensured the squad were kept in prime physical condition. As a result, the Dons developed a reputation for being able to outlast their opponents; as well as the Gothenburg final, the incredible run of three successive Scottish cup victories between 1982 and 1984 were all won in extra time, and Simpson believes their ability to outlast teams was vital.

“We had great energy, great stamina, a great togetherness within the team. We went to extra time quite a lot in finals and we always managed to come through because we had a great fitness level. I think it was the intensity of the training that ensured we were always fit. We demanded a standard of each other in training, you were always working hard”.

“I always seemed to get stronger as games went on anyway. I don’t know why I just always had that extra energy. I mean in Gothenburg I got my nose broken. Just on the half way line. We were running alongside each other and then ‘boof’. The cartilage in my nose got pushed right to the side. I was down and dazed but I just got up and got on with it. I had to get an operation about a year later because I couldn’t breathe through one nostril”.

“Before the end of the season, with the amount of games I’d played, I must admit I was tiring” recalls Simpson.

“We played down in Dundee about 3 weeks before it and I was knackered, so tired. I was brought in on the Monday before it and despite having played in all the games up to then I was worried about my place in the final. Fergie said ‘You’re looking a bit tired. I can guarantee you that you’ll be playing in Gothenburg but you aren’t going to doing anything in the two weeks before it, just rest’. And by the time we got to the final I was absolutely buzzing. For him to recognise that was great management because normally other managers would just play and play you”.

Incredibly, for a player that is so synonymous with that all-conquering side, Aberdeen almost missed out on signing Simpson when Middlesbrough appeared set to steal the sixteen year old from under their noses.

“Lenny Taylor, the youth coach at Aberdeen at the time, approached me and said ‘We are very disappointed that you didn’t go further in the Scotland trials (for the Victory Shield) but we’re going to make up for that: Aberdeen want to sign you’. That was on the Thursday and news quickly spread and by the Friday, Middlesbrough said we want to take me down there. As soon as they knew Aberdeen wanted to sign me, that was it, I was away down on a flight. My Boy’s Club president had a wee tie-in with Boro and he said I should go. Then some ex-Aberdeen players warned me not to go to Aberdeen, they said local boys never got on well at the club and that I should get myself down to Middlesbrough”.

“On the Monday I played for Boro reserves against Barnsley. We won 4-0 and I played well. Then the next day I played for their youth team which contained the likes of Craig Johnston, Mark Proctor, Billy Askew and a few others that went on to make it. They were a really good bunch of guys but I just had it in my heart that I wanted to play for Aberdeen. There was never any question about that. I returned to the club and told Lenny Taylor that I was definitely signing for Aberdeen.”

Flash back to 1983 and in between securing the European and domestic cup double, Simpson was rewarded for his impressive performances with a full Scotland debut against Northern Ireland at Hampden. What most players would struggle to achieve in their whole career, Simpson had crammed into one frenetic fortnight.

“It was a great time. I played Northern Ireland on the Wednesday night in a Home International. It was great; I’d made my debut, a lifetime ambition achieved. I was then in the squad when we beat Wales and then we were at Wembley to face England. I did really well in a training session before it and I thought I might have a wee chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on the pitch but Jock Stein said ‘Go and get your kit on and have a wee warm up’, so I did and soaked up the atmosphere. It was great to get a taste of that.”

Simpson went on to win five caps for his country including a Man of the Match performance against England at Hampden in 1987, before finally experiencing a 70,000 strong Wembley crowd a year later in the Rous Cup.

“That was yet another lifetime ambition fulfilled.  I was up against Bryan Robson and Chris Waddle. I remember John Barnes was wide left. We played 4 in midfield and I was out wide! It didn’t suit me if I’m honest. It was Roy Aitken and Murdo MacLeod in the middle. I would have preferred to be in the middle. All I was doing was doubling up with Richard Gough against Barnes. I played against England the year before at Hampden and I played well. I man-marked Bryan Robson out of the game.”

Another career highlight came in a substitute appearance against France during their preparation for the 1984 European Championships, a competition they went on to win with a side containing the likes Platini, Giresse and Tigana. Simpson was sent on at half time to contain the threat of the then Ballon d’Or holder Michele Platini. In a characteristically dogged performance, Simpson tracked the French maestro across every blade of grass, snuffing out his threat completely. The French newspapers the following day were full of praise for the Scottish starlet and predicted a bright future based on his impressive showing.

Considering the career Simpson went on to have with Aberdeen: over 300 appearances, two European trophies, two league titles, three Scottish Cups and a League Cup – it seems scandalous he isn’t automatically regarded in the pantheon of Scottish football legends. That at least be partly attributed to the catalogue of injuries he suffered at pivotal times in his career.

There were early knee problems in primary school which led to the discovery of an extra layer of bone that had developed, a largely painless condition which he carries to this day. However, more serious impediments to his development were to follow. After making his full Dons debut aged 16, his first full start took a further two years, in large part to a bout of mumps quickly followed by a severe dose of German measles – a debilitating combination that Simpson feels ultimately impacted his career trajectory.

Simpson managed to stay relatively injury free between 1981 & 1986, making over 200 appearances and becoming a mainstay of Ferguson’s side. However, a series of injuries at the tail end of the 85-86 season, including a sciatic problem linked to a bad car crash Simpson had been involved with, put paid to his aspirations of going to the 1986 World Cup.

Simpson is typically philosophical when ruminating on the challenges he faced when trying to cement a place in the Scotland starting eleven.

“I was in heaps of squads when the 22 was announced I was always in it but there were some fantastic players ahead of me. Paul McStay emerged around the same time and even Jim Bett, who was a better player than McStay, couldn’t get into the side. But I thought ‘86 was a really good chance for me to get to a World Cup but then I got the sciatic injury and it just didn’t happen. Just another case of bad timing but I wouldn’t swap it for the world”.

Despite the ups and downs it is clear Simpson has no regrets about the path his career took, instead the overwhelming sense is one of gratitude; thankful for having the opportunity to represent his boyhood heroes, grateful to have contributed to their success.

Did the sheer magnitude of his achievements at such a young age ever threaten to sweep him away in the euphoria and put the hunger that characterised his game at risk?

“We were always grounded. There was never any question of getting carried away. I remember after we beat Waterschei 5-1 in the first leg of the Cup Winner’s Cup semi. We came in the next day for a bit of recovery and there was a supporter outside the ground, an older guy. We asked how he was doing. He just blew out his cheeks and told us that the away goal for them could be crucial! And I was just stood there, stunned!”

There is no doubt that Neil Simpson deserves to be revered as one of the best players to have worn the red of Aberdeen. He was an absolutely vital piston in the engine room of the Dons juggernaut that swept aside all comers at home and abroad. His achievements also merit much wider recognition in the Scottish game, he is quite simply one of the best box to box midfielders this country has produced.

Graham Hunter summed it up perfectly when asked what Neil Simpson meant to him.

“When I was growing up it was my Dad who took me to the home of football for the first time in the late 1960s. His favourite players were Charlie Cooke and then Zoltan Varga but in that glorious era under Fergie his favourite player, by a mile, was Simmie. That tells you everything you need to know. Great guy, fantastic footballer, Dandy through and through”.