Johnny Simpson – ‘The First Gentleman Of Gillingham’
Gills fans have always had a special relationship with their goalkeepers and three of them have achieved legendary cult status – Jim Stannard, celery-consuming custodian who in 1995/96 kept a club record 29 clean sheets and an all-time League record of conceding only 20 goals in 46 games – Ron Hillyard who between 1974 and 1990 kept goal in 563 league games in an all-time record of 657 appearances for the Gills – and Johnny Simpson, the greatest of them all, whose 571 league appearances will probably never be beaten.
Johnny signed for Gillingham from Lincoln in June 1957 for £750. His 14 playing years can be divided into three parts – 1957 to 1962 under Harry Barrett when he played behind an unpredictable defence which might collapse in front of him at any time – 1966 to 1971 under Basil Hayward when he fought valiantly to help prop up a team in obvious decline – and 1962 to 1965 when, at the zenith of his strength and powers Freddie Cox built in front of him the meanest of defences and we witnessed the making of a legend.
Johnny Simpson had everything. At 6’1” and 12st 8lb he was tall and solid, but for a big man he was amazingly agile. He could fly across goal to get two hands on a ball aiming into the top corner, get down quickly to cut out dangerous crosses, dominate the box from corners, and perform his trademark one-handed catch. He was brave and courageous, going in amongst the boots and diving at players feet in the days when goalkeepers had nowhere near the protection they have now, and forwards didn’t hold back.
It is fitting that Johnny is the only Gillingham goalkeeper to win a Championship medal. In the 1963/64 season not only did he establish the then club records of 24 clean sheets and only 30 goals conceded as we won the Fourth Division, he more than anyone else had to take the venomous stick and high-flying boots and kicks as Gills prized out results on opponents’ grounds. Crowds had never before seen a goalkeeper dressed from head to foot in green, loping into goal looking completely disinterested, going all over the field to launch free kicks deep into their goal-mouth, and then deny them with a string of brilliant saves and remain unflappable under heavy pressure and extreme provocation.
Every Gills fan who saw him play has a few especially treasured memories of brave or brilliant saves. Mine are of a 2-2 draw at Swindon in September 1967, long before our ‘special’ relationship with them or when there were goalkeeper substitutes on the bench. Johnny was injured early on, refused to go off, and defied them with a string of brave saves while our trainer stood behind the goal the whole time, tending him after almost every one. Then at Watford on the Saturday before Christmas 1964. With about fifteen minutes left and Gills having been pegged back to 1-1, Watford had a penalty. Up stepped Ron Saunders, our great hero from former times, who had once beaten Johnny 16 consecutive times in a training session in the week before the 10-1 Gorleston cup-tie. A duel over twelve yards between two of our great heroes. Ron hit an almost perfect penalty, hard and low into the corner, but Johnny dived to his left and palmed the ball round the post. A brilliant save which turned the game. We won 2-1. Several of us were back-slapping him about it on the train back from Charing Cross that night, but he was as modest as ever. For him it was just part of the job. ‘Ron knew my weakness, so I guessed he might go that way. I was lucky he did.’
But it wasn’t just his prowess as a goalkeeper that gives him a special place in the heart of every Gills fan who saw him play. It was his obvious great love for the club, and for the fans. Johnny and his family were next door neighbours. They lived immediately opposite the ground in Gordon Road, and after he retired he ran the newsagents in Barnsole Road. He would always stop and chat, even after a bad defeat. His time for fans was no more clearly demonstrated than in the care that he took with his autograph – not the indecipherable scribble that so called stars give out these days, with Johnny you got ‘Johnny Simpson’ written in beautiful copperplate, and if it was outside an opposition ground the enquiry ‘Are you alright for tickets?’. Very few travelled to long-distance away games in his time and Johnny’s reaction would be ‘I’ll get you some, you deserve it for coming all this way’ and he was always as good as his word, collecting up the players’ allocations and coming back out with a fistful which we all shared out between us.
After he retired, Johnny Simpson was a regular in the Main Stand at Priestfield and lived the triumphs and disappointments with the intensity of the keenest Gills fan. No-one was more happier than him when we saved our league status against Halifax in 1993. Sadly, Johnny never lived to see his beloved Gills rise from the ashes – he died a few months later at the early age of 60. God must have needed a good goalkeeper.