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The signing of Celtic’s greatest keeper

In April 1964, Celtic suffered one of their most crushing European disappointments when a 3-0 first-leg lead – seemingly guaranteeing a place in the Cup Winners’ Cup final – was surrendered away to MTK Budapest. The ensuing gloom was not easily shifted, and the arrival a few months later of a Hibernian cast-off on the verge of retirement did little to do so.

Celtic, though, had just signed their greatest keeper, and Sean Fallon was the man responsible. On the tenth anniversary of Ronnie Simpson’s passing, and 50 years on from his arrival at Celtic Park, this extract from Fallon’s authorised biography recalls one of the Bhoys’ greatest bargains.

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IN the wake of defeat to MTK, Bob Kelly was not interested in eyeing fresh European horizons. Indeed, he reacted to the loss in Budapest by telling shareholders in May 1964 that he did not see a future in continental competitions. “Surely,” he said, “a better tournament would be a British Cup.”

Being badly wrong was a habit the Celtic chairman was struggling to shake. He did, however, make one shrewd decision around this time: he began to listen to Fallon on the issue of transfers.

More specifically, he accepted the Irishman’s recommendation that the Kelly Kids, decried even by Jimmy McGrory for “lacking mental hardness”, required an injection of experience and personality. What followed were two of the most significant signings in Celtic’s history. Neither, though, was easily won.

Target number one was a goalkeeper who had been in the senior game three years longer than Fallon himself, having debuted for Queen’s Park in 1945. He had enjoyed a sterling career, competing in the Olympics for Great Britain and winning FA Cups with Newcastle United, but it was a career drawing to a close.

A fall-out with Jock Stein, his then manager at Hibernian, had caused him to look at a life outside football, and he had even begun reporting on matches for a Sunday newspaper. “I wasn’t drifting out of the game – I was galloping,” wrote Ronnie Simpson in his autobiography, Sure it’s a Grand Old Team to Play For. “I had chucked in the towel good and proper.”

The title of the next chapter, ‘A phone call from Sean Fallon’, gives a hint of what happened next. Yet at the time, it seemed ludicrous. Even Simpson was baffled by Celtic’s interest. “Did they know my age?” he wrote, recalling his reaction. “Did they know I had pretty well lost interest in the game? Surely keepers weren’t all that difficult to come by.” Keepers were in plentiful supply. But not keepers like Simpson. Fallon realised that, even if the man himself did not.

“I remember the reaction I got when I suggested signing Ronnie. Everyone said, ‘But he’s finished. What are you thinking?’ With him being the age he was, it was completely against the policy the club had at that time. The chairman went along with it in the end probably because Ronnie was cheap. Jock wanted rid of him and I knew that, so I got the price down a bit. Jock was looking for £4000 but I told him we only wanted Ronnie for the reserves and bartered him down to £2000. What I said about the reserves wasn’t strictly true, but Jock forgave me for it. He had already given Ronnie permission to talk to Berwick Rangers about becoming their manager at that time. But I knew that he still had a lot to offer as a player.

“I looked at our defence and saw that we needed someone like Ronnie because, although we had good defenders, they were lacking in the knowhow that comes with years of experience in the game. They also had a habit of turning round and blaming the keeper every time we lost a goal, and I knew Ronnie wouldn’t stand for that.

"The thing about a good keeper is that he can give an entire defence confidence and make the players in front of him better. I knew that from my own career. Ronnie saw the game like a picture spread out in front of him, and he would do our job on the field by organising the players in front of them, spotting mistakes before they even happened. He was outstanding, a 100 per cent professional. I couldn’t find a fault in him.”

The Celtic supporters agreed. When they were polled for the club’s greatest ever team in 2002, not even John Thomson – the beloved ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’ – could deny Simpson the No.1 shirt. The same keeper who had been choosing between journalism and Berwick Rangers had gone on to make almost 200 appearances for Celtic, winning Scotland’s Player of the Year award in 1967 and making his international debut, aged 36, the same year.

That phone call from Fallon had been life-changing, career-defining, and Simpson never forgot it. Just as ‘Faither’ was an undoubted favourite of Sean’s, so the Irishman held a special place in the heart of Celtic’s greatest goalie. “I was honoured at Celtic Park on several occasions to win cups and trophies,” he said in a speech at Sean’s 80th birthday party in 2002. “But the luckiest thing of all was meeting such a gentleman.”

*'Sean Fallon: Celtic's Iron Man' is available on Amazon and all high street stores; it is also available as an ebook in all formats

Pirlo: The Translator's View

Mark Palmer is a former sports journalist at the Sunday Times, who translated Andrea Pirlo's autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play. Here, he gives an insight into the translation process.


BACK in my previous life at the Sunday Times, I once had the pleasure of sitting down with Andrea Pirlo before Celtic played Milan in the 2004/5 Champions League.

I say pleasure, but in actual fact it was one of those interviews where you come away slightly unsatisfied. Pirlo was generous with his time and perfectly agreeable company, but you just knew there was more to him and his answers that what made its way to the tape.

There was the occasional flash of humour, the odd little barbed snippet elbowing out the platitudes, but I got the distinct impression that here was a man playing well within himself.

So it was with a mixture of intrigue and trepidation that I opened his autobiography when the lads at BackPage first mooted it as a potential project in the second half of 2013. Would we be seeing all of Pirlo or still just the bits he could be bothered showing?

Well, if the worst thing Pirlo can think of is being called a six-out-of-ten kind of player, he made damn sure there would be no talk of half measures when it came to his book. In 20 short, sharp, moreish chapters, he splashes a vat of vivid colour on his career and its glorious nights of silver and gold. There’s all the big-game, big-name recollections you crave from a player of his calibre and experience, but it’s the sardonic style and cutting insights that really drag you in.

Pirlo writes as he plays: always on the move, always crisp and precise. Brilliantly aware of what’s around him, classy and conceited all at the same time.

As translator, I had the easy job. Pirlo and his co-author, Alessandro Alciato of Sky Sports Italia, served up the goodies on a plate. Italian is a language given to overegging, but this tale rattles along at a tremendous lick. The style is direct, witty and generally uncomplicated – even after multiple reads, the copy still felt fresh and inviting. I hope you’ll think the same of it in English.

If you do enjoy the book, you should thank Andrea Del Monte as well as Pirlo and Alciato. Andrea, who works for Italian publishing powerhouse Mondadori, expertly edited the original and was kind enough to spend a full day helping me over the last few translation hurdles while showing me round his home town of Reggio Emilia.

It’s been a genuine privilege to be part of this process. Not least to understand that one of the coolest guys in football is also one of the funniest.

 

Mestalla Memories

As we prepare for a Clásico Copa del Rey final at the Mestalla, here's how Graham Hunter saw the last such encounter, in Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. Barcelona's remarkable journey to the Wembley Champions League final of 2011 included four meetings with Real Madrid over 18 days - a series which would see the Clásico reach new levels of intensity. The only one of these matches on neutral ground was the Copa final in Valencia.

Mestalla Stadium, Valencia. April 20, 2011

Thirty-eight days before they lifted the Champions League trophy in London, this team of shimmering excellence sat, tired, defeated, angry and sore, on the playing surface of Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, watching Real Madrid celebrate victory in the Copa del Rey final.

Guardiola’s players assumed the blank expressions which are the mark of the losers at a big occasion. Dull eyes, thousand-yard stares – pain.

It was the second Clásico in three days. Domination and a 1-0 lead had been tossed away in a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu in the league then this epic, nerve-wracking cup final was lost to a glorious Cristiano Ronaldo header in extra time.

It looked like a perfect storm might be engulfing Barcelona. The first cup final to be lost in the Guardiola era was a difficult experience, and these were tired soldiers, the majority of whom had been playing, and winning for the previous three seasons – and during the summers, too. Euro 2008, followed by the Confederations Cup, followed by the 2010 World Cup was a gruelling way to spend your ‘down time’. Domestically, Real Madrid had been mean-eyed pursuers for the last three seasons.

It was tiring beyond belief for Barcelona. Might this defeat puncture morale, self-belief or unlock a dam-full of exhaustion?

The teams faced a third Clásico in seven days’ time. It would certainly be the most important of the season. The first leg of the Champions League semi-final had always looked like a brutal test, but Madrid appeared to have a competitive and psychological advantage. They had set Barcelona a physical challenge and Guardiola’s team had come up just short.

The argument from the white corner was best summed up when I spoke to Emmanuel Adebayor in the mixed zone – where players talk with gathered media – this time down in the Mestalla basement. The Madrid striker explained: “Mourinho told us that Barça are not Robocop. They are one of the best sides in the world, but they are just human, just players like us which means if we try to play our football and if you press them high, for sure they will make some mistakes, they will lose the ball. So we just went at them like tigers or lions.

“The team that wanted to win it more was Real Madrid and so we won it.”

The Barcelona and Madrid players who also represented Spain had been enforcing an unwritten rule that no matter how feisty their matches got, they wouldn’t forget their national team bond. There would be standards, respect would be shown. A deal something along the lines of: ‘Compete to the absolute limit, but not beyond.’

Fairly or unfairly, some Barça players felt that lines were crossed and friendships corroded in the Copa del Rey final.

Referee Undiano Mallenco awarded 26 fouls against Madrid and 24 against Barcelona, booking five of the winners and three of the losers – hardly a blatant disparity between the teams. However, he was very permissive. Álvaro Arbeloa stamped on David Villa in the first half and the Barça players were irate that Sergio Ramos and Arbeloa immediately combined to bend down and brusquely haul Villa to his feet.

There were various incidents when Madrid, without behaving criminally, went over the top, and the referee was content to allow it.

The game was titanic. A flow of chances missed, saved or off the woodwork. Iker Casillas and José Pinto both made jaw-dropping saves.

The night was topped off by the footage which zipped around the world of Ramos dropping the trophy as Madrid’s bus toured the capital en route to their traditional place of celebration, Los Cibeles, and the trophy emerging battered from under the wheels. It was a metaphor for how Barça felt.

Reports surfaced that a combination of unfair actions by security staff and poor planning by the Spanish FA left Guardiola’s players stranded out on the pitch, fuming, while Madrid went up to collect the cup and take the acclaim of their delirious fans. Not true. Guardiola’s consigliere, Manel Estiarte, will be one of our principal guides through the incredible events that closed out season 2010-11. A multi-Olympian, gold medal winner and for long periods of his career the best water polo player in the world, Estiarte was Guardiola’s first appointment when he became first team coach. Advisor, friend, sounding board, protector – Estiarte sees all, but tells very little. However, he did provide me with rare insight into Barça’s journey from the Mestalla to Wembley.

“At the Mestalla, it was our choice to stay out on the pitch,” says Estiarte. “In 2009 we had watched Manchester United suffer in Rome and Athletic Bilbao sitting crying in the Mestalla after that Copa del Rey [final in 2009, which Barcelona won 4-1]. We admired their dignity and their pride, so we decided we had to stay on the pitch too if we lost. Nobody made us do it.”

Tito Vilanova, told me: “I never like losing, but I learned very early that you can’t win every time. If you know you’ve done everything you could and that you’ve had chances, then you accept losing is just part of the game. You take it on the chin and try to improve. You show respect to the other team, just as we did at the Mestalla.”

Gerard Piqué sought out every single Real Madrid player, shook their hands and congratulated them. “Losing the final was hard because you know how many people you have made sad, and you feel for your team-mates who have given everything, but sometimes it’s your turn to lose,” he recalled.

“I think this team has won the right to lose occasionally, just so long as we show the kind of attitude and Barcelona playing style as we did here.”

After the defeat, I felt that perhaps Messi had dropped too deep in trying to find ‘clean’ possession without Pepe hounding him and hacking at him. Messi’s customary position has been branded the ‘false nine’ because he starts as the central striker but is given licence to roam far beyond the position normally occupied either by a centre forward or a No 10. First trialled under Rijkaard at Sevilla in 2008, his form in this role became explosive during the 6-2 win at Madrid and using him there permanently, a masterstroke of Guardiola’s, has contributed immensely to his prolific goalscoring since the Catalan took over in 2008. However, this time Barça’s most important footballer had occasionally drifted back to just in front of his own penalty box before being served a short pass from Sergio Busquets or Piqué.

Had Messi helped Real Madrid? It also echoed the way Mourinho’s Inter had successfully policed him in each of the Champions League semi-finals the previous year.

I put that question to the Barça manager and Guardiola told me: “I’ve asked Leo to be much more than a goalscorer. His role is to participate fully in the game. He can go to the areas of the pitch he thinks are best for him to do that. The idea is that he’s involved in all aspects of the game much more than someone who is just a finisher, because he’s our decisive player.”

At the time I was unsure if that addressed what I’d seen in those two consecutive Clásicos, but the matter of seven days would prove Guardiola’s point and banish my scepticism.

After victory, Mourinho looked and sounded exhausted. “Barcelona seemed psychologically tired in the second half because they’re used to being much more successful,” he said. “Some people say that to play great football you have to keep lots of possession, but I think that counter-attacking and dominating the spaces also makes for a great match. We don’t consider ourselves better than Barça just because we won. Nor are they inferior because they’ve lost. Every game is different.”

Andrea Pirlo extracts in today's papers

TODAY we publish Andrea Pirlo's long-awaited autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, with extracts running in five national newspapers...

The Sun - 'Roy Hodgson used to call me a D***head'

The Times - 'How I chipped Joe Hart'

The Guardian - 'The night Pep tried to sign me for Barca'

The Independent - 'Deportivo were so crazy they may have been on drugs'


Daily Mail - 'I almost quit after losing to Liverpool in Istanbul'

London Evening Standard: 'I don't give a toss about pressure'

- Andrea Pirlo: I Think Therefore I Play
is available in all high street book stores and internet retailers. It is published in paperback and all electronic formats






 

 

Iniesta 500

Andrés Iniesta will play his 500th game for Barcelona tonight. From BARCA: THE MAKING OF THE GREATEST TEAM IN THE WORLD, by Graham Hunter, here is the story of his first giant step toward the first team - as predicted by his hero, and future manager, Pep Guardiola.

The 1999 Nike Cup youth tournament was played across a handful of days using the Camp Nou and the Barça Mini Estadi across the road, where the B team plays home games. Having already hammered Rosario on the first day, Iniesta and company faced those same tough Argentinians in the Camp Nou final, in front of an impressive 20,000 crowd. With the match in extra-time and balanced at 1-1, guess who crashed home the golden goal winner? Andrés Iniesta, with that same trusty right foot which would later bury the ball in Petr Čech’s top left-hand corner to take Barcelona to the Champions League final in Rome, and scythe an era-defining goal past Maarten Stekelenburg in Johannesburg in the World Cup final.

Ángel Pedraza, the Barça Under-16 coach, said about Iniesta: “He stands out for his football intelligence – Andrés is the team leader and reference point of this team. Technically, he’s already great, but he knows how and when to control the tempo of a match.”

The Camp Nou had just hosted that epic Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Barça were at a low ebb and were about to enter a horrible trophy drought. They were also inching towards the end of Pep Guardiola’s glorious era as a Barça player but, fortunately for Iniesta, his hero was persuaded by his younger brother Pere, a key Nike figure, to attend the match and hand out prizes.

Iniesta had already caught Guardiola’s attention and when he gave the golden goal boy his medal and trophy, he said: “One day I’ll be up in those stands watching you do what I do for Barça.”

There was no question what meant more to the young lad from Fuentealbilla – the silverware or the silver words. Iniesta floated out of the stadium that night.

However, that wasn’t all that Guardiola had to say on the matter. He told Xavi, by then a teammate: “You are going to replace me, but watch out for this young guy, because he’ll retire all of us.”

Graham Hunter with Iniesta

 

 

 

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