This week’s Highbury Hero takes us right back in the time machine to the swinging sixties and it features the quietest member of the 1970-71 Double team. The greatest English centre back never to play for his country. It’s the magnificent Peter “Stan” Simpson.
Stan was a cultured ball playing centre back who complimented Frank McLintock perfectly. He rarely gave the ball away and distributed the ball beautifully with a fine left foot. He was shrewd in the way he defended. Excellent at intercepting the ball and many a time you’d see Stan sliding through on a muddy pitch to tackle an opposing forward.
As a former midfielder Stan was also comfortable coming forward with the ball giving the midfield that extra player and helping to set up attacks. Although Peter wasn’t the tallest of centre backs he coped admirably against any type of opposition forward and was a good header of the ball.A fine example in this clip of Stan coming forward with the ball which leads to Arsenal’s winner against Man City in 1971
Stan also possessed a wonderful temperament, he was never flustered or ruffled in the slightest and this had a calming influence on the rest of the Arsenal defenders. This is what his captain Frank McLintock says about Peter in his book “True Grit”. “Simpson was the perfect partner for me and his unruffled approach helped to temper my impetuosity. He was an underrated player; indeed he is the last person, himself, to recognise how good he was. If it had not been for exceptional talents like Bobby Moore, Norman Hunter and Colin Todd blocking his path to the England team, he would have made a very fine international player”.
Off the field of play Peter was far from the assured presence he was on it. Frank McLintock says this about Stan “Peter was the most negative person off the field you have ever met in your life. I used to argue with him all the time and tell him to shut up, Derek Dougan of Wolves would come in and see us before the game and Derek always looked 7ft tall because he was so skinny and angular. As soon as he had gone Peter would say. ‘You pick him up at corner kicks’ ‘Bollocks. You pick him up if he is on your side. You’re the same height as me – you can do it.’ On the pitch he was a different man, but off the field you had to shut him up”.
Simpson responds “Oh Frank, he gets on my nerves – he tells everyone that story. But I suppose I didn’t have enough belief in myself. I have always been a pessimist, still am. I always took the easy route, still do. It’s just my personality. No belief in myself. I hate to fail but I am scared to try in case I fail. It’s ridiculous- I don’t know how the missus has put up with me”.
To build up more of an idea about what Peter Simpson was like as both as player and a person. I’ve used some quotes by his team mates, from David Tossell’s superb book “Seventy-One Guns”. Which I urge you all to read.
Peter Storey says “Peter didn’t like like playing football. He would rather have been playing golf”. It’s something that Simpson himself admits to.
Stan’s closest friend at The Arsenal was Geordie Armstrong. Yet they were so different, like chalk and cheese. When they roomed together Geordie would be doing sit-ups and press-ups, while Stan would be having a cup of tea and a fag!
Eddie Kelly said “Peter and Geordie were great mates and I remember once Geordie saying ‘You could be a great player if you put your mind to it’ Peter looked up and said ‘George you do your job, and I’ll try and do mine.'”
John Radford tells an amusing story about Stan’s pre-match ritual. “Peter would be in the cubicles smoking until five minutes before the game. You’d see this cloud of smoke coming up from the toilets and Bertie would say, ‘Somebody go and get Peter’ You’d shout, ‘Come in Stan, we’re going’ and you’d hear that one last drag and pssshhh as he threw the fag in the toilet”.
Jon Sammels said of Peter “He had a great left foot and never gave the ball away. He was unruffled and calm and very consistent. He could come forward and make passes and he read the game well. He was not the quickest of runners. But he used to compensate by being shrewd and holding the line and knowing when to let the opposition run into offside positions”.
Bob McNab says “if you’d seen Peter play five-a-side you’d have said he should have played 60 times for England. He had unbelievable ability. He read the game like The Beano. He would get the ball off the keeper and beat five people. Peter gave us the opportunity to break teams down and act as a spare man in midfield. Peter could dribble and best people, while Frank would commit people and pass the.ball. Those two, pushing into midfield, making an extra man and committing people, were vital”.
Peter Simpson was born on 13th January 1945 at Gorleston Norfolk. He came to Arsenal at 15 years old, before becoming an apprentice in 1961 at 16.
Stan made his debut on 14th March 1964, at Highbury in a 4-2 defeat against Chelsea and kept his place for the next five games. The following season Peter played another six times and scored two goals. His first goal for The Arsenal was the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Highbury against Sheffield Wednesday in the first home game of the season on 25th August 1964.
A further eight appearances for the club, three of them as a substitute came in 1965-66. But it wasn’t until Bertie Mee replaced Billy Wright that Peter really started to make his mark. Stan enjoyed the benefit of having Dave Sexton as first team coach and that season Peter made 42 appearances in all competitions for the club. He showed his versatility by being what we used to call a utility player and that season wore, wait for it!, shirt numbers 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 10!
In 1967-68 Stan only missed two matches in all competitions and had an outstanding season. He was part of the League Cup Final side that lost 1-0 controversially to Leeds United. Stan was continuing to make excellent progress under Don Howe who’d taken over from Dave Sexton.
By 1968-69 Peter’s days of being the utility man, slotting in for other players and providing cover for Ian Ure and Terry Neill at centre back were well and truly over. Stan was now a permanent fixture at centre back wearing the number 6 shirt. In the League Cup Final against Swindon Town, where we suffered a humiliating 3-1 defeat Peter one of the seven Arsenal players suffering from flu, was taken off and replaced by George Graham.
In 1969-70 Don Howe made the key decision to move Frank McLintock from midfield to centre back to partner Stan and it was a revelation. Stan played in the Fairs Cup side which ended a 17 year trophy drought winning his first medal for The Arsenal when they blew away Belgium side Anderlecht 3-0 at Highbury in the second leg recovering from a 3-1 deficit in the first leg.
In the Double season of 1970-71 Stan missed the first three months of the season and didn’t return to the side until the 21st November. John Roberts did a brilliant job in covering for Stan. But once back Stan played in every game right through to the glorious climax of winning the Double.
Peter played against Leeds United in the 1972 FA Cup Final when we lost to them 1-0 again. The following season 1972-73, I was at Hillsborough for the FA Cup Semi-Final, when we were attempting to reach a third FA Cup Final in a row. Bertie Mee made a terrible decision to leave out our inspirational captain Frank McLintock and paired Stan with the hapless Jeff Blockley, who had a nightmare which led to a 2-1 defeat. We gave Liverpool a good run for their money finishing runners-up in the League, just three points behind them.
That was McLintock’s last season at Arsenal and the end of his brilliant partnership with Stan. Jeff Blockley wasn’t fit to tie Frank’s boots and Arsenal slipped to 10th in 1973-74.
Worse was to follow as the next season as Arsenal slumped to 16th in the league in 1974-75. Terry Mancini was Peter’s main partner at centre back but again Mancini was no comparison with Frank. Arsenal flirted with relegation in 1975-76 finishing 17th and Stan started just seven league games. Peter was reaching the twilight of his career as Arsenal tried various combinations of David O’Leary, Ritchie Powling and Terry Mancini.
In 1976-77 Arsenal improved finishing 8th and Peter had a bit of a revival starting 25 games that season mainly partnering the rapidly maturing David O’Leary. But once Terry Neill signed Willie Young from Tottenham his first team opportunities were limited and in 1977-78 Stan’s last season at Highbury he started just six league games. Stan’s last three appearances as an Arsenal player came from the substitutes bench and he came on for his final game in an Arsenal shirt, replacing Mark Heeley, at Highbury in a 1-0 win against Ipswich Town on the 2nd January 1978.
Stan finished his career with a season playing for New England Tea Men and then making eight appearances for Hendon. He arrived at Highbury aged 15 and was a wonderful servant to the club for 18 years, never playing for another English league club. He played 477 times for The Arsenal and scored 15 goals.
Peter shunned the limelight. I don’t think I ever saw him give a televised interview in all the years he played for Arsenal. These days he’s retired and living back in East Anglia. He never had any intention of staying in football once he stopped playing and i’ve never heard or read anything about him since he hung his boots up and that’s just the way Peter likes it! He has to be one of the most underrated Arsenal players of all time. But us Arsenal fans that remember him playing will never forget what a tremendous player he was for us.
As always thanks for reading. There’ll be another Highbury Hero along soon.