HIBS fans have been waxing lyrical about Ben Williams after the keeper’s fourth penalty save of the season sent his side into the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup at the weekend.
Williams has come up against six spot-kicks in the current campaign and has only had to pick the ball out of the back of the net on one occasion – former Hibee Kevin McBride scoring for Dundee.
The four men he has denied are Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn and Scott Vernon, St Mirren’s Paul McGowan and St Johnstone’s Nigel Hasselbaink, while Motherwell’s Michael Higdon hit the bar in the other unsuccessful penalty. Hibs have not lost any of the five matches when Williams hasn’t been beaten from 12 yards, a remarkable achievement.
That record, though, has some way to go to match that of Hibs keeper Ronnie Simpson. In the 1960s, the man who went on to star for Celtic in their 1967 European Cup triumph blocked 12 penalties in a row, including two in one game against Third Lanark.
Former Easter Road skipper Pat Stanton played alongside Simpson in that Hibs side and remembers the fuss the goalkeeper’s form against the opposition from the spot had caused.
Stanton recalled: “He was first class, a real quality keeper, and played in a very successful Newcastle before he came to Hibs and then signed for Celtic.
“He had a brilliant record when it came to penalties and I think it would be very difficult for anyone nowadays to match him.”
Stanton reckons that the goalkeeper’s stunning stop rate from 12 yards could have been down to the unusual stance he took as he faced up to spot-kicks.
Simpson forced penalty takers to choose their spot as they ran up by standing off to either to the left or right of the goal line, leaving a wide open space at the other side.
That meant the keeper, nine times out of ten, knew which way the opposing player was going to send his shot before he had even started his run-up.
And Stanton continued: “I can remember talking to him one day and asking him what it was that he did that was so different from other goalkeepers. Back then most of them stood right in middle of their goal, in fact, most of them still do today. Ronnie was a bit more unusual though.
“His idea was to stand to stand a wee bit off centre because he knew that, unless you were winning by a handful of goals, you would really need to aim to the side with the space. Obviously it didn’t always work out but it put that little bit of doubt into the penalty-taker’s mind and it meant that you didn’t really have any other option than to aim for the side with the big wide space, instead of the side the keeper had covered, so he knew which way you were going to shoot.”
While his record propelled him into the spotlight, Stanton recalls Simpson, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 73, as being a modest character who just enjoyed life: “Ronnie was just enjoyed the game and I don’t think that he tried to analyse it too deeply. He had a terrific career with some great sides. He was a smart. He was a great guy, I started about the same time that he came back. He was a terrific help, took you to the side and give you the benefit of his experience and he could tell you in a way that you understood straight away.”
While Simpson’s record is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon, Williams has certainly been going through a purple patch for the Easter Road side and not only when up against a penalty.
Fingertip saves against Hearts on a couple of occasions and then against the Dons at the weekend have not only saved points in their quest for European football but also seen them progress to the latter stages of the Scottish Cup, a competition which has eluded them for so long.
And Stanton is certain that an in-form Williams can make all the difference for his old side on all fronts in the current campaign. He continued: “He is doing well, very well. If you are going to do anything, whether it be in the league or the cup competitions, you have to have someone who is reliable at the heart of it all and Ben Williams is proving himself to be just that.
“He is first class, he really is and you have no idea how much having someone like that behind you helps defenders out.
“I know that Hibs have maybe struggled to score goals recently, but if you’re not losing them at the other end then you’re not losing games either.”
At half-time in their match against the Dons on Sunday, former Hibs manager John Collins remarked that he believes Williams is one of the best keepers to have been on the books at Easter Road in the last decade. Stanton happily goes along with that.
“When you look back at some of the great goalkeepers, I think one of the best I have seen play for Hibs was Alan Rough and probably most supporters would go along with that,” Stanton went on.
“Up there alongside him has to be Andy Goram. When these guys were in goals, you would see a ball heading for the net and have your head in your hands but then they would somehow manage to get a touch on it and it wasn’t a goal.
“They made the difference in so many games and save the side so many points over the course of the season. Hopefully that will prove to be the case with Ben Williams come the end of this campaign.”