Professional Footballer

Born: 11 September 1936

Died: 11 March 2016

Billy Ritchie, who has died at the age of 79, was a member of the great Rangers team of the early 1960’s and to this day is regarded as one of the club’s finest goalkeepers in the post-war era.

Born Newtongrange, Midlothian in September 1936, William Ritchie was the son of a policeman. At the age of eighteen months he and his older brother George had moved with their mother and father to the West Lothian village of Addiewell, West Calder.

Educated at West Calder High School the young Billy played football for his school in the morning and the local Addiewell Hearts in the afternoon. After leaving school, local juvenile side Seafield were the first to utilise his services. Originally a left-sided outfield player he reverted to playing in goal in an emergency (bizarrely in a Married v Singles Challenge Match) and would never look back.

He joined junior club Bathgate Thistle whilst learning a trade as a joiner – and the path to a career in the senior game could scarcely have been less predictable. Fellow goalkeeper John Neill was a colleague of Billy Ritchie at Creamery Park and also a provisional signing for Rangers who wanted him to play in a forthcoming Third Team fixture. Neill was unavailable and Ritchie was asked to deputise, impressing to such an extent that then Ibrox Boss Bill Struth promised to call on him again should the need arise.

That gentleman’s agreement bore fruit on 12 August 1954 when Billy signed provisional forms for Rangers, by then under the manager-ship of Scot Symon. The ‘keeper had been brought up as a Hearts fan, but even though competition was fierce for his signature - Arsenal, Aston Villa and Everton were all in the mix - the 17-year-old and his parents were true to their word.

Called up to the senior ranks in May 1955, Ritchie made his first-team debut almost exactly one year later in a Charity Cup-tie against Third Lanark on 5 May 1956.

The consistency and reliability of George Niven in goal limited his appearances until Season 1957-58 finally saw the Newtongrange youngster establish himself as first-choice goalkeeper at Ibrox with 44 appearances in all games.

Fate would intervene however in the shape of National Service – an Army posting to Cyprus denying Billy the opportunity to build upon that first full season.

The summer of 1960 saw the arrival of Jim Baxter at Ibrox as one of the all-time great Rangers sides came together. Ritchie played in eighteen consecutive games until fate again intervened in the shape of a severe ankle injury suffered at Tynecastle that would result in an absence of fully five months.

The business-end of the season saw Ritchie return as the League Championship was secured and Rangers became the first British club to reach the final of a European tournament, losing to Fiorentina in the inaugural European Cup Winners Cup Final. Billy played in both legs – and in two memorable semi-finals against English giants Wolverhampton Wanderers. Rangers had emerged 2-0 winners from a titanic clash at Ibrox before drawing 1-1 in the Molyneaux return when a superb Ritchie save from a 25-yard Ron Flowers thunderbolt was a key first-half turning point.

Billy was now firmly established as first-choice goalkeeper at Ibrox as his friend and rival George Niven moved to Partick Thistle.

In total Billy Ritchie would make 366 appearances for Rangers, his ratio of shut-outs an impressive one in three. He would win four Scottish Cups (including three successive from 1962-64), three League Cups, two League Championships and in Season 1963-64 was an ever-present as the Light Blues secured the ‘Treble’.

Competition from both Bill Brown of Tottenham Hotspur and Kilmarnock’s Campbell Forsyth restricted the Rangers ‘keeper to just the one full international appearance against Uruguay at Hampden in 1962 at a time when international fixtures were much less frequent than today.

Regarded as the ‘quiet man’ of the side, his consistency, reliability and shot-stopping ability were legendary. His positional sense, anticipation and ability to read the game were first-class. He was one of the first of his trade to practise specialised goalkeeper training.

Amongst his finest games for the Ibrox men was the 1966 Scottish Cup Final when both first game and replay resulted in clean sheets against Jock Stein’s Celtic as a Kai Johansen goal took the Cup to Ibrox.

Later that year a League Cup Semi-Final against Aberdeen marked Billy Ritchie’s last game as a Ranger before he followed in the footsteps of his former colleague George Niven by moving across the city to Firhill in 1967 where he would play two seasons for Partick Thistle, making 77 appearances.

Motherwell was the next port of call as Player-Coach. He played thirteen League games whilst at Fir Park before moving on to his final club, Stranraer, in 1976 for whom he would play 23 League games before returning to his roots as a coach at West Calder in October 1980.

After leaving the professional game he worked at Motherwell College for almost thirty years and as a resident of Livingston he opened the first shop in the new town.

Billy Ritchie died on 11 March 2016 following a short illness. He is survived by his wife Margaret.

Robert McElroy