Simpson goes from Finn Harps to World Cup final

15th November 2023

Stephen Finn looks back on Paul Simpson's Finn Harps spell as he gets ready for the U-20 World Cup final in South Korea, managing England.  TWENTY years ago this month the Republic of Ireland came within a whisker of reaching the World U20 Cup Final

Stephen Finn looks back on Paul Simpson's Finn Harps spell as he gets ready for the U-20 World Cup final in South Korea, managing England. 

TWENTY years ago this month the Republic of Ireland came within a whisker of reaching the World U20 Cup Final in Malaysia. This Sunday a former Finn Harps player will get to experience what that Irish squad just missed out upon in 1997.

Paul Simpson will be achieving the highlight of his coaching career thus far as England meet unlikely fellow finalists Venezuela in the World U20 Cup Final in Korea.

Back when he was the same age as those talented teenagers he now coaches, Simpson was taken out of his comfort zone as he swapped the cosy confines of Manchester City for a two-month loan spell in Ballybofey with Patsy McGowan’s Harps.

Born in Carlisle four days before England won the 1966 World Cup, Simpson emerged as a talented winger in City’s underage set-up, won youth international caps for his country and made his senior club debut as a 16-year-old against Coventry City in October 1982.

With City relegated to the Second Division, chances for young players were parked for a while as they set their sights on securing promotion at the first attempt.  New manager Billy McNeill decided it would be good for the development of Simpson and defender John Beresford to go out on loan in the summer of 1984.

With Finn Harps faced with their own fight to retain their top flight status ahead of the creation of the new League of Ireland First Division, the two young English lads linked up with a club that knew every point in every fixture could be very precious indeed.

While Beresford stayed for a month, Simpson made 13 appearances in his two month spell at Finn Park and Harps were not overly pleased when City opted to bring him back. It worked well for the players as he ended up forcing his way into McNeill’s plans and scored six times in ten appearances as City won promotion back to the top flight.

His form continued and he went on to win five England U21 caps but after starring in the 1987 Toulon Tournament Simpson unfortunately never made the final step up to full international honours.

Speaking to club historian Bartley Ramsey for the Finn Harps programme in 2004 Simpson recalled his time in Ballybofey with fondness even though he admitted the move had come as a surprise to him.

“The move was sprung on me by Billy McNeill who was my manager at Manchester City at the time. In my first season with City I had made my debut and was hoping to get into the City first team squad on a regular basis for that season in 1984,” he recalls.

“I have to admit Billy had to sell it to us he explained that he had a big squad at City, it would toughen us up to get some games in a competitive environment, after that I was happy enough to go and stay for three months.

“It was a culture shock as you can imagine. Ballybofey was a small town and here we were coming from Manchester - a big city.

“Funny, the thing that has stayed with me most is when we turned up for the first game. It was a pre-season game against Glasgow Celtic and we arrived at the hotel to find the rest of the players tucking into a normal Sunday dinner a couple of hours before a match! That was quite strange but I must say they were a great bunch of lads.”

Simpson paid tribute to manager Patsy McGowan and club chairman Fran Fields for their hospitality as he and Beresford looked to settle into their new environs.

“They couldn’t do enough for us. I have to say it was a very friendly club and I have fond memories of my time there. I remember well in the League we struggled quite badly and took a few bad beatings but we did reach the Semi-Finals of the League Cup before I had to return to Manchester City.

“We had some decent players but we weren’t getting the rub of the green. I remember the day we played Shamrock Rovers we went one up and we started really brightly but still didn’t end up winning the game losing 3-2. Rovers, of course, were the top side in the League of Ireland at the time.

“I really think it benefited me when I got back to City, because it taught me to appreciate the way things were set-up in Manchester. They had top class facilities and stayed in top class hotels and the like, but when you go away it is not the same.”

Simpson’s club career saw him flit between the top two divisions during spells with Oxford, Derby County, a loan at Sheffield United, a spell at Wolves, another loan at Walsall then he slipped down the divisions with Blackpool, Rochdale and finally his hometown club Carlisle United. He ended his playing career in 2006.

The winger had always proven to be a reliable character everywhere he played and he was player-manager at both Rochdale and Carlisle before hanging up his boots. He had spells at Preston North End, Shrewsbury and Stockport County then a stint at non-league Northwhich Victory before his appointment to England U20s this year.

His stint at Carlisle was a real test of his managerial capabilities. With a transfer embargo the club were relegated to the Conference in his first season but he led them to two successive promotions as player-boss with his final game on the pitch being one where the club sealed the League Two title.

Simpson moved to Preston that summer and led them to the top of the Championship in his first six months but their financial limitations eventually took their toll and they could not strengthen in the second half of the campaign and were defeated in the play-offs. A poor start the next season saw him depart Deepdale in disappointment.

He led Shrewsbury to the League Two safety in 2008 then to the play-off final in his first full season where they lost to Gillingham. After missing out on the play-offs the next campaign he moved on and re-emerged with Stockport County but that move never worked out. A short spell at non-league Northwhich was followed up with a stint in Portugal with an academy before a spell as an assistant to Steve McClaren at Newcastle United in 2015.

Gareth Southgate’s promotion to the England senior job saw Aidy Boothroyd move up from England U20s to the U21s and Simpson was named as England U20s coach in February.

By any measure he has done magnificently with an admittedly talented group of players. England were only semi-finalists in this competition once before back in 1981 when Australia were the hosts. Venezuela may seem unlikely opponents in this year’s finals but 36 years ago Qatar knocked the English out on the last four! Ex-Sligo Rovers striker Mike Small scored as England lost that semi-final 2-1 at Sydney Cricket Ground.

Simpson’s England have been excellent in Korea. They beat Argentina 3-0 in their opener, their 1-1 draw with Guinea was a surprise but a 1-0 win over the hosts in Suwon got them back on track. Costa Rica were dispatched 2-1 in the second round then Mexico were next to fall to the English in the last eight.

That sent England into a testing semi-final against Italy on Thursday. The Italians went 1-0 up after two minutes but a double from Dominic Solanke and another from Ademola Lookman sent England into the final. Venezuela await them in Sunday’s final after a 91st minute equaliser against Uruguay followed by a penalty shoot-out victory.

It is unlikely that Simpson will be thinking much of his time in the League of Ireland as he proudly leads his country into the World U20 Cup Final on Sunday but for Harps fans a little part of Paul Simpson will always be linked to Donegal.

Finn Harps historian Bartley Ramsey says the Harps fans have always monitored how Simpson, Beresford and other cross-channel players that they brought in have progressed in their careers.

"Yes Harps fans of a certain vintage do. When I was talking to Gerard McHugh this morning he reminded me that the English boys were taught how to play snooker in Butt Hall. There were three tables and you had to get in the queue to use them!," he recalled.