A giant between the sticks

When Bristol Rovers signed two very tall goalkeepers over the summer my mind immediately went back to the summer of 1965, when Rovers fans felt the excitement of signing Ronnie Briggs a 6’ 3” Northern Irish International, from Swansea Town.

Rovers regular keeper at that time was the very brave 5’ 10” Bernard Hall, who even in those days was regarded as being a little on the short side. If the opposition had a Centre Forward (that’s what they were called back then) who was good in the air we all knew that Rovers might be in trouble. The Reserve keeper at that time was only one inch taller and very slight, Larry Taylor.

You certainly couldn’t call Ronnie ‘slight’ at 14st 6lbs he was something of a man mountain. Born in Belfast in 1943 the young Irishman was scouted by Manchester United at the age of 15, and signed professional forms with them on his 17th birthday. His first team debut came 10 months later, in a First Division match away to Leicester City on 21 January 1961. However, it was a disaster; he conceded six goals as United lost 6–1.

Despite this, Briggs retained his place in the team a week later for a fourth round FA Cup tie at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday. The match ended in a 1 – 1 draw with the United goal scored by fellow-Irishman Noel Cantwell.

The replay proved to be a different story, as one newspaper reported it at the time:

Ronnie Briggs, a little boy lost in a match labelled ‘He men only’, fumbled Manchester United out of the FA Cup last night. The floodlit fury of a screaming, roaring whistling 65,000 Old Trafford crowd overwhelmed 17-year-old Briggs, United’s regular third-team goalkeeper only 10 days ago.

He had a nightmare in a dream match and in seven dreadful minutes presented Sheffield Wednesday with three goals. The score zoomed from 1-1 to 4-1 against United as Briggs let a shot from Alan Finney spin out of his arms (30 minutes), grasped with wild inaccuracy at a header from Keith Ellis (33 minutes) and, after diving bravely at the toes of Ellis, failed to grab the ball (37 minutes). And there were no smiles in the Irish eyes of Briggs when the whistle mercifully ended the slaughter at 7-2, United’s worst post-war home defeat.

The boy, in white pants six inches too short for his lanky legs, came off the field last and alone – clutching his cap, covering his tears with his left hand and loping with schoolboy awkwardness towards the players’ tunnel. In his last stride he paused to look up shyly at the packed stand, expecting, perhaps, assault or abuse. He received neither. Manchester, bless its broken, sporting heart, gave him a cheer.

Ronnie made his debut for Northern Ireland on 11 April 1962 away to Wales. Another unhappy debut as he conceded four goals in a 4 – 0 defeat. From the end of February to mid-April 1963 he was given a run of eight matches including just one clean sheet. In each of his last two games for the United first team Ronnie conceded three goals. The Ulsterman’s last match for Manchester United was 2-3 home defeat against Arsenal on 16 April 1962. Following a period in the reserves he left Manchester United to join Swansea Town in 1964.

Whilst at Swansea he won his second and last international cap in March 1965 in a 1966 World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park. The Irish beat Holland 2-1. In that 1964-65 season he played 27 times for the Swans before deciding to move over the Severn Bridge to Bristol.

He made his Rovers debut on 1 November 1965 in a 1-0 defeat at Shrewsbury’s, Gay Meadow. Bernard Hall had a very poor game in a 2-0 defeat at Oldham, so Ronnie was given his chance between the sticks. Despite going down to defeat the Evening Post noted:

“Only some fine saves by Ronnie Briggs making his debut in goal for Rovers stopped aggressive Shrewsbury from building up a big score.”,

“Goalkeeper Briggs made a brilliant start. Within the first 10 minutes he had made four great saves as swift Shrewsbury pressed relentlessly for an early lead. First he raised spectacularly to tip a savage Boardman shot over the bar, then flung himself full length to match Clarke’s header from a Meredith corner that followed.”

“Next the Irish International dashed out to stop right half Hemsley, through in full flight from Boardman’s pass. And minutes later he fearlessly flung himself at the feet of Clarke to block a shot after Shrewsbury’s centre forward had wrong footed Davis, Briggs agility and courage saw Rovers through the early onslaught”

He then played in the next two games at home to Gillingham (0-0) and Workington (2-2), and a 3-2 away defeat at Reading in the FA Cup before Bernard Hall returned for the rest of the season. Despite making many fine saves in the Reading game he made some bad mistakes for two of the Reading goals.

The following season Ronnie was again second choice to Bernard Hall but earned himself a run in the team after the season had started with a 3-3 home draw to Swansea. Ronnie played well in an unexpected 2-1 victory over newly relegated Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. He played in 8 of the next 9 games but was dropped after a 3-2 defeat at Doncaster.

On New Year’s Eve 1966 Bernard Hall suffered a career ending head injury in the home game with Middlesbrough, but it was young Larry Taylor who was given the number 1 shirt and held it for the remaining 21 games of the season.

At the start of the 1967-68 season Larry Taylor kept the keeper’s jersey, but a 3-1 opening day defeat at Bournemouth’s Dean Court, saw Ronnie back between the sticks. He kept the position right through to the end of the year, when in his final game for Rovers’, they went down to a 2-1 defeat at Reading’s Elm Park.

So that was his career at Rovers (before dropping out of League football), but what was this affable Irish giant like as a player? Whilst there was no doubting his bravery as this match reports above indicate, he always had a mistake in him. For all the flying leaps he was prone to dropping the ball. In one memorable match he took exception to being challenged as he was about to clear the ball. Ronnie tucked the ball under his arm and chased the offending forward up the pitch. The Ref very pragmatically awarded the free-kick to the Rovers keeper! A great character who never fulfilled his full potential.

Let us just hope that our two new signings are maybe a little more consistent than Ronnie!