On May 26th 1982, at the home of Feyenoord in Rotterdam, Jimmy Rimmer lined up for Aston Villa in their first European Cup final. He was already in possession of a winner’s medal, having sat on the bench for the entirety of Manchester United’s historical triumph in 1968. Sadly for the experienced goalkeeper, he would play fewer than ten minutes against Bayern Munich.
Along with Dennis Mortimer lifting the trophy and Peter Withe’s shinned winning goal, the sight of Rimmer leaving the field shaking his head – spare gloves in hand – is one of the most iconic images in Villa’s history. He was famously replaced by a youthful Nigel Spink, who proceeded to put in a spotless performance and keep a clean sheet to propel his team to the summit of European football. Rimmer picked up another European Cup medal, but again was unable to contribute as fully as he was capable and would have liked.
Rimmer might well be Villa’s greatest ever goalkeeper, but he earned respect elsewhere before heading for the Midlands. Born in Southport in 1948, Rimmer progressed through the United youth ranks before breaking into the first team in 1965. At the age of 20 he looked on as Alex Stepney helped United to a momentous victory over Benfica at Wembley to make them the champions of Europe for the first time under Matt Busby. His first team opportunities understandably limited, Rimmer found himself at Swansea City, where his performances earned him a move to Arsenal, where he played well over 100 league matches but was unable to add to his medal.
He won’t have been expecting to do so when Pat Jennings signed for Arsenal and Rimmer moved to Villa, joining Ron Saunders in 1977 and becoming a stalwart of the Merseysider’s remarkable achievements at the club. In 1980/81, Saunders took Villa to the First Division title using just 14 players and benefiting from the fitness and reliability of seven ever-presents, of which Rimmer was one; he kept 15 clean sheets as Villa pipped Ipswich Town to the title. By the time Mortimer lifted the European Cup, Saunders had departed and Rimmer had watched the coming of age of his replacement.
Rimmer returned for a spell with Swansea before becoming a goalkeeper coach first in South Wales and then in China, and later Canada. During his playing career England did come calling, but the hard-as-nails stopper had to settle for a single cap.
Then with Arsenal, Rimmer joined the England squad for the four-team US Bicentennial Cup friendly competition. On May 28th Rimmer made his debut for the national team (in a side boasting the likes of Phil Neal, Ray Wilkins and Trevor Brooking, and skippered by Mick Channon with the smell of FA Cup success still lingering in his nostrils) against Italy in Yankee Stadium, the New York venue’s last international football match.
Rimmer’s debut was a disaster. Having conceded two goals, he was substituted at half time by no-nonsense manager Don Revie, to be replaced by another debutant in Joe Corrigan of Manchester City. The goals were undoubtedly disappointing for the Arsenal goalkeeper, who allowed Francesco Graziani’s opener to slide underneath him for 1-0 (although Mike Doyle should take the bulk of the blame) and not getting down quickly enough to turn away the Torino man’s second, assisted by one Fabio Capello from the right flank.
Three quickfire goals at the start of the second half would eventually win the game for England, who then defeated the USA’s representative team to finish second in the competition table.
The Bicentennial Cup was as much an historical marker for soccer in America as it was for Rimmer. In Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game, David Wangerin reports that “Team America” featured only four Americans, two of them goalkeepers, while ten other countries were represented in the so-called USA team. Wangerin criticises the North American Soccer League and the United States Soccer Federation for their “guarded – if not contemptuous – attitude…towards the development of the American player”, and points out that the legitimate USA team could have used the experience of player Brazil, England and Italy when it came to World Cup qualifying later in that same year.
The fate of football in North America, ironically later to pay Rimmer a wage, was none of his concern in 1976. For 45 minutes in the Bronx, the future Aston Villa hero was an England international. His opportunities were limited not only by Revie but by the phenomenal longevity of Peter Shilton’s England career. I can think of more than a few ‘keepers who suffered that problem.
(Apologies for the appearance of Richard Keys in the video, and in life.)