My best memory of Malcolm Simmons is always of that day back in August 1965 when, as a West Ham supporter, I saw the best the best meeting I have ever seen. The day Malcolm Simmons became a star!
In that year, one of the Quarter Final matches of the KO Cup saw a local derby London tie with West Ham drawn at home to Wimbledon. Before the tie, the two teams appeared to be evenly matched and so the match proved. With one heat to go the scores were level at 45-45. That final heat saw the Wimbledon pair, Olle Nygren and Reg Luckhurst, shoot in to an early lead over West Ham’s Brian Leonard and Norman Hunter and it looked all over for the Hammers when suddenly Luckhurst’s engine blew up resulting in a 3-3 and a tied match at 48-48.
Having drawn at West Ham, Wimbledon looked a good bet to take the tie in the replay on their own track. But there was even worse news for West Ham as their top rider, Sverre Harrfeldt, was injured the previous evening at Hackney and unable to take part and their third heat leader, Norman Hunter, was also unable to ride as it was his wedding day! There were no guests allowed so the Hammers had to resort to filling the places of two heat leaders with Tony Clarke, making his racing debut, and a Wimbledon junior, Geoff Hughes. Only Ken McKinlay was a recognized heat leader and, although by now a team regular, it should be remembered that at this time West Ham’s 19 year old Malcolm Simmons was just a reasonable five point average second string who had shown no signs of the great rider he was to become in later years. No-one, not even the West Ham supporters present that afternoon, gave the Hammers much hope.
By heat six it looked as though Wimbledon’s superiority was about to assert itself as Wimbledon skipper, the great Olle Nygren. along with the experienced Jim Tebby, took a 5-1 against West Ham’s newcomer, Tony Clarke, and second string, Brian Leonard. The lack of two heat leaders looked as though it was now beginning to tell. But as West Ham were six points in arrears it meant they could use a tactical substitute and they wasted no time bringing in Ken McKinlay for reserve Ray Wickett in the very next heat. The line-up for heat seven was therefore Bob Dugard and Keith Whipp for the Dons, Malcolm Simmons and Ken McKinlay for the Hammers. The young Simmons shot away from the gate with McKinlay behind him and that’s how the heat finished. A 5-1 for West Ham and four points pulled back. Simmons’ time of 66.2 was the fastest of the night.
The next heat saw McKinlay out again, this time in a scheduled ride, with old campaigner Reg Trott lining up against Reg Luckhurst and reserve Mike Coomber. Some brilliant team riding by McKinlay and Trott kept Luckhurst behind them and with Coomber falling, it meant another 5-1 to the Hammers and, unbelievably, at the half-way stage, West Ham now found themselves with a two point lead.
With Nygren and Tebby lined up against Simmons and Wickett in heat 10 it looked as though the Dons would edge back in to the lead, but, once again, Simmons rose to the occasion and beat Nygren in the second fastest time of the night. Heat 12 saw another astonishing turn of events as Wimbledon’s Bobby Dugard fell and was excluded from the re-run. It was a simple matter for McKinlay and Trott to defeat Whipp and take a 5-1. It was now West Ham who were six points up and it was now Wimbledon who used a tactical substitute as they brought in Nygren for reserve, John Edwards. Unfortunately it did not have the desired effect as, for the second time that night, West Ham’s new hero, the young Malcolm Simmons, beat Nygren, leaving West Ham still six points in front. This time though, Simmons had done it the hard way, coming from behind and taking the Wimbledon captain on the last lap.
With just three heats to go, time was running out for Wimbledon and the impossible suddenly looked possible. However, a Nygren and Dugard 5-1 over Trott and Leonard put them back in with a chance and when, in heat 15, Tebby and Coomber pulled off a 4-2 against Clarke and Hughes, the scores, were back to level with one heat to go.
The line-up for that final heat saw Keith Whipp and Reg Luckhurst for Wimbledon against Ken McKinlay and Malcolm Simmons for West Ham. The tension around the stadium was palpable. Everyone was holding their breath. A match which at the beginning of the afternoon had seemed likely to be very one-sided had now come down to a last heat decider.
To some extent the final race as a race was a bit of a disappointment as Simmons once again flew off from the start and never looked to be in any danger and with McKinlay settling for a steady third place, the match was won by West Ham by 49 points to 47.
The small band of Hammers’ supporters who had made the trip across London couldn’t believe what had happened. The hero of the hour was the 19 year old Malcolm Simmons. He had beaten the Wimbledon captain, Olle Nygren, twice and had set the three fastest times of the night. In fact he still wasn’t finished. In the second half scratch race event, the Cheer Leaders’ Trophy, he won the first heat, beating, McKinlay, Luckhurst and Dugard and then went on to win the final, once again beating Nygren. As if that wasn’t enough, a special Handicap race was held with Simmons starting off 20 yards, Nygren off 10 and Trott, Leonard and Tebby off scratch. Yet again, Simmons got the better of Nygren, even with his handicap.
As for me, although that match was held 52 years ago I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. In fact I can remember it better than matches I saw last season. It was just such an amazing afternoon. I went along there with a few other Hammers’ supporters expecting a reasonable match but when it was announced just before the meeting started that neither Harrfeldt nor Hunter would be taking part we seriously considered going home. The Wimbledon supporters around us were saying things like, ’You’ll be lucky if you get 20 points’ and ’This is going to be the biggest thrashing of all time.’ Of course we gave back as good as we got but in our hearts we felt they could well be right.
But suddenly there was this rider called Malcolm Simmons, who we had seen rise from the ranks of a second halfer at West Ham to a reasonable five point second string but no more, taking on and beating the likes of Olle Nygren and Reg Luckhurst on their own track in the fastest times of the night. He was just phenomenal.
Recalling the match later in an interview I carried out with him, Malcolm Simmons said that the West Ham team had gone to the meeting thinking they would get thrashed but somehow the whole team had risen to the occasion. He went on to say, “It was the first good meeting I ever had for West Ham. I just came good on the night.”
As we now know, Simmons went on to become one of Great Britain’s greatest ever riders and runner-up in the 1976 World Championship, World Pairs Champion in 1976, 77 and 78, World Team Champion in 1973, 74, 75 and 77 and British Champion in 1976. He was capped 80 times for England, seven times for the British Lions (touring Australia), five times for Great Britain and four times for the Rest of the World.
But it all started that night and I feel very privileged to have been there to witness what must have been one of the best matches of all time and one of the most outstanding personal performance of all time.