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On This Day 88 Years Ago - September 5th 1931
It was 88 years ago today, on Saturday, September 5, 1931, the Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson received a serious head injury while playing against Rangers at Ibrox.

It was 88 years ago today, on Saturday, September 5, 1931, the Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson received a serious head injury while playing against Rangers at Ibrox.

He died later in hospital, having never regained consciousness after the incident.

John Thomson was born in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy, and moved to the nearby mining village of Cardenden at an early age where like many of his contemporaries, had started his working life as a teenager down the pits.

He signed for Celtic in 1926 at the age of 17, having been spotted playing for Wellesley Juniors by Celtic scout Steve Callaghan, who had also alerted the club to the talents of a certain Jimmy McGrory.

Celtic paid £10 for the young man who would go on to become known as the Prince of Goalkeepers, and by the age of 18 he had already made his first-team debut against Dundee at Dens Park in a 2-1 win for Celtic. It is quite an achievement to have been awarded the goalkeeper's spot in the first team at such an age, as it should be noted that this was a time when goalkeepers were not protected as well as they are now, so it was quite a demanding role to have to take on. It showed the confidence the management had in him, and Willie Maley stated that soon he had become one of the finest goalkeepers in the country.

He was to be a mainstay in the Celtic first team, gathering up almost 200 appearances, with a very impressive clean sheet record of around 1 in every 3 games. His performances saved Celtic many a time for an underachieving Celtic team that would have otherwise beaten many others in his position.

Speculation had grown that manager Willie Maley was intending to sell him (and Jimmy McGrory) to pay for the new stand which was opened in 1929. Thankfully, like Jimmy McGrory, John Thomson didn't go or want to either. He loved his home and he loved Celtic. He was a firm favourite of the support, and his commitment gave him a dear place in the hearts of the support.

During his time as Celtic goalkeeper, he won two Scottish Cup medals - in 1927 when East Fife were defeated 3-1 and in 1931, when Celtic beat Motherwell 4-2 in a replay, having drawn the first game 2-2. Celtic had begun to stutter in the 1920's having previously been a powerful side up to the 1920s. Rangers were now (with favour from certain quarters) achieving repeat success and domestic dominance. This was a tough environment for Scottish football.

International recognition followed on the back of his impressive displays for Celtic, and Thomson gained four caps for Scotland and four for the Scottish League. For Scotland he had a very impressive record of having three clean sheets and only conceding one goal. An incredible start. On one occasion for the Scottish League at Birmingham, he thrilled the crowd by his saves “like taking a jug from a shelf”, and on one occasion turning in mid-air according to the accounts of some sober (generally) reliable journalists.

A quiet and unassuming character off the park, once on the field of play Thomson had a natural athleticism aligned to a brave spirit and impressed all who had the privilege to see him play.

On 5 September 1931, Celtic were playing rivals Rangers at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow in front of 80,000 (match page). Early in the second half Thomson and a Rangers player, Sam English, went for the ball at the same time. Thomson's head collided with English's knee, fracturing his skull and ruptured an artery in his right temple. Thomson was taken off the field on a stretcher and Chic Geatons took over in goals. Most people had assumed that Thomson was 'just' badly concussed, but a few people who had seen his injuries up close suspected possibly worse. A section of the home support (Rangers) were unaware of the seriousness of the injury and cheered until they were silenced by one of the Rangers' players.

One source said "there were gasps in the main stand, a single piercing scream being heard from a horrified young woman", this was believed to be the scream of Margaret Finlay who was watching with Jim Thomson (brother of John). One Rangers player who was also a medical student said later that as soon as he saw him he gave little chance for his survival. After having treatment from the St Andrew's Ambulance Association, he was taken to a stretcher. According to The Scotsman he was "seen to rise on the stretcher and look towards the goal and the spot where the accident happened".

The game ended 0–0. Thomson was taken to the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow. He had a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones of the skull, which meant that there was a depression in his skull of 2 inches in diameter. At 5pm he suffered a major convulsion. Dr Norman Davidson carried out an emergency operation to try and lower the amount of pressure caused by the swelling brain, but the operation was unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead by 9.25pm.

The death of a footballer in his prime is thankfully rare, and even rarer on the field of play. Even after this length of time, John Thomson's untimely death at the age of just 22 remains one of football's great tragedies. A young goalkeeper, already the first choice for his club and country, with a long and distinguished career seemingly ahead of him, dead as a result of an accident during a game.

Thomson was renowned for his bravery and fearlessness, and his dive at the feet of the Rangers forward Sam English as the player went to shoot was visible evidence of those virtues.

Thomson's death stunned football, and was particularly hard felt by everyone connected with Celtic. He had only got engaged that same year to a young lady.

Sam English was correctly cleared of any blame in the incident but he was jeered by opposition fans afterwards. He continued that season and had overall an excellent scoring rate, but the mental burden he had to carry was heavy and he moved south a year later to play with Liverpool FC. However he quit the sport altogether in May 1938, and he told a friend that since the accident that killed John Thomson he had "seven years of joyless sport". He was a haunted man, and sadly died later in life from the debilitating Motor Neuron Disease.

Some 40,000 people attended the funeral in Cardenden, including thousands who had travelled through from Glasgow, many walking the 55 miles to the Fife village. Another 20,000 turned out at Glasgow Queen Street station in order to watch two trains set off with two thousand passengers who could afford to pay the four shillings return fare. Thomson's coffin was carried by his devastated team-mates.

A disturbing post-note is that 'The Glasgow Observer' newspaper stated that just prior to the match Thomson was writing to a friend in the States and signed off in the letter:

"Off now to Ibrox to meet the great Rangers, a death or glory affair..."

Certainly the death of John Thomson hit the club - the officials, players and the supporters - hard and had an understandably adverse effect on subsequent performances over the next couple of seasons. John Thomson had been a pivotal player for the squad, his loss would inevitably be keenly felt.

Indeed further tragedy was to hit the club just two years later when Peter Scarff, who had also played in that fateful game, died from tuberculosis at the age of just 24. This double tragedy from the Celtic squad of the time is unmeasurable in its effect on all from the time. Manager Willie Maley in particular is said to have taken it hard.

John Thomson's memory has lived on with Celtic supporters, through a moving song, and fans still visit his graveside in Fife to pay their own respects.

One important aspect that came from his death, that it led to much soul-searching throughout Scotland over the issue of sectarianism and the Irish communities. However, it should be noted that John Thomson wasn't a Catholic but a member of a small but strict Protestant sect called "The Church of Christ" where members took services themselves (his funeral was conducted by friend & miner John Howie).

By playing for Celtic, he was though labelled and abused as a "Fenian Bastard" by a number of opposition players and fans. As much as this would hurt anyone, John Thomson showed part of his great humour in being able to cope with the taunting and abuse as the following exchange of banter with the legendary Jimmy McGrory shows:

On John Thomson bemoaning on being called a "Fenian Bastard" by an opposition player (despite being a church going Scottish Protestant)
Jimmy McGrory: "John, I get called that every game I play."
John Thomson: "I know. It's all right for you. You are one!"

In respect, the memory and name of John Thomson was well honoured in the days following his death, but its impact was to be way beyond that of his death alone, and is for an analysis beyond this summary.

The John Thomson Memorial Committee hold an annual football tournament where children of all denominations in the Cardenden and Kinglassie areas play for 'The John Thomson Trophy'.

The final thought on the tragic events of September 1931 is to remember the epitaph on John Thomson's gravestone, which reads:

"They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind."

Posted by voc1967 on Thursday 05 September 2019 - 08:55:34 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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