Written by Tom Victor
They don’t make goalkeepers like John Thomson any more.. Barely five foot nine, a player of Thomson’s stature and preferred position would likely have been written off by top-level academies on principle. Added to that, the Fife-born player did not take what we would now consider a conventional route into top-level football.
Having begun his teenage years as a colliery worker, like his father, Thomson then turned out for Wellesley Juniors in the mid-1920s, and while the local press sang his praises as a future great of the game, it would have been easy to dismiss such comments as mere over enthusiasm about one of their own.
However, at the age of 17 he was spotted by Celtic. Quite coincidentally, it turns out – the club’s scout had been sent to watch an opposition striker but he was so enamoured by the ability of the young keeper that the Bhoys completed his signing for £10 towards the end of 1926.
He was given his chance in the first team at the age of 18, keeping his place in the side and lifting the Scottish Cup in 1927. Thomson would go on to play more than 200 games in the green and white of Celtic until his untimely death, at which point he had been on the verge of establishing himself as Scotland’s first choice goalkeeper, with an impressive three clean sheets in four appearances for the national side. However that all changed in the Old Firm Derby of September 1931.
Rangers led the Scottish top flight at the time, though Celtic would leapfrog them with a win at Ibrox, and the game was scoreless when the two teams re-emerged for the second half.
Shortly after the restart, rushing out to beat Rangers striker Sam English to a loose ball, Thomson dived out bravely to reach the ball before his opponent only for his momentum to carry him into the knee of the Irish forward, fracturing his skull.
Footage of the incident shows English, along with one of Thomson’s Celtic team-mates, signal desperately for medical assistance.
Reports at the time suggested that, as he was being carried from the field of play, Thomson looked back towards the spot where the incident occurred, with some even implying that the backward glance indicated a desire to continue playing. However he was pronounced dead just hours after arriving at Glasgow’s Victoria Infirmary.
The midweek league and cup programme was naturally truncated as a mark of respect, with games involving Glasgow clubs Celtic, Rangers and Third Lanark postponed as arrangements for Thomson’s funeral and associated tributes taking priority over something as relatively trivial as a scheduled football match.
Thomson’s death had a huge effect on the community, with the Dundee Courier and Advertiser reporting on 9 September 1931 that “hundreds were unable to gain admission to the church” to pay their respects at a memorial service in Glasgow.
And the Aberdeen Press spoke of the “amazing scenes” at the church, with a “mad rush” forcing the reverend to phone for police reinforcements.
“Long before the service was due to commence at three o’clock, thousands gathered outside the church”, the report explained.
“People jumped the railings surrounding the church, and tried to gain admission through the church officer’s door…When the church officer opened the doors, a crowd immediately rushed forward and became jammed in the doorway.”
The total in attendance for Thomson’s burial at Bowhill Cemetery that same day was believed to have numbered more than 5,000, with countless others taking one of a number of specially laid-on trains from Glasgow to Bowhill.
And on the following Sunday, September 13th, a further special memorial service took place in Cardenden, with an estimated 10,000 turning the small town into “The Mecca of thousands of footballers and sportsmen from all over the country,” according to the Courier and Advertiser.
One young football fan, who had walked 16 miles to attend, is reported to have said “I’d walk twice as far again, and gladly, just to see John Thomson’s grave.”
Thomson’s mother had been taken ill after her son’s death and was unable to leave the family home to attend the ceremony, however her wishes were respected at a small private service at the Church of Christ, with the congregation singing a hymn of her choosing.
The remembrances spilled over onto the nearby Bowhill football pitch, where a concurrent ceremony took place between the goalposts where Thomson had stood as a teenage goalkeeper waiting to be noticed by one of the big clubs.
Days earlier, upon Thomson’s burial, the club presented a wreath in the shape of an empty goal, a moving tribute to the void left in Scottish club and international football by the goalkeeper’s demise.
Thomson’s story has been revisited in the light of comparable recent incidents, not least the fractured skull sustained by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Čech in a Premier League match against Reading in 2006.
As a footnote to Thomson’s tale, Sam English, the other player involved in Thomson’s fatal incident, his professional career was itself cut short with his retirement in 1938 at the age of 28 following what he described as “Seven years of joyless sport.”
Despite still holding the record for most goals scored by a Rangers player in one season – 53 goals in all competitions in the 1931-32 season – English was naturally traumatised by his accidental role in the death of an opponent.
He left Scotland in 1933 after suffering jeers up and down the country for his part in Thomson’s death, spending two seasons south of the border with Liverpool, before short-lived spells with Queen of the South and Hartlepool.
English’s own life was cut short when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and he died at the Vale of Leven hospital in 1967.
However he has not been forgotten in Glasgow, with Rangers introducing the Sam English bowl in 2009 for the club’s top scorer.
Similarly, Thomson’s life and career is still acknowledged by the fans who continue to visit his grave year-on-year. Earlier this year the current Celtic first team squad made the trip to Bowhill Cemetery, ahead of a cup tie in nearby Raith. The fact that so many continue to pay their tributes serves as a reminder of how Thomson’s story has stuck with Glaswegians to this day.
For further information and support about head and brain injuries check out the Headway website.