Jimmy Thorpe – 1936

The rules for goalkeepers have often been described as ‘overprotective.’  Before the 1930’s there was little outfield players couldn’t do to a keeper in order to try and score a goal.  In terms of legitimacy, flagrant acts of violence were allowed as long as the players in question were attempting to play the ball.

In 1936 these rules change but not before a tragedy had occurred to prompt the decision.

Sunderland are First Division champions!  The issue was definitely settled and settled in such a style as to convince the football world they are worthy champions.

North Mail, 1936

The 1936 league winners sealed their title with a convincing 2-7 win over Birmingham City as St Andrews.  The manner of their victory epitomised everything the team had wanted to achieve, not only to be successful but also to commemorate the loss of a beloved colleague only 14 games earlier.

James Horatio Thorpe was the Black Cats goalkeeper.  At the age of 22 he had been playing the first team since 1930 having being selected to play after only two games in the reserves.  Thorpe was a promising talent and in total he made 139 senior appearances for Sunderland.

He had a prominent nose and rows of wavy hair like a well furrowed field.  A cartoonist’s dream in the most affectionate of ways.

Sunderland Echo 2005

For a goalkeeper he was slight and as his teammate Raich Carter noticed prior to the incident that Thorpe had lost a ‘significant’ amount of weight over the previous couple of years.  His bulky woollen keeper’s jersey hid this thinning frame.

It was quite a comment for Carter to make in 1936. Whether Thorpe’s weight loss was intentional or because of his underlying health issues is not known but for Carter to make a pre Men’s Health magazine quote about another man’s appearance was unheard of.

Unfortunately the question of Thorpe’s health would play a part in his death and the in the alleged ‘whitewash’ at the subsequent inquest.  The goalkeeper’s father told the court that in 1934 Jimmy had been diagnosed with diabetes and had spent a four-week period in hospital recuperating.  Thorpe’s type of diabetes required him to take shots of insulin everyday.

In the 1930’s, injecting insulin was a relatively new concept.  Diabetes was regarded as a life threatening condition as little as thirteen years before Jimmy Thorpe was diagnosed.  In 1921 a young surgeon called Frederick Banting from Canada kept a severely diabetic dog alive with extracts of insulin and later a young boy who only had a life expectancy of a year.  Within 24 hours of the boy taking a refined extract of insulin his life had been saved.  The discovery was described as a ‘miracle’.

This life saving treatment wasn’t the easiest to administer when Jimmy Thorpe would have been giving himself daily shots.  The glass syringes were large and cumbersome but most of all they were painful.  The syringe came with a pumice stone in order to keep the needle sharp and they required constant sterilisation in order to stop the patient from getting further infections.

On the day of Jimmy Thorpe’s death he had taken his painful, life saving treatment and travelled on the bus to Roker Park to play as he had in the previous 56 consecutive games.

It was February 1st 1936 and Chelsea were the visitors.  Sunderland were top of the league and Chelsea mid-table.  The clash wasn’t designated as a grudge match or the players as having a particular propensity towards violence.  It would however be remembered for rioting in the stands, extreme violence on the pitch and  described as ‘a disgrace to first class football’ by the coroner.

The local press, for his performance against Chelsea, initially castigated Thorpe and the dropped two points were squarely placed at the keeper’s feet.  As the equalising goal crossed the line the Newcastle Journal described it as a ‘tragic moment for Thorpe’ not realising that the real tragedy was that the player was severely injured.

The game was a bad tempered affair. Sunderland, who were known for playing a passing game, were constantly out muscled by the Chelsea players. The team from the north-east were 3-1 up with 20 minutes to play. Chelsea were pressing for a goal when Thorpe came to collect the ball in his own area.

Before Thorpe could stand, three Chelsea forwards and a few Sunderland defenders converged upon the keeper.

Before Jimmy was admitted to hospital he told his father that he’s been kicked four times during this incident, three in his side and once in the head. A local police constable who gave evidence at the inquiry said it was ‘pretty wild kicking’.

Thorpe could only stagger to his feet, with the ball still in his possession, and lean against the goalpost. The same constable described the goalkeeper’s face as ‘deadly white.’

Unaware of Thorpe’s injuries, the referee continued to play the match where Chelsea would go on to score twice against an obviously shaken Sunderland keeper, to make the final result 3-3.

Four days later, on the 5th of February, Jimmy Thorpe lapsed into a diabetic coma and died of heart failure.

The referee, Mr Warr from Bolton, was not called to attend the inquest and the coroner asked the jury not to ‘pass a vote of censure’ on him because he wasn’t there to answer for himself.  It’s unknown why such a key witness in Jimmy Thorpe’s death didn’t attend or wasn’t asked to atone for his lack of action during the game, especially after the coroner’s comments that the referee was ‘very lax’.

Frederick Wall, former Football Association secretary, called for an FA inquiry to be held regarding the rise of ‘rough play’ in recent years.  He believed that a change in tactics and formation to include the position of ‘defending centre half back’.  The ‘stopper’ as he called it ‘has completely changed the style of play and has been conducive to unfair charging, a dangerous practice.’

Mr Wall’s theory fails to stand up in the case of James Horatio Thorpe as the Chelsea players involved in the attack were in a striker’s position and attempting to kick the ball from the goalkeeper’s hands.  The tactics of rough usage were entirely from the forward line.

The FA inquiry was held on 2nd March 1936 and many Sunderland fans were and still are angry about the apparent ‘whitewash’. The FA commission consisted of of three gentlemen over the age of 75 who concluded that neither the referee or the Chelsea forwards were culpable in Thorpe’s death but that it was the fault of Sunderland AFC  for fielding a player who ‘wasn’t in good health.’ Sunderland’s medical team were not called to give evidence at the commission.

The rules were however changed very soon afterwards and  it would be deemed foul play for players of an opposing team to raise a foot to a keeper or attempt to free the ball from his possession with their feet. A rule that remains today.

Jimmy Thorpe was a talented footballer, who was genuinely respected by his teammates. It is understood that Johnny Mapson, the 18 year old reserve keeper who replaced Thorpe, gave his League winner medal to Jimmy Thorpe’s widow as a mark of respect.

Jimmy Thorpe truly was a game changer.

Jimmy Thorpe

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