Archive for category The Brain Injuries
During the match, your sense of danger completely disappears. You’re thinking mainly about playing the ball and avoiding making contact with the striker. And only later do you think back on how you played, and what could have happened.
-Serhiy Perkhun, in his last ever interview
He was always fearless on the pitch. Always willing to come out and challenge for the ball without any regard for his own safety. Always putting the team ahead of himself.
On August 18th, 2001, sensing danger as the opposing striker was running on to a lofted pass toward his goal, he came rushing out of his box to head the ball clear. But this time, he couldn’t avoid making contact. This time, he did not get the chance to think back on the play. This time, the sense of danger that he so often ignored to keep the ball out the net could have saved his life. Several hours after a violent collision with the striker, Serhiy Perkhun slipped into a coma. After ten days, he was dead.
Serhiy Perkhun began his career playing for the youth team of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, his hometown club. He made his first team debut against local rivals Kryvbas in October of 1993 after an injury crisis left the senior side without a single healthy goalkeeper. At just 16 years of age, Perkhun was and remains the youngest goalkeeper to ever make an appearance in the Ukrainian Premier League.
The following year he was a key member of the Ukraine side that took home the bronze medal from the Under-16 European Championships in Ireland, the first international success for an independent Ukraine.
An auspicious beginning to his career did not bear immediate success. Perkhun only played sparingly for Dnipro through the 90s and in the winter of 1999 he made a surprising move to the Moldovan club Sheriff Tiraspol. While at the club he helped them to win the Moldovan Cup, their first ever piece of major silverware.
After a year and a half at Sheriff, Perkhun was ready to leave Moldova. A prolonged contract dispute, however, meant that for six months Perkhun was effectively without a club. His old club, Dnipro, refused to buy out his contract. Dynamo Kyiv were reportedly interested but failed to secure a deal. A tryout with Galatasaray proved unsuccessful. To remain in form he trained with CSKA Kyiv while waiting for an offer.
In February of 2001, one finally came. Pavel Sadyrin, manager of CSKA Moscow, invited Perkhun to the club’s winter training camp at the recommendation of an agent. Perkhun was fresh from yet another rejection; after a tryout at Torpedo-Zil he was told that the club already had enough keepers. But Sadyrin saw something in Perkhun that everyone else had overlooked:
You know, I liked Seryozha [diminutuve form of Serhiy] from the first day we met. I remember I called him over and truthfully told him ‘You know we have a first-choice keeper, Andrey Novosadov. So I can’t promise anything. Everything will depend on you.’ ‘I understand,’ the guy said, ‘I’m ready to wait for my moment for as long as it takes’.
Two weeks after arriving at the camp Perkhun was offered a contract. It was certainly a gamble. Perkhun had been without a club for six months, and before that had been playing in the footballing backwater of Moldova. Sadyrin, however, was convinced.
The gamble paid off. Perkhun’s moment came soon after joining the side. When starting goalkeeper Andrey Novosadov went down injured against Zenit three months into the season, Perkhun was handed the gloves at halftime and never gave them back. “You can say that he came pretty much out of nowhere,” remembers teammate Sergey Filippenkov, “we all thought, now we’d see what he’s made of. And then, a phenomenal take off.”
His performances – 12 matches, six clean sheets, six goals conceded – did not go unnoticed by Ukrainian national team manager Leonid Buryak, who called up Perkhun for a friendly against Latvia in Riga. Perkhun played the second half of the match, a 1-0 victory. As Buryak recalls,
As he was leaving the national team after the August match in Latvia, he came up to me and asked, ‘Leonid Iosifovich, am I going to be called up for the matches against Belarus and Armenia?’ I distinctly remember his eyes, they were gleaming with hope. I told him ‘of course you’ll be called up, without a doubt.
The friendly in Riga took place on August 15th, 2001. Three days later, CSKA Moscow travelled to Dagestan to take on Anzhi Makhachkala. The home side had the better of the play for most of the match, and could have been well ahead had it not been for the heroics of their Ukrainian goalkeeper.
In the 75th minute Perkhun was once again called into action. Anzhi midfielder Nebojša Stojković lofted a through ball into the path of Budun Budunov. Perkhun, quick off his line as always, came out to challenge for the ball. As he was already outside his box, he went up to head the ball clear, leaping right into the path of the onrushing forward.
It was exactly the type of self-sacrificing play everyone had come to expect from Perkhun. “The word fear,” remembered teammate Oleg Kornaukhov when looking back on the incident, “was entirely absent from his mind, and in that moment, he acted as he should have.”
Immediately after making contact with the ball, he clashed heads with Budunov. Both players lost consciousness and were taken to the local hospital. Perkhun’s cut on his head was stitched up and he was given two injections to prevent tetanus. After two hours under observation he was discharged, deemed well enough to return to Moscow along with the team.
On the bus to the airport Perkhun said he was feeling fine and asked about how the match ended. But after fifteen minutes he lost consciousness and was immediately rushed back to the hospital. He was in a state of clinical death for seven minutes before doctors managed to resuscitate him, after which he fell into a coma. The next day, the same plane which departed to Moscow without him returned to Makhachkala to take him back to the capital where he was transferred to a neurosurgery centre.
Perkhun’s CSKA teammates were left in a stunned daze, shocked by what had happened but remaining hopeful for the best. “For the whole week after that match we lived in hope,” remembers Filippenkov. “I thought Seryoga would make it. There were rumours he’d have to leave football. But I believed that he would survive.”
Fifteen minutes before each morning practice the CSKA players met and were updated on Perkhun’s condition. And if there was no practice, they found out for themselves. Teammate Stanislav Lysenko would call the doctor and ask if there were any improvements. “Still the same,” was the daily response.
On August 24th, as Perkhun was still in a coma, being kept alive by a respirator, CSKA hosted Torpedo-Zil. Hundreds of CSKA fans arrived in the stadium in specially made shirts with Perkhun’s #16 emblazoned on the back and the words “We believe in you, goalkeeper’ on the front. The supporters covered part of the west stand with a yellow-green banner made to look like Perkhun’s goalkeeper kit, also with his #16 prominently displayed. The match ended 1-1, but on that day the result was secondary.
Four days later Stanislav Lysenko once again picked up his phone and dialled the number of the doctor.
I asked him, as always, ‘how’s Seryoga?’ I even asked cheerfully. His answer was just ‘he’s gone.’ Right away there was a long pause. For a minute we were silent, both he and I. I just couldn’t believe that this could happen. And when I hung up the phone, I just broke down in tears.
At 5:30 AM on August 28th, 2001, 10 days after the collision, Serhiy Perkhun passed away. He left behind a daughter and a pregnant wife. Three months after his death his second daughter was born.
The next day thousands of people came to mourn Serhiy Perkhun at the CSKA sports hall. Teammates, club officials, fans. And not just of CSKA. Supporters of Spartak and Lokomotiv, among others, put aside their bitter rivalry to pay tribute to the fallen keeper, leaving flowers and scarves at the ceremony.
When the plane carrying Perkhun’s body arrived in Dnipropetrovsk it was greeted by scores of grieving mourners. The entire CSKA team came for the funeral, joined by 10,000 others.
Perkhun’s teammates spent the entire rest of the season playing in black armbands. His number 16 was retired by his club and a memorial was erected in his home town.
Before his own death from cancer three months later, Pavel Sadyrin, the man who brought Perkhun to Moscow, said in an interview:
He had everything a goalkeeper needed. Dedication, skill. He was very coordinated… he read the game very well, and often came out of his box. And that is what killed him.
In the game of football, it’s an art that requires just as much skill and technique as shooting, passing, tackling or any extravagant flick or trick you care to mention in order to become proficient.
The dedication and bravery required to excel at heading a football – light and modern or otherwise – is quite a rare trait. One such player noted to have the necessary desire and aptitude was the American, Patrick Grange.
Growing up as a sports-mad kid in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Grange’s parents Mike and Michele remember him regularly heading a football from the tender age of just 3-years-old and that, from then on, he sustained regular concussions – some of which were linked to his love of heading a football.
He began to flourish in the game during his late teens; starring for his college side Illinois-Chicago and then at the University of New Mexico. At was around this time that he began to demonstrate the first signs of the condition that would rob him of his life at the age of just 29.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has long been well documented in people over 50. ALS is a form of Motor Neurone Disease. The most common symptoms of ALS include depression, memory loss, impulse control disorders and progressive dementia. According to Grange’s parents, he exhibited many examples of these behavioural anomalies going back to his high school days.
There have also been many cases diagnosed amongst sportsmen in their 20’s; the vast majority of those have been recorded in participants of more violent contact sports with more potential for head trauma such as American Football and boxing.
Grange was diagnosed with ALS when he was 27 and died just 17 months later. Post-mortem analysis of his brain by Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, Massachusetts, showed distinct signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and indicated severe frontal lobe damage more consistent with injuries seen in former NFL players.
Dr. McKee’s examination found that the area of Grange’s brain that was most impacted corresponds to where footballers typically head the ball, but pointed out that it is very difficult to apportion blame specifically or exclusively to heading.
We can’t say for certain that heading the ball caused his condition in this case,” she said. “But it is noteworthy that he was a frequent header of the ball, and he did develop this disease. I’m not sure we can take it any further than that.
We think the precipitating factor in this case was most likely the trauma. First of all, he was absurdly young when he developed this disease. And he has considerable evidence of this trauma-induced tauopathy, or C.T.E.
CTE has hit the headlines recently in Britain in relation to the case of West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle who died in 2002 as a result of brain trauma sustained by heading heavy leather balls during his auspicious playing career. The family of the former England striker are campaigning for an inquiry into the effects on the brain of such repeated concussive contact based on the findings of a 2011 study done at the Montefiore Medical Center in the US.
Under the lead researcher of that study, Dr. Michael Lipton, images from the brains of 32 amateur football players were taken and compared with those of who had suffered concussion. Results provided proof that players who frequently headed the ball were greatly increasing the risk of causing themselves severe and permanent brain damage. The study does not specify an exact amount of headers by which lasting injury can occur but a figure of 1000 or less per year may be considered safe, although more tests are required, say researchers.
At the time of his initial diagnosis, Grange had been hoping to realise his long-time dream of playing in the MLS. During his High School career, he was selected to take part in Albuquerque’s regional pool for the US Olympic Development Program. Whilst at college, the talented forward continued to catch the eye for Illinois-Chicago and for the New Mexico Lobos where he majored in communications. After university he had been playing at semi-professional level and was with Chicago Fire in the Premier Development League – a breeding ground for future MLS stars.
Deterioration in Grange’s condition was rapid; within six months of his ALS diagnosis he was forced into a wheelchair and soon after was unable to feed himself. He died at his parents’ house, surrounded by his family on April 10, 2012.
Patrick was described by his family and friends as quiet, optimistic and brave and after his diagnosis his passion became to research ALS and raise its awareness in his home state. He was successful in his driving passion when New Mexico declared February 3rd as annual ‘ALS Day’.
A tribute video was created about Patrick when he was inducted into a local Athletics Hall of Fame. Every image is of a smiling child, in full football kit, who grows to be a confident and competent footballer and because of a rare disease never had a chance to fulfil his potential.
It is 29th March, 2008. NK Zadar are playing a home fixture against HNK Cibalia.
It is still early in the game, the teams probing each other, and an aimless through ball is gathered by the Zadar ‘keeper, who then drills a long pass out towards the left of midfield from the Zadar end.
Hrvoje Ćustić and a Cibalia player, rush towards the ball as it bounces towards the touch-line, both angling their bodies across each other as they vie for possession. Ćustić then appears to get slightly further ahead, winning the chase, before he trips or is tripped, and falls forwards.
His momentum carries him, head-first, into a low, concrete barrier which runs the length of the far side of the pitch, supporting the fencing which separates the fans from the pitch and bearing pasted-on adverts. There is obviously something about that impact, a noise perhaps, because the Cibalia player turns immediately and throws his hands up, frantically beckoning medical staff onto the pitch, beckoning as though he might actually reach them and drag them on with the movement.
Players and the referee rush over, crowding around Ćustić, grabbing at him in their efforts to help, to rouse him perhaps from unconsciousness. A Cibalia player, wearing number 28, appears then turns away, his hand over his mouth, as medical staff rush towards the fallen player.
These images are from the videos that show the tragic accident that led to the death of Croatian footballer Hrvoje Ćustić at the age of 24. He died five days after the accident, probably of an infection while still in an induced coma after surgery on his brain. He was rushed to hospital immediately after the accident and underwent surgery very promptly, but he never began to recover beyond being stabilised.
His team-mates camped outside the hospital, praying for him, and a collective swell of both goodwill towards Ćustić and anger towards the club and the municipality for the almost wilfully dangerous nature of the pitch-side fencing bubbled up in the town of Zadar in the weeks and months that followed.
Zadar is a city on the Adriatic coast in the area known as Dalmatia in Croatia. A vibrant city with a population of just over 75,000 in 2011, Zadar is a former Roman settlement with a long and complex history, involving occupation by various nations or groups, including the Huns and the Venetians.
By the time Hrvjoe Ćustić was born in the city in October 1983, it was a prosperous and stable city, busy with tourists flocking to the Adriatic, though having fallen behind Split as the notional regional centre for Dalmatia. Until 1991, Zadar had growing population numbers and a burgeoning, if not booming, economy.
In 1991, all that changed. It seems such a cliché to write about the war in the former Yugoslavia when writing about a footballer from the region, but there can be no doubt that the war and its legacy left a lasting imprint on the generations who lived through it, on what they felt mattered and what they wanted from a new life in the new Croatia.
Zadar was subject to an almost total blockade from 1991 to 1993, which had an enormous effect on the economy. Attacks on the city continued until 1995, even after the nascent Croatian army had freed the area from siege.
It was under this daily threat of shelling, of economic privation, and of an awareness of the flimsiness of life and living, that Hrvoje Ćustić grew up. He was eight when the war started. In his history of eastern Europe, Jonathan Wilson notes the fervent nationalism, which veered between pride and bigotry, engendered among all the nations of the former Yugoslavia by the outbreak of the war and the gradual cohesion of various parts of the fractured country into new nation states.
An obvious outlet for these feelings was football, and, as Wilson describes, the tournaments of 1996 and 1998 provided a much-needed boost and visible platform for a thoroughly brilliant generation of Croatian footballers. By this time, watching and probably inspired by the performances of players like Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, and Slaven Bilić. Hrvoje Ćustić was playing for the NK Zadar youth team alongside future stars like Luka Modric.
It must have been an incredible time to be playing football in Croatia, the country not only forging a new present and future as an independent nation, but with an array of players representing the country both in a successful national team and by plying their trade abroad.
NK Zadar, who currently play in the top tier of Croatian football, the Prva HNL, are something of a yo-yo team between the two highest divisions in Croatian football. One of the founding members of the Prva HNL, the club’s greatest season was in 1995/96, when they came second in the Prva HNL and reached the semi-finals of the Croatian Cup, the same summer as Croatia really burst onto the international scene with their quarter-finals appearance at Euro ’96.
While researching this piece, I was lucky enough to speak to someone who played football with Ćustić in the early part of his career at Zadar. He has asked to be referred to as Ivan. Ivan described how Hrvoje was very focussed on a career in professional football and was quickly marked out as being a talent.
“He was among the most talented players at Zadar, people spoke of him in superlatives. He was obviously talented but his hard work was his biggest quality”. Ivan describes a normal young man, “very motivated to make a football career”, “a very positive guy but determined to succeed in football, and nothing and nobody would have stopped him achieving his goal”. This work ethic, harnessed to an obvious ambition, made him stand out, though everyone in that Zadar youth set-up was secondary to Modric.
Ćustić was known as a very physical player, quick, and with an excellent eye for goal. He started out as a forward, but often played on the wing later in his career. I asked Ivan what Hrvoje was like as a teammate. He told me that Hrvoje was “a good teammate, a bit of a joker I’d say…he was always teasing the younger guys. He’d make them uncomfortable for a moment with his comments or something, but his big smile afterwards would seal the deal”.
Ivan recalled how Ćustić was also very much a team player: “He assisted me for my first official goal ever. We played in a big tournament in Genova, Italy. It was the last goal of the match. I [came on] as a substitute a couple of minutes earlier. He could have scored it himself but he decided to pass me the ball, and I had the easy task of just putting the ball in the net. Although he was very determined he was unselfish.”
This blend of talent, focus, and team ethic saw Ćustić capped seven times for the Croatian under-21 national squad, playing mostly as a winger, as well as three caps for the under-20 squad.
Between 2000 and 2005, he played 84 times for Zadar, scoring 7 goals, before being loaned out to NK Zagreb. He made 22 appearances for ‘The Poets’, scoring once, before returning to Zadar for the 2007/08 season. It was Zadar’s first season back in the top tier after two seasons playing at a lower level. Ćustić played twenty times, scoring once, before that horrific day in March.
I asked Ivan whether the Croatian FA did anything to mark the tragic accident. The UEFA webpage pertaining to the Croatian FA’s response no longer exists, and so it is difficult to check, but it appears that the following weekend’s matches were all postponed. Ivan told me that while there were some calls for the Croatian National Cup to be named after Hrvoje, nothing came to fruition.
The city of Zadar did name a street in front of the stadium after him though. His legacy also extends to improved conditions in the Stanovi Stadium, where Zadar play their home games. The tragically fatal concrete fence is now further from the pitch as a direct result of the accident: the whole pitch was shifted away from the stand in front of which Ćustić was injured, with the opposite stand being demolished and rebuilt. This work occurred in August 2008, and also brought in better lighting and safer areas for the fans.
Ivan said to me, “there was a lot of anger, because only [Hrvoje’s] death made people in the club and the city of Zadar, which owns the stadium, improve it”. That anger is clear in Ivan’s own words, more than five years after the event: “It’s tragic that nobody cared about the safety of the sportsmen in that so-called stadium before his death. The wall was obviously too close.”
The legacy of Hrvoje Ćustić is more than improved safety conditions for players though. It is clear from Ivan’s words that the death of Hrvoje left a sizeable hole in people’s lives, that the sadness and anger that swelled as a result of the accident were due in large part to Hrvoje’s popularity, his charisma, as much as the senselessness of his death.
Ćustić was a normal boy from Zadar who followed his passion for football, who worked hard as well as being gifted, and who died fulfilling his dream of being a professional player. The stupid futility of that death, the fact that with a little sense and effort it could have been avoided just makes it sadder. The reaction of the Croatian FA and the club itself could have been better but it is perhaps fitting that it is in the memory of his friends and teammates, rather than in the gestures of the football apparatus, that the memory of Hrvoje Ćustić lives on most forcefully.
It is perhaps unsurprising to find that things moved slowly and without a great deal of thought at NK Zadar and the Croatian FA in the wake of Ćustić’s death. Despite repeated efforts, I was unable to get any answer from the club itself about Hrvoje, and it does seem that there is a lack of organisation at Zadar; a local journalist I spoke to told me he also struggles to get in touch with people at the club. It is thanks to the efforts of Aleksandar Holiga and Mladen Malik that I was able to write this piece, and I am very grateful to them both.
My greatest thanks are reserved fro Ivan, who took time and effort to respond to my queries and revisit the sad death of a friend and teammate.
For further information and support about head and brain injuries check out the Headway website.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Manchester United were far from the domineering trophy winners which we know today. Known by their founding name, Newton Heath LYR Football Club in the Victorian era, they were playing in the second division of the English football pyramid after only joining the official football league structure in 1892.
Newton Heath had remained in the second division for the majority of the clubs formative years but endured a tough period of financial difficulties during 1902 and 1903. A winding-up order had been set upon the club by then President, William Healey who had claimed he was owed around £242. Newton Heath were grappling with severe debt and still required around £2,700 in order to continue to operate and fulfil their fixtures for the season. By April 1903 four local business men had come together and stumped up the cash to save the club from liquidation.
John Henry Davies was named President and subsequently renamed Newton Heath, Manchester United Football Club. United played their first full season under the house-hold brand name which the world knows today in the 1902-1903 campaign.
Despite, being saved from liquidation and rejoining the football league under the new guise of Manchester United, the problems did not dissipate straight away. The Football Association suspended the club secretary (the club secretary was the name for the manager of the team), James West and team captain Harry Stafford for making illegal payments to players.
Ernest Mangnall was instated as club secretary for the start of the 1903-1904 season, much to the surprise of the United fan base. Mangnall was seen as a manager who built his teams around supreme physical fitness and camaraderie and believed that his team should only be given a football once a week. In this aspect, Mangnall personifies the original English coach of the twentieth century, subscribing to the philosophy of physique over technique.
However, Mangnall’s methods were to prove very successful during his time at Manchester United. Club President, John Henry Davies was willing to give Mangnall the money to build a side and build he did. Mangnall spent a record transfer fee of £600 on centre-half, Charlie Roberts along with full-back, Tommy Blackstock and half-back, Alex Bell. He also acquired the attacking trio of John Picken, John Peddie and Charlie Sagar in the forthcoming seasons as he built a side to achieve promotion.
The most recognised formation for a team to employ back in the early days of footballs development was the 2-3-5 formation. This would consist of two full-backs playing in front of the goalkeeper which mirrors the modern day central defenders. In front of the defence there would be two half-backs and a centre-half, which in modern terms forms a central midfield three. Finally, there would be five forward players spread out across the attacking line, a left winger, a right winger, two inside forwards and a centre forward.
Tommy Blackstock was amongst Mangnall’s first signings when he took over as United’s club secretary in 1903. Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland in 1882 he appeared for a number of clubs in his native country. Beginning his football career at Raith Athletic as a teenager, Blackstock had shown particular promise, blossoming into an impressive full-back and catching the eye of Cowdenbeath. A season with the Miners saw Blackstock continue his development and once again he found himself under the admiring gaze of another club. Leith Athletic recognised young Balckstock’s promise where he then spent a further two seasons, showing all of his early promise and becoming a popular player.
Blackstock’s performances in Scotland had caught the eye of those across the border in the south and Mangnall brought him to United in 1903. The young Scotsman didn’t make any real impression during his initial years at Manchester United, spending most of his time playing in the reserves he made a total of 13 appearances for the first team from 1903 to the end of the 1904-1905 season. However, he was to make his breakthrough to the first team in the following campaign.
Blackstock proved to be one of the stalwart full-backs of the Manchester United side which won promotion to the first division in the 1905-1906 season. Not only did United win promotion, they also conceded only 28 goals, boasting one of the strongest defences in the league, demonstrating their strong defensive work ethic facilitated by Mangnall’s focus on the physical condition of his players. Blackstock made 21 appearances during that campaign alongside fellow full-backs, Bob Bonthron and Dick Holden.
The team scored a total of 90 goals that season, finishing as joint top scorers with league winners Bristol City. Picken, Peddie and Sagar scored 54 goals between them as they finished runners-up. United were on the up, boasting a set of ruthless front-men all with prolific goal records and a strong, almost immovable defence. Blackstock, still in his early twenties, seemed to have a long and successful career ahead of him at the heart of Manchester United’s defence.
After such a successful season on a personal level and winning promotion to the first division, it was unfortunate the Blackstock found himself out of the side the following season, making only a handful of appearances for the first team and spending most of his time back in the reserve side. It is likely that Blackstock was ousted from the side by new full-back Herbert Burgess who was signed with a host of players from local rivals Manchester City. Funded by John Henry Davies, these included the forward, Sandy Turnbull; inside forward, Jimmy Bannister and the £500 star-forward, Billy Meredith.
The Scotsman, Blackstock, still only 25-years-of-age was left in the reserves to prove his worth to the first team when called upon. He made only three league appearances in that season, a 1-2 victory away at Stoke City, a 2-4 defeat at home to Bury and a 0-0 home draw with Liverpool. He also made an FA Cup appearance in a 2-2 draw away to Portsmouth. However, his season was to be cut short in the most tragic of circumstances.
Blackstock’s final match was for the United reserve side against St. Helens Recreation FC in the Manchester suburb of Clayton on 8th April 1907. With only ten minutes of the game played and with no one around him, the Scot headed the football and subsequently collapsed to the ground, laying unconscious on the field of play. He was carried off the pitch and into the dressing room but his state had deteriorated and he was pronounced dead.
The strange circumstances surrounding Blackstock’s death were to continue throughout the inquest. The Manchester Evening Courier reported that he had died of ‘natural causes’ after the Manchester City Coroner had concluded his inquiry. The Dundee Courier also reported that Doctors had said there were no internal injuries and that there was nothing physically wrong with Blackstock, further adding to the unexplained circumstances surrounding his death and the Evening Telegraph had reported that it seemed that there was “little occasion to place any great strain on the heart.”
Blackstock’s death was eerily similar to that of Leeds City centre forward, David Wilson who collapsed and died of heart failure in a match against Barnsley in October 1906. However, as the game against St. Helens had only been under-way for around ten minutes, heart failure seemed an unlikely cause of death.
The Manchester Courier and Lancashire Central Advertiser also reported a similar story, comparing Blackstock’s death to Wilson’s. However, the papers also stated it had been almost impossible to fully determine the causes of his death and suggested that it may have been a fatal seizure after heading the ball. The official verdict still reads as ‘death by natural causes.’
Blackstock’s body was returned to his home-town, Kirkcaldy for the funeral procession which ran from his father’s residence to the New Cemetery on 11th April 1907. Many of the local, well-known gentry attended the funeral, along with team mates, club officials, fellow professional players, close friends and family.
His death was both tragic and unfortunate and the treatment of his family after his death only added to the pain already suffered as United had withheld the insurance money that was rightly due to his next -of-kin. However, if football as a whole took any positive out of his untimely passing then it has to be the establishment of the Association Football Players Union (AFPU) which was set-up by several of Blackstock’s team-mates in wake of the treatment of his family. Meredith, Roberts, Sagar, Burgess and Turnbull, sparked by the controversy over Blackstock’s insurance money, all collaborated to form the AFPU, a forerunner to today’s Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).
There was a lot of praise reserved for Blackstock by many of those in the football community at the time. His manager, Ernest Mangnall was shaken by the events and he held particular praise for Blackstock during his time playing professional football for Manchester United, stating that he trained harder than any other player despite spending much of his time in the reserves and he was one of the favourites around the squad.
An obituary by Mr J. J. Bentley, a co-founder of the Football League, in the Evening Standard on 10th April 1907 also spoke highly of Blackstock. Bentley spoke of Blackstock as a cultured individual having experienced life in foreign countries like Australia and also an intelligent young man who could recount the particulars of the Russo-Japanese war which had broken out in 1904.
Bentley also referred to the last game he saw Blackstock play for the United first team against Liverpool. The full-back put in a heroic defensive performance, flinging himself in-front of the Liverpool forwards and putting his body on the line to help his team to capture a 0-0 draw.
The game epitomised Blackstock as a player in a staunch, defensive performance reminiscent to that of the 1905/1906 promotion season which was the highlight of his career.
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.