Glasgow Celtic: John Thomson: Celtic's Prince of Goalkeepers

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Glasgow Celtic: John Thomson: Celtic's Prince of Goalkeepers
John Thomson

A young man named John Thomson

From the Wellesley Fife he came

To play for Glasgow Celtic

And to make himself a name

On the 5th day of September

‘Gainst the Rangers club did play

From defeat he saved the Celtic

Oh but what a price to pay!

September 5 is a poignant day in the life of every Celtic supporter—the anniversary of the death of goalkeeper John Thomson—evoking an intensity of emotion undimmed by the passing of the eighty first year since that fateful day in 1931.

It was a miserably wet afternoon at Ibrox Park, the weather matched by the quality and excitement of the match to that point, when John Thomson collided with Rangers forward Sam English.

The Celtic defence had been split by a through ball, leaving Sam English with a clear run on the Celtic goal, and John Thomson, in typical fashion, hurled himself at the Rangers forwards feet.

As the ball ran wide of the goal, English’s momentum carried him over the outstretched arm of the Celtic goalkeeper, his knee crashing into John Thomson’s head.

John Thomson dives at the feet of Sam English

A hush descended over the 80,000 crowd as English gingerly rose to his feet and limped away.

John Thomson lay still on the turf, one raised arm seemingly frozen in the air, blood pouring from a wound to his temple.

As the players frantically called for help, the trainers and managers of both teams ran onto the pitch and Thomson was stretchered from the pitch; his head swathed in bandages. He had sustained a depressed fracture of the skull.

In those far off days, before live television coverage and instant communications, John’s brother Jim had to send a telegraph to the Post Office in Cardenden, Fife and his parents were informed by a policeman as they sat down for their evening meal.

A car was arranged by Rangers’ manager Bill Struth to rush them to the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow. They arrived shortly before their son died at 9:25 p.m. without regaining consciousness.

The ball came down the centre

Young John ran out and dived

The ball ran wide but John lay still

A stricken Thomson is carried from the field, head swathed in bandages

For his club this hero died.

Farewell my darling Johnny

Prince of Players we must part

No more we’ll stand and cheer you

On the slopes of Celtic Park.

The death of John Thomson would have been tragic in any circumstances, but it was made more so by his talent and bravery as a goalkeeper, and the fact he was such a fine young man.

Sir Robert Kelly, Celtic’s long-serving Chairman who saw both Thomson’s first and last Celtic matches, wrote of him:

“It was the natural athletic gracefulness of Thomson that appealed to everyone. He was not tall as goalkeepers go, but at 5ft 9 ½ in. and 11st. he was perfectly built. He had the sure clutching hands and fingers of a world class fielder in cricket and he had ability remarkable in one of his tender years to read opponents’ moves before they tried to complete them. Many a time he gave the impression of being off his mark in a leap or dive to save before the opponent had made the effort. But if young John made up his mind to go in a particular way he was right 19 times out of 20.”

Teammate, and later Celtic manager, Jimmy McGrory described him as a natural athlete, who would have excelled at whatever sport he had taken up.

He would later recall with wonderment that Thomson executed a perfect graceful dive worthy of an Olympic champion into a swimming pool on Celtic’s summer tour of the USA in 1931, and of a reluctant Thomson making a first ever attempt at swinging a golf club, and hitting a 200 yard drive straight down the fairway.

James Handley, in The Story of Celtic wrote:

“It is hard for those who did not know him to appreciate the power of the spell he cast on all who watched him regularly in action. ‘A man who has not read Homer,’ wrote Bagehot, ‘is like a man who has not seen the ocean. There is a great object of which he has no idea.’ In like manner, a generation who did not see John Thomson has missed a touch of greatness in sport, for he was a brilliant virtuoso, as Gigli was and Menuhin is. One artist employs the voice as his instrument, another the violin or cello. For Thomson it was a handful of leather. We shall not look upon his like again.”

The defining quality of John Thomson on the soccer field was bravery, and it was this quality that would cost him his life.

In an era when goalkeepers received precious little protection from referees and holding onto the ball for any length of times was to invite a severe battering from opposition players, Thomson thought nothing of putting his body between onrushing opponents and the ball.

In a match against Airdrieonians in February 1930—in a similar incident—he had sustained a broken jaw and rib, a fractured collar bone and the loss of two teeth, which necessitated a stay in the hospital and an absence of some months from the team.

The outpouring of grief occasioned by John Thomson’s death reflected the love and affection in which he was held by all at Celtic Park and beyond.

30,000 people attended his funeral in Cardenden—thousands of whom had walked the 55 miles from Glasgow to be there.

As his coffin was carried to Fife, the entire route was lined by mourners, six deep.

I took a stroll down Parkhead

To the dear old Paradise

And as the players came out

Sure the tears fell from my eyes

A familiar face was missing

From the Green and White Brigade

And they told me Johnny Thomson

His last game he had played.

We must not forget though, the second victim of the tragedy.

The totally blameless Sam English cut an increasingly forlorn figure as the months and years passed.

He wept inconsolably at a memorial service in Glasgow on the day of Thomson’s funeral, and a week later visited John’s parents at their home in Fife.

They assured him they attached no blame to him for the tragic accident and wished him well.

Unfairly jeered by fans throughout Scotland, he moved to Liverpool the following year, where he continued to face the same jeering and eventually he retired from soccer—aged just 28.

Ever since that awful day in September 1931, every time Celtic play a match in Fife, a wreath is laid by Celtic supporters on the grave of John Thomson.

An annual soccer tournament is held in his name, competed for by all of the primary schools in Fife.

So play up Glasgow Celtic

Stand up and play the game

For in your goal a spirit stands

Johnny Thomson is his name

Farewell my darling Johnny

Prince of Players we must part

No more we’ll stand and cheer you

On the slopes of Celtic Park.

The great grandfathers of most Celtic supporters today would have been too young to have seen John Thomson play but generations of fans ever since have spoken of his incredible talent in hushed tones and can recount his deeds as though they were there in person.

It is a living testament to the truth of the tribute paid by Celtic manager Willie Maley:

“They never die who live in the hearts of those they leave behind.”

 

 

 

 

Sources: The Official Biography of Celtic Graham McColl

Celtic: A Century With Honour Brian Wilson

The Story of Celtic Gerald McNee

 

 

 

Follow Daniel O'Connell on twitter @DanielOConnel18

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