Johnny Thomson, a name you might not have come across, a story that you'll never forget.
In early September, a theatre in Glasgow will host a production which focuses on the life of a former footballer who most of the audience will never have seen play.
Their knowledge of John Thomson will have been gleaned from the occasional grainy piece of newsreel, anecdotes passed down through the generations, and media articles - they all tell the tale of a young man whose life was tragically cut short due to his bravery on the football field.
Thomson was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1909, before moving with his family to the mining village of Cardenden. Like most young men of his age, Thompson was expected upon leaving school to work in the local mine. Aged just 14, he joined his father at the Lady Josephine colliery in nearby Bowhill, where as an oncost worker he spent his days some 300 yards underground, unclipping the chain clips of wagons which carried coal.
However, Thomson’s aptitude for football – more specifically, goalkeeping – set him apart from most of his contemporaries. Despite being only 5ft 9, his early performances meant he was something of a sensation in the east of Scotland. After a short spell with local team Bowhill Rovers he joined junior side Wellesley Rovers with local newspaper the Fife Free Press stating that the club had: “unearthed a champion goalkeeper.”
There have been various suggestions as to how Celtic became aware of Thomson. According to the club’s manager at the time, the legendary Willie Maley, he was advised of a promising young keeper by a friend who lived in Fife. Regardless of the circumstances, Celtic liked what they saw and paid a fee of £10 to take Thomson to Glasgow.
It took around six months for him to be given his chance in the first-team, but after his debut in a win against Dundee, Thomson never looked back. He quickly established himself as an automatic choice and the honours soon followed. Celtic lifted the Scottish Cup in 1927 and 1931 and Thomson was also called up by his country, making four appearances for the national side.
As a keeper he had it all. His grace and agility were matched by his bravery, as he regularly threw his head and body into places were some players in the modern era would be reluctant to place their feet. With regular shoulder-charges (and a bit more) from opposing players, goalkeeping in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was not for the faint hearted.
There was no requirement however, for Thomson to be reminded of the dangers of his occupation. In 1930, a match against Airdrie left the keeper with a broken jaw, fractured ribs, damage to his collarbone and two teeth missing. Thomson’s mother Jean was so concerned by his injuries that she urged him to quit the game, stating that she’d had a premonition that her son would be killed playing football. Nearly 18 months later, Mrs Thomson’s vision would become a horrible reality.
On 5th September 1931 Celtic travelled across Glasgow to Ibrox stadium for a league encounter with their oldest rivals. The match was goalless early in the second-half when Rangers centre-forward Sam English ran onto a through ball from team-mate Jimmy Fleming and bore down on the Celtic goal. Thomson, as expected, was off his line at the first sign of danger. When asked previously what went through his mind when he faced such situations, Thomson replied that his only thought was keeping his eye on the ball and going for it. It was no surprise therefore when he threw himself head-first at the feet of the onrushing English.
Thomson’s head collided with the knee of the opposing player. He lay motionless on the turf and very quickly, many witnesses both on the field and in the crowd, realised that this was no minor injury.
It was reported that a single female scream was heard from the main stand at Ibrox. That was said to be Margaret Finlay, Thomson’s fiancée who had attended the match with his brother Jim.
Thomson was removed from the field by stretcher and taken to Glasgow Victoria Infirmary, on the south-side of the city. He had suffered a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones, resulting in a depression of the skull. An operation was carried out to try and alleviate the pressure caused by the swelling in the brain. It proved unsuccessful and John Thomson died at 9.25pm that evening. He was 22 years old.
Glasgow was united in grief, Scotland a nation in mourning. Thousands gathered at Glasgow’s Queen Street railway station to see off trains taking fans to Fife for the funeral. Many others who were unable to afford the fare instead walked the 55 miles to Cardenden.
It’s estimated that around 30,000 people were in attendance as Thomson was buried. Despite the traditional religious divide that exists with Scotland’s two largest clubs, Thomson was not a Roman Catholic. Instead he was a member of the Church of Christ, a small Christian sect whose members conducted services themselves and took charge of events as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’ was laid to rest.
Amongst the tributes paid to Thomson, Maley said of his goalkeeper: “Never was there a keeper who caught and held the fastest shots with such grace and ease.”
The journalist John Arlott meanwhile, described Thomson as: “A great player, who came to the game as a boy and left it still a boy; he had no predecessor, no successor. He was unique.”
It would be remiss not to note the impact that the events of that tragic incident had on the other party involved. Sam English was born just a few months before Thomson and after playing junior football with Yoker Athletic, had earned his big move to Ibrox. An official enquiry confirmed what most observers already knew – that English was an honest player who made a genuine attempt to win a ’50-50’ challenge with a goalkeeper. There was no malice whatsoever. Thomson’s family agreed, making it clear that they did not hold English in any way responsible for the keeper’s death.
Sadly, not everyone shared that point of view. Opposing fans – from various clubs, not only Celtic – never allowed the striker to forget his involvement in Thomson’s death and he was mercilessly barracked wherever he played. Even after leaving Ibrox and playing for Liverpool, Queen of the South and Hartlepool United, the player’s ‘reputation’ seemed to precede him.
English retired from the game in 1938 aged just 28. He described the part of his career which followed that day at Ibrox as “seven years of joyless sport.”
Sam English died in 1967, at the age of 58.
Over the years there have been various efforts to ensure that Thomson’s name lives on. In 2008 a campaign backed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown led to Thomson being inducted into Scottish football’s Hall of Fame despite failing to meet the normal criteria of 50 international appearances.
In 1983 the John Thomson Memorial Committee was formed, with the aim of promoting Thomson’s memory in his local area. Their activities include an annual football tournament (bearing Thomson’s name), which is contested by local primary school children. This year will also see the JTMC, along with Celtic Graves Society, organise a pilgrimage from Celtic Park to Cardenden, following the route of those who walked to Thomson’s funeral in 1931. They will reach their destination on 4th September.
The following day sees the ‘The Prince - The Johnny Thomson Story’ begin at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre. Its opening coincides with the 80th anniversary of Thomson’s passing, and a potential audience of thousands are set to attend over an eight-show run.
The fact that so many people are prepared to attend or participate in such events, gives credence to the words which adorn Thomson’s headstone:
"They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind"