John Thomson: The Player Celtic and Rangers Mourned Together

Posted By on August 14, 2019


John Thomson is still revered as one of the
finest goalkeepers of the inter-war period. Despite
being an evangelical Protestant, he would also become an icon at the Catholic Glasgow
Celtic. And, for one sad day in September 1931, Thomson
bridged the Sectarian divide, as Celtic and Rangers fans joined to mourn his tragic early
death. Thomson was born on 28 January 1909 in Kirkcaldy,
ten miles north of Edinburgh. Growing up in nearby Cardenden, he showed early promise
as a footballer. As schoolteacher N.E. Lawton put it,
“he was a born goalkeeper”. By the age of 14, he had followed his father
into work at Bowhill Colliery. Working 300 yards
below ground, his job involved uncoupling the chain clips of wagons bringing coal to
the surface. Though he was slender and his hands were unusually
small, the work helped conditioned him for goalkeeping, allowing him to develop what
biographer Tom Greig called “a vice-like strength, with
powerful wrists and forearms”. Thomson was spotted by Celtic while playing
for Wellesley Juniors in 1926. Club scout Steve
Callaghan had been dispatched to watch the opposition goalkeeper, but it was Thomson
who impressed and he would join Celtic for £10
in October that year. With miners around the country
still taking part in the General Strike, professional football represented a more stable income.
Not to Thomson’s mother, though who, in dreadful
augury, believed that football was too dangerous for her son. Four months later, shortly after his 18th
birthday, Thomson was given his debut by manager Willie
Maley, who was concerned by the performances of first-choice keeper Peter Shevlin. Thomson
impressed, keeping his place for the rest of the season as Celtic finished third and
beat Division Two side East Fife 3-1 to claim their 12th
Scottish Cup. In October 1927, Celtic also won the Glasgow
Cup, beating Rangers 2-1 in the final. The two
sides met again a week later in the league with Rangers winning 1-0, but Thomson was
the star man in both games. The Daily Record said that
“for the second week in succession… the Celtic
keeper was simply immense. All sorts (of) shots came at Thomson. Point-blank range,
low shots caught in a vice, running out to kick clear
and clutch crosses again and again.” The following two seasons weren’t as successful
for Celtic, with the Glasgow Cup their only solace as Rangers won five consecutive league
titles. But Thomson’s star continued to rise and
he was selected for the Scottish Football League XI against the Irish League XI in October
1928, in a game they won 8-2. But results for the league XI were mixed.
Two years later in a match against the English Football
League side, England fans at White Hart Lane gave Thomson a standing ovation after an inspired
performance which meant that a 7-3 defeat still flattered the Scottish side. By then, he had also made his first appearance
for the Scottish national team. On 18 May 1930,
he played in one of Scotland’s first official friendlies abroad, in which they beat France
2-0 at Paris’ Stade de Colombes. According to the
Scotsman, “Thomson… particularly distinguished himself by leaping out and punching out hard
shots from eight yards range with both fists”. Later
that year, he played in a 1-1 draw with Wales and then in front of a British record 129,000
fans at Hampden Park, as Scotland beat England 2-0.
In his four international appearances, Thomson conceded just one goal. 1930 brought his third Glasgow Cup, but also
a warning sign. Renowned for putting his body on
the line by diving into crowds of players to secure the ball, he was severely injured
in a match against Airdrieonians, losing two teeth, breaking
his jaw, damaging his collar bone and fracturing several ribs. His mother, again, pleaded with
him to retire. Undeterred, Thomson played on and the 1930/31
season saw him win his second Scottish Cup, Celtic winning a replay 4-2 against Motherwell. In 1931, Thomson got engaged to his partner
Margaret Finlay, but fate would prevent the marriage
from ever taking place. On 5th September 1931, Celtic travelled to
Ibrox to play Rangers on Derby Day, as teams around
Scotland faced off against their closest rivals. Old Firm games were brutal affairs characterised
by riots and ambushes of visiting supporters,
and violence was common. But the incident which
claimed 22-year-old Thomson’s life was no attack, simply a horrific accident. Early in the second half, Rangers forward
Sam English, just 23 himself, was put clean through on
goal. Thomson rushed out to close him down, diving at his feet and deflecting the ball
away, but his head collided with English’s knee, rupturing
an artery in his temple and causing a depression in his skull. The severity of the incident wasn’t immediately
apparent to the crowd, whose boos were quietened at the urging of Rangers captain
Davie Meiklejohn. Thomson was stretchered from the
taken to Victoria Infirmary, while Rangers manager William Struth sent a car to collect
Thomson’s parents from Cardenden. But he couldn’t be saved. An emergency operation
to relieve the pressure caused by the swelling of his brain was unsuccessful and Thomson
died that night at 9:25pm, at just 22 years old.
Details of Thomson’s memorial service were only made public a day before the event, which
took place in his hometown of Cardenden, but the
attendance was vast. Some mourners reportedly walked the 55miles from Glasgow, those who
could afford the fare took the train, but 30,000
people – Protestants and Catholics together – filled the streets on 9th September. Sam English, who wept openly at the ceremony,
was instantly cleared of any wrongdoing by officials. He would also visit Thomson’s
parents in the weeks after the accident and was they
publicly exonerated him of any blame. But the incident haunted his career and. He left
Scotland and scored prolifically for Liverpool, but
retired from football before his 30th birthday. Taunted and
jeered by opposition defenders and fans, he said he had played “seven years of joyless
sport”. After a battle with Motor Neurone Disease,
English died in 1967 at the age of 58. In 2008, the
trophy awarded to Rangers’ top-scorer each season was named after him, with Kris Boyd
becoming the inaugural winner of the Sam English Bowl. John Thomson’s memory remains alive too.
Forever remembered as Celtic’s ‘Prince of
Goalkeepers’, for those who saw him he was unmatched in the position – the best Scottish
football had ever seen. As journalist and commentator John Arlott said, he was “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.” In November 2008, in response to a petition
led by author Tom Greig, John Thomson was finally
inducted into the Scottish Football Hall Of Fame.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 94 comments

  1. Well, will you do the 1998 or 1999 match between Norway and Brazil
    And Btw Norway is the only country that has never lost to Brazil

    Reply
  2. Incredible story, simply amazing. Thanks again to Tifo for showing us these, most of which I have never heard off. Keep up the great work

    Reply
  3. First off, thank you for the blessing that is Tifo Football. Everytime I watch a video on your channel, I learn something new every single time and I love it!

    Regarding Thomson, I’m emotional tbh. A young man who was cut down too soon, but remembered by many from both sides of the Old Firm rivalry and Scottish football overall.

    I’d never heard of him before, so I thank you Tifo for discussing him. R.I.P. John Thomson. 🙏🙏❤️

    Reply
  4. R.I.P. to Sam English as well. Despite being blameless in Thomson’s death, I can’t imagine the pain he felt both during and after his footballing career after the incident.

    That part regarding the “seven years of joyless sport” really hit me hard. May he find peace as well. 🙏🙏❤️

    Reply
  5. The narration alongside Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude in C Major made me tear up. Great selection of music

    Reply
  6. Nearly in tears here, lads. Nice one. Feel really bad for Sam English in that situation as well. It must have been hard to live with what had happened.

    Reply
  7. Football back then until the 60s was bretty brutal and hard hitting, unlike today with the dives and all. Btw, this isnt a rent about the current game, today players are more protected. But i believe the sport would be more respected or the players, if they simply wouldnt dive so much. And werent spoiled brats. Players back then got brutal tackles and played mostly for the love of the game, representing their culture and country, while having double jobs.
    And awesome piece by Tifo as always, what a tragic but beautiful story at the same time. So great to know these stories in a simply, captiviting way.

    Reply
  8. Lads could u do a video on who Celtic should sign as a replacement for Kieran tierney and other ares we need strengthening

    Reply
  9. Fantastic video guys.

    Joe, for the next video you do with Scottish names or places, give me a DM and I'll help you pronounce them correctly haha.

    Reply
  10. Can’t imagine what English went through. Probably had that heart disease from all the stress that incident gave him. Poor guy

    Reply
  11. If you go on the Celtic stadium tour they still talk about Thompson openly as a hero of the club and show footage of his death in a video montage of the club's history. Genuinely moving and tragic stuff, but its a mercy to know that this legend of Glasgow lives on in spirit in the game, both him and Sam

    Reply
  12. Great content. Would love to know what Tifo's view on the why they continue to use the wrong crest for Rangers in this video.

    Reply
  13. Tifo football could you talk about miklos feher a player that passed during a game between benfica and guimaraes in portugal back in 2004. It was and is one of the saddest deaths in football history.

    Reply
  14. There is a football tournament held in his memory every year featuring local schools and football clubs and a memorial service at his graveside. I visit his grave personally every year on the 5th of September to lay flowers on behalf of our supporters club. I don't think there was a need to mention religion in the video, it doesn't provide any context to the story. A player's religion was never an issue at Celtic football club.

    Reply
  15. Crazy to think the best footballer could of lived in the 1700s and we would never know about it. We like to believe with medical advancements and technology/ cameras we have witnessed the bestl that their is over the least 70 years. Might not of been a piece of leather with air but I’m sure they got close

    Reply
  16. im a Louisville City fan and it sucks yo. we are currently 8th in our table sure, but we should have been given the chance to compete against MLS, while teams who finished lower than us get to buy in because of attendance stats that they helped boost by giving tickets away…

    Reply
  17. Kirkcaldy's museum has a place i in it dedicated to John Thomson. It even has his worn Scotland jersey included on display. Fantastic piece here Tifo, it's a tragic story but beautifully expressed through this video.

    Reply
  18. A similar injury happened to the bnx rider Scotty Cranmer. He hit his head and his brain started expanding or something so they had to remove the front part of his skull and put it back in when the swelling went down. There are videos of him with a huge dent in his forehead

    Reply
  19. Oh cheers for covering Johnny Thomson! Tragic for all involved. Still have the photo of the of him getting crushed. Just tragic…hail hail🍀

    Reply
  20. My great grandfather saw Thompson play and said right up until his death a few years ago that he was easily the best goalkeeper he had ever seen.

    Reply
  21. I remember getting told this story when I first visited Celtic park for a tour when I was 4/5 and it's all ways stuck with me

    Reply
  22. Remember being told about this in school we were talking about the dangers involved in football how to protect ourself best as we cluld6

    Reply
  23. Not the only player mourned by both sets of old firm fans.See also Billy McNeil,Tommy Burns and Davie Cooper.Humanity occasionally breaks out between us.Only occasionally mind!! R.I.P

    Reply

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