Friday, 26 April 2013

Farewell my Darling Johnny

By Old Firm standards it was a poor game. The restlessness of the 80,000 who packed Ibrox only served to increase the tension the players exhibited on the field. It was a game full of clattering challenges and little football in which both teams seemed more keen to avoid defeat than to go for the victory. Then in the 50th minute a Celtic attack was broken up and the skillful Jimmy Fleming of Rangers released a quick pass behind the Celtic defence which the speedy Sam English raced onto.  Celtic’s goalkeeper John Thomson, seeing his defence breached, reacted with characteristic bravery and decisiveness. He raced from his goal to narrow the angle and force English to hurry his shot. English was in the act of shooting when the young keeper dived for the ball. There was a sickening collision as Thomson’s head impacted on the blameless forward’s knee. The ball spun past the post as Thompson lay prostrate on the turf. His last act as a Celtic player was to defend his goal in a most courageous manner. English, himself hurt in the collision, was first to his aid and seeing the extent of Thompson’s injuries waved frantically for the Doctor to enter the field. As John Thomson was stretchered from the field, his head swathed in bandages, few on the terracing would have guessed that the young Celtic and Scotland star was mortally injured. Despite the best efforts of staff at the Victoria Infirmary, John Thomson died at 9.25 pm that night.

John Thomson knew the dangers of being a goalkeeper in the muscular and rough Scottish game on the 1920s and 30s. In those days shoulder charging of goalkeepers was the norm and only the brave keeper ventured off his line much in games. The year before his death, Thomson had been injured in a game against Airdrie as he dived at the feet of an onrushing forward. That collision left him with a broken jaw, cracked ribs and a few missing teeth. Despite the rough treatment meted out to goalkeepers in those days, Thompson was noted for his bravery, speed, agility and grace. By 21 he had established himself as Celtic and Scotland keeper and was openly lauded as one of the finest goalkeepers in Britain. His performance against a powerful English side in the spring of 1931 when he defied the great Everton striker Dixie Dean time and time again was the foundation stone of a famous Scotland victory.  The quiet, handsome lad from Fife was on the cusp of a great career when fate cut his life cruelly short. James Hanley, wrote of him in the  'The Story of Celtic'...

 "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. In like manner, a generation that did not see John Thomson has missed a touch of greatness in sport, for which he was a brilliant virtuoso.’

Celtic manager, Willie Maley, gave evidence at the inquest into Thomson’s death and when asked if in his opinion it was an accident replied ‘I hope it was an accident.’ The ambiguity of his answer was little short of cruel to the distraught Sam English who suffered cruel taunts of ‘Murderer’ at many Scottish grounds. He was transferred to Liverpool but was traumatised by the events surrounding John Thompson’s death and never fully recovered the form which saw him score 44 goals in 35 games for Rangers in 1931-32 season. Maley should have spoken out more vigorously in defence of English who was guilty of nothing more than giving 100% for his team as John Thomson had for his. It had been a terrible accident, nothing more. Indeed, English, who retired in 1938 at the age of 28 after a distinguished career, commented to friends that since Thomson’s death he had 7 years of joyless sport. He died in Vale of Leven Hospital in April 1967 of motor neurone disease, aged just 58.

Tens of thousands went to Queen Street station to see John Thomson’s coffin begin its sad train journey home to Fife. Thousands more made the same journey: by train, by car and by foot. Unemployed workers walked the 55 miles, spending the night in the open air.  Thomson's coffin, topped by one of his international caps and a wreath in the design of an empty goal, was carried by six Celtic players the mile from his home to Bowhill cemetery. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life lined the route to pay their respects to a sporting great. Who knows what heights John Thomson could have attained had his life not ended so tragically on that tense day at Ibrox? He was laid to rest in the graveyard populated by the victims of many mining disasters to afflict that part of Scotland.His death was a tragedy not just for the Celtic family, but for all of Scottish Football. His family too were devastated by the loss of a fine son as was his fiance who had been in the main stand at Ibrox on the day of the accident.  

John Thomson, like many Celtic greats, didn’t come from a traditional Celtic background. Celtic may have had their roots in the Irish diaspora but they have rightly always been open to all. The ability and character of a player was what counted, nothing else. Like so many others who have worn the Hoops with pride in the last 125 years John Thomson was taken to the hearts of Celtic fans who could see his ability and bravery. The quiet boy from Fife gave his all for his team and in the end his fearless commitment cost him his life. The Celtic handbook of the proceeding season spoke of him with the following words…

‘’John Thomson as a goalkeeper stood out in splendid isolation. Peerless among goalkeepers and still in the morning of his career. He had attained heights never before scaled by goalkeepers of experience and greatness. His memory and his services are remembered and cherished. Amongst the great Celts who have gone, he has a place – an honoured place.”

John entered the folklore of the Club we hold dear. Songs and poems were written about him and an annual football tournament is named in his honour. Celtic supporters buses often stop by his grave when they are in Fife and honour one of the great Celts. On his gravestone are words which list his honours gained as a goalkeeper for Celtic and Scotland. Beneath those words is an old phrase which still rings true; ‘They never die who live in the hearts of those they leave behind.’ John Thomson is rightly remembered with pride by Celtic fans.  There will be few who have not heard the famous old song written about him which contains the words….

I took a trip to Parkhead, to the dear old paradise
As the players made their appearance sure the tears came to my eyes
A familiar face was missing from the green and white brigade
T'was the face of young John Thomson, his last game he had played
Farewell my darling Johnny for the best of friends must part
No more we’ll stand and cheer you on the slopes of Celtic Park
So come on you Glasgow Celtic, Stand up and play the game
For in your goal a spirit stands, John Thomson is his name

John Thompson 1909-1931
Celtic Legend

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