Saturday, 13 February 2016

The second unluckiest footballer in the world

The second unluckiest footballer in the world

On the 12th day of April 1967 a crowd of 75,000 squeezed into Celtic Park to watch the European cup semi-final first leg between Celtic and Dukla Prague. History records that Jock Stein’s Celtic side took a massive step towards their date with destiny in Lisbon with a fine 3-1 win. On that same day a fine player and former opponent of Celtic passed away. The death of Sam English barely made it into the Scottish sporting press that week entranced as they were by Celtic’s audacious assault on the European Cup. Later that same week less than a hundred mourners turned out at Cardross Crematorium to mark the passing of Sam, a man inextricably linked to one of the most tragic events in the Celtic story.

Those of you who are of a Celtic persuasion won’t need reminding why 5th September 1931 was a day of lamentation for all who follow the green.  On that day Rangers met Celtic at Ibrox stadium and in the 50th minute of a tense match an accident occurred which took the life of Celtic’s wonderfully gifted young goalkeeper, John Thomson. The young Fife born keeper was just 22 years old and on the cusp of a career which promised great things. He had already played over 200 games for Celtic and distinguished himself as a graceful, athletic and fearless goalkeeper. He had also broken into the Scotland side and looked destined for greatness. Of course that awful collision with young Rangers forward Sam English ended Thomson’s life and also had a profound effect on the young Irishman for the rest of his days.

No one who has seen the film of the accident or read the reports of the official inquiry can reach any conclusion other than that a dreadful accident occurred at Ibrox on that September day 85 years ago. English had chased a through ball with characteristic speed and Thomson, seeing the danger had launched himself bravely at the ball. No one was to blame for the consequences of their collision. It was just one of those sets of circumstances which sometimes lead to injury but on that particular day led to tragedy. English was selected by Bill Struth to play in the Rangers team throughout that season as it was felt that he should get on with his career. Both he and Rangers Captain Meiklejohn visited John Thomson’s parents and there was no ill will whatsoever. Indeed Mr and Mrs Thomson had a letter published in a local newspaper in the days after John’s funeral which stated clearly that Sam English was blameless in the death of their son.

However, despite scoring a club record 44 league goals that season, English was finding it hard to cope with a moronic minority at many away grounds who would greet his appearance with shouts of ‘murderer.’ It cannot be denied that a small minority of Celtic supporters were also guilty of this harsh barracking of English. Such treatment of a young player already dealing with the trauma of Thomson’s death was cruel in the extreme as well as demonstrably untrue. Such ignorant people exist in all times as anyone who frequents modern social media will testify. In the end Sam English moved to England to further his career and make a fresh start but despite a bright beginning to his career at Liverpool, he appeared to be still deeply affected by what had occurred at Ibrox in September 1931. In the modern world he may well have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. In the 1930s men were expected to soldier on and maintain a stiff upper lip. His promising early form deserted him at Liverpool and he moved on to a succession of smaller clubs until finally giving up playing the game at the age of just 28 and returning, as many players did then, to the trades they knew before football gave them a modicum of fame. He once described his career after the accident with John Thomson as ‘Seven joyless years of sport,’ and commented to one reporter that he was the ‘second unluckiest footballer in the world.’

In 1965 Sam English began to exhibit the symptoms of motor neurone disease. This horrible illness attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This means messages gradually stop reaching muscles which begin to progressively waste away leading to cruel loss of function which progresses with a relentless certainty. Ironically on the day of his death in April 1967 the star of Celtic’s victory over Dukla Prague was the marvelous Jimmy Johnstone. As we know only too well that wonderfully gifted footballer was to develop the same illness later in his life.

Today Celtic supporters rightly honour the memory of John Thompson. His career was cut cruelly short but enough was written about his athletic prowess to convince us that he was indeed a marvelously gifted and courageous goalkeeper. Indeed if John Thomson was less courageous he might well have pulled out of going for that 50-50 ball with Sam English but John was utterly fearless in his defence of his goal. He had been injured in similar circumstances earlier in his career but continued to give his all for Celtic and the fans loved him for it.

Perhaps we should also spare a though for Sam English a young man caught up in a set of dreadful circumstances which so affected his life. No blame should ever attach to his memory for those events of so long ago.






  1. I remember reading how David Meiklejohn went behind the goal to hush the fans who were complaining about the time it took to take Thomson off (this is not a comment against the Rangers fans, football fans even now complain), but it was a fine moment by Meiklejohn - who was probably Rangers greatest ever captain. The only other player I've ever seen do that was Ruud Gullit.

  2. Very sad. I have read a more in depth comment on Sam, it really was a trial after that.

    There was a RFC fan group who put up a picture in recent years in the guise of respecting Sam English and in the headline banner of the web-page was not a picture of the man, but his knees. Them and Us.