The Tragic Death of Goalkeeper John Thomson
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The Tragic Death of Goalkeeper John Thomson

Over the years there have been many tragic incidents of footballers dying on the pitch, whether naturally or as a result of injury. One incident that had more significance than any other was the death of John Thompson, Celtic goalkeeper who died after a challenge from a player from their bitterest rivals, Rangers.

Over the years there have been many tragic incidents of footballers dying on the pitch, whether naturally or as a result of injury. One incident that had more significance than any other was the death of John Thompson, Celtic goalkeeper who died after a challenge from a player from their bitterest rivals, Rangers.

(John Thomson - Image Source)

Rangers and Celtic are the two main football teams in Glasgow, Scotland. They have been fierce rivals since the latter part of the 19th century. They are the two teams that have pretty much monopolised Scottish football since day-one; their own history may be steeped in trophies but it is also littered with something awful – sectarianism.

When it comes to Rangers and Celtic, collectively known as the ‘Old Firm’, sectarianism has played a massive part. Traditionally, Celtic are the ‘Catholic’ club and Rangers are the ‘Protestant’ club. It is clear to see where the animosity between the two clubs would come from – add to that, success from a team always invokes jealousy and anger in that teams rival fans. A recipe for disaster. This is not a history of the ‘Old Firm’ though, neither is it the history of the ‘religious’ elements behind the teams but it is necessary to have pointed that out to set the seen for a tragic incident that happened during an ‘Old Firm’ match – the death of John Thomson.

John Thomson was born in Fife, Scotland in 1909. Just after his 18th birthday he signed for Celtic as a goalkeeper, making his debut in a match against Dundee at Dens Park in 1927. Thomson proved to be a good ‘keeper and it didn’t take long before he became a regular starter for the Parkhead club, it also didn’t take too long before he got international recognition – playing a total of 4 times for Scotland.

At the tale end of the 1930-31 season, Celtic won the Scottish Cup by beating Motherwell 4-2 – it was the second medal Thomson had picked up as a Celtic player. The club decided to take the players, management and directors on a tour of North America over the summer.

Meanwhile, over at Ibrox park, the home of Rangers, a new player was being signed. He was a young, but prolific striker that had came from Yoker Athletic. His name was Sam English. Prolific he came to be; over the next two seasons, English played 60 league games scoring an impressive 54 goals. He also remains the highest league scoring Rangers player of all time. There is one incident though that Same English will always be remembered for, over and above his goal-scoring feats.

The first Old Firm match of the 1931-32 season was scheduled for September the 5th, the location was Ibrox park. By the time the game kicked off a crowd of over 75,000 fans filled the stadium in expectation of seeing their team beat their bitter rivals. The first half was not good to watch for the fans; play was nervous, some players were making simple mistakes but they all went unpunished. The score at half-time was 0-0. As the fans made their way to get their half-time refreshments (pie and bovril being the usual fare) they would have been hoping that the second half would at least have some incidents in it – in that thought, they were to be proved correct but for all the wrong reasons as it turned out.

Within five minutes of the start of the second half, Rangers were on the attack. Their right-winger Fleming passed the ball through to the on-rushing Sam English who raced towards the Celtic goal. As English drew his leg back, getting ready to shoot, Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson rushed out and dived for the ball at the players feet. The ‘keepers head collided with the attackers knee, English rose limping, Thomson lay still exactly where he had fallen.

(Seconds before the clash that resulted in the death of John Thomsons - Image Source)

It is a normal practice but a rather odd one that some fans are known to cheer when an opposition player goes down injured. With Thomson lying on the ground not moving, some of the Rangers fans could be heard cheering. As the doctor, manager and trainer rushed on to the field to tend to the hurt goalkeeper, Rangers captain Davie Meiklejohn made his way to the cheering Rangers fans to ask for calm. Meiklejohn was a well respected man and those fans soon stopped cheering – had they been aware of the seriousness they might not have been cheering in the first place.

With the crowd silenced, John Thomson was stretchered off the pitch; he was replaced in goal by Chic Geatons. Play continued but it was played under a somewhat sombre mood, the game ended goalless.

Within six hours of the incident news filtered through from the Victoria Infirmary (a hospital in the south-side of Glasgow) that John Thomson had died from his injuries – he was aged 23.

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Comments (4)

What a sad story.

Fortunately, not too many participants die in professional sports. I'd say race car driving has probably claimed the lion's share. Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died after getting hit in the head by a baseball thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays in 1920. Death wasn't instantaneous, but occurred 12 hours later. Chapman was 29-years-old.

It's terribly tragic when these things happen, but I guess that's the risk in any sport.

Wow! That is a tragic story of such a young player not even in his prime. Football is a very passionate sport among a lot of European and South American countries. Well written and a slice of tragic history within the sport.