A twenty-two-year-old with 210 appearances for Celtic amassed over the space of just over four seasons. He was on target to be one of the most capped Celtic players ever, had his life not been cut so tragically short. A man worth remembering, a birthday worth celebrating.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, football boots could still weigh anything up to a kilogramme if wet and similarly the footballs, which were made from hard leather and rubber, could do serious damage to the limbs of a footballer. Add to this the fact that protection for goalkeepers in the game was something which was not to come around for a number of decades yet, you really must have been made to be a goalie in the 1920s and 30’s. All this being said it is perhaps slightly ironic that despite this, what actually happened to Thomson was something that could easily happen again nowadays.
Minutes into the second half of an Old Firm derby at Ibrox on 5 September 1931, tragedy struck. Thomson dived in at the feet of the oncoming Rangers striker, Sam English. The side of Thomson’s head met English’s knee as he attempted to retrieve the ball. The black and white video of the event shows the horrific sight of Thomson’s body lying on the ground as if frozen in place, one arm outstretched into the air. He had suffered a depressed fracture of the skull and died later that day at Victoria Infirmary.
There had been perhaps something of a warning shot, a sign of foreboding when in early 1930 he sustained a very bad collar-bone injury, as well as several cracked ribs, a broken jaw and some lost teeth, all as a result of a single diving save against Airdrieonians. He was a hardy man, of that we can have no doubt.
Having joined Celtic at 17, the young man from Kirkcaldy in the Kingdom of Fife had joined a team bustling with big names like James McGrory, Alexander Thomson, Charles Napier, future Celtic manager James McStay and his older brother Willie. Despite dying so young he managed four Scotland caps (all four of which came in the last year of his life), two Scottish Cup medals and three Glasgow Cup wins during his career with Celtic.
One of his four Scotland appearances came at Hampden in 1931 which saw Scotland beat the Auld Enemy, with Thomson receiving the honour of getting to meet then Prime Minister and fellow Scotsman, Ramsay McDonald.
Whilst the likelihood of him surviving to celebrate his 108th birthday with us today would have been altogether rather slim, it’s worth taking every opportunity possible to talk about the only man to have ever lost his life whilst playing for Celtic. What might have been for Johnny Thomson? One can only surmise. What we can say with certainty though is that his skills as goalkeeper are not those of a tragic legend and rose-tinted glasses, but are totally genuine. He can be remembered as one of the finest ‘keepers ever to wear the colours of our pride, our joy, Celtic.
“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”- Inscription on the grave of John Thomson.
A mass card for the passing of John Thomson signed by the ten men who were on the pitch with him the day he passed; James McGrory, Bertie (Robert) Thomson, Charles Geatons, Peter McGonagle, Peter Wilson, Peter Scarff, Charles Napier, Alex Thomson, James McStay and William Cook.
KEVIN JOHN THOMSON