John Thomson: The sad death of a young footballer

Death isn’t a good thing to talk about. Dying at any age is a travesty, so much of what we see nowadays is all about death. There have been players who have died while playing football, either on the pitch or just afterwards. The sport has come so far in so many aspects, and they can hopefully prevent deaths from happening. However, the thirties was a tough time for the sport. Death during a derby is even worse because it marks that as something to remember for later. Such is the story of John Thomson, a Celtic Goalkeeper, and an Old Firm Derby. For those who aren’t aware the Old Firm Derby is between Celtic and Rangers of Glasgow, Scotland.

Credit: Centrojas

I’ll spare you the rehashing of the problems between these two as it’s been written to death. John was born in Fife, Scotland in 1909 and just after his 18th birthday he was signed by Celtic as a goalkeeper. He made his debut against Dundee at Dens Park in 1927. It didn’t take long before he became a regular starter for the Parkhead club, which led him to the national team. At the end of the 1930-31 season Celtic won the Scottish Cup over Motherwell 4-2, the second medal Thomson had picked up. The club decided to take a tour of North America over the summer.

Credit: Isaac Freeman

In their first match over in North America the Scots walked out to a 6-1 win over a Pennsylvania amateur XI in Philadelphia drawing a small crowd of 12,000 at Yellow Jacket Field. The next match they played the New York Giants in front of 30,000 with a 3-2 win. Celtic had to travel next to play the New York Yankees, who weren’t affiliated with the baseball team, but were the old Fall River team, one of the most well known of that era. This time Cetlic lost 4-3 on a hat-trick of Billy Gonsalves, one of the best players in America. Celtic lost again 1-0 to Fall River FC. 

Unfortunately, the losing streak grew to three at the Cyclodrome in Providence Rhode Island on a narrow pitch against a club ironically called Rangers. The loss was 3-1, but Jimmy McStay was profuse in his praise for the American club. Finally, the club won 5-0 over a local American League Brooklyn club at Ebbets Field. Now the club was flying high, Celtic went to Montreal and smashed a local Carstell club 7-0, before they jumped a train back to the States for New York City. There they played the Hakoah All-Stars 1-1. This was a side laced with Hungarian ex-internationals, many of whom would go onto be great coaches. In Chicago at Wrigley Field Celtic smashed a club that reached the National Challenge Cup final Chicago Bricklayers 6-3. Celtic ended the tour on a massive winning streak before returning back to Scotland. 

The other side of the story is a young player who came from Yoker Athletic named Sam English. He was quite prolific over his career before the infamous game  he scored 54 goals in 60 league matches.This was the highest league scorer in Rangers history, but he’s not known for that the First Old Firm game of the 1931-32 season was on September 5 at Ibrox. By the time the match kicked off 75,000 fans were here for a good match. The score at halftime was 0-0, surely the second half would have some spark to it?

Five minutes after the first half ended Rangers were on the attack. Right winger Fleming passed the ball to an oncoming Sam English, who rushed towards the Celtic goal. JOn Thomson was there, and as English drew his leg back to kick the ball Thomson rushed out and dived for the ball at the players feet. Thomson’s head collided with English’s knee. English rose limping, Thomson laid where he had fallen while some fans were cheering. The doctor ran onto the field to attend to Thomson, while Rangers captain Davie Meiklejohn made his way over to the fans to calm them down. Which they did, the fans weren’t aware of how serious it was. John Tomson was stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Chic Geatons. The play continued but under a sombre mood, which the match ended in a goalless draw. Within six out of the incident at the hospital VIctoria Infirmary Thomson had died from the injuries at only 23. Sam English was never the same after, blaming himself for the death.

Published by Stephen Brandt

Stephen Brandt is the host of the Subs Bench on He has written many articles on the sport over the last 15 years. His first book Boca Juniors A History and Appreciation of Buenos Aires's Most Succesful Futbol Team is out in the fall. He currently lives in Buffalo New York, USA.

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