When it comes to fallen Celts, the names of John Thomson and Phil O’Donnell are rightly remembered by the Celtic support. However, the loss of another young player in similarly tragic circumstances, is often overlooked. John Millsopp, or ‘Jackie’ as he was better known, was cut down in his prime at the tender age of 22. He signed full forms with Celtic in 1948 and was a versatile talent, able to deputise for wingers, defenders and central midfielders.
Millsopp cemented a permanent role in the side after four years of waiting, albeit he still operated under the tag of a utility man. Nonetheless, the fledgling prospect had learnt from the likes of Bobby Evans and Charlie Tully, developing into an all-round talent. Having got a solid run of consecutive starts, Millsopp took to the field against Falkirk at Celtic Park on 6 September 1952. The flags were at half-mast that day and the Celtic players wore black armbands, a tribute to the magnificent Frank O’Donnell, who had passed away earlier in the week. The former forward, who scored 58 goals in 83 games for the club, was just 41 years of age when his life was prematurely taken. Little did anyone associated with Celtic know that the scene would sinisterly repeat itself a fortnight later.
A match report from The Glasgow Herald on 8 September 1952 encapsulates the excitement once play got underway: A Baillie-Millsopp-Tully movement put Scott’s charge in danger and the keeper was fortunate to see Tully’s attempt go narrowly passed. Delaney then took Falkirk in to engage Bonnar, who had little trouble dealing with a Plumb shot.
The reference to (Jimmy) Delaney leading the Falkirk attack was a sight that invoked nostalgic memories amongst the 20,000 Celtic fans in attendance. It had not been too long since many of them had seen the outstanding outside right burst down the wing in green and white hoops before his move to Manchester United. Nevertheless, Delaney was powerless to stop his former side taking the lead in the ninth minute, after stupendous play from Tully led to McPhail driving home from just inside the box. Celtic doubled their lead moments later. This time Fernie dispatched another Tully delivery. The Bhoys further turned on the style when McPhail bagged his second of the game to send Celtic into the break with a 3-0 lead.
The Glasgow Herald report, referenced above, described the second half in the following manner:
In the first minute Scott was in trouble again from a Tully cross but managed to clear at the second attempt. Falkirk then made track for Bonnar and 90 seconds after the restart they had reduced the lead. Although Plumb was the scorer, Delaney takes most the credit for a beautiful back heeler, which enabled the centre to drive past Bonnar.
Eight minutes later Falkirk again struck with success. A neat slip from Plumb to Morrison opened the Parkhead defence and Bonnar had little chance with Morrison’s drive.
Celtic became a bit rattled and the defence uncertain and it was no great surprise when in the sixteenth minute Plumb accepted from McCabe and prodded a smart equalising goal for Falkrik.
Now came the fight for the leading goal and after McPhail had shot over, a Brown cross brought the Celtic rear into action. With a roving commission Delaney was giving concern and the old Celt was disgusted when a McCabe score was ruled out for offside.
Nine minutes from time Tully pounced on a Baillie free kick and flashed a hard effort past Scott for Celtic’s fourth goal. One minute from time McPhail headed a fifth goal for Celtic.
What the match report failed to mention about the eight-goal thriller, was that John Millsopp had complained of chronic stomach pains during the game. The omission of this detail is understandable, as many assumed it to be a minor issue considering that the youngster completed the match. It soon transpired that Millsopp had a problem with his appendix and, following training on 9 September, he reported to Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary where he underwent an operation for appendicitis. Anticipating a routine procedure, it was an absolute shock to everybody connected with the club when the news surfaced that there were fatal complications with Millsopp’s surgery and that he had passed away, two weeks later, due to a burst appendix.
Multiple newspapers broke the sad news to the wider football world the next day (18 September). The Evening Times did just that in their 18 September edition, with a footnote entitled ‘Jackie Millsopp’s death’:
Glasgow’s football supporters, players and officials have been shocked by the death of young Jackie Millsopp of Celtic in a Glasgow Infirmary last night. He was only 21 (should have read 22). He had made his way in to the first team and only 10 days ago played against Falkirk.
The sympathy of everyone goes to the boy’s relatives and to his club. Jackie’s death will cast a gloom over the Celtic and Rangers match on Saturday, when the players of both sides will pay their tributes before the game starts.
Mourning had scarcely begun when Celtic played host to Rangers, two days later. It would be unthinkable for the game to go ahead in today’s world, given that the funeral took place in Cambuslang that morning. Yet that is exactly what happened.
A delegation from Rangers (Geroge Young, Sammy Cox, Ian McColl and Jock Shaw) along with the entire Celtic team, excepting John McPhail and Bobby Collins, attended the funeral service at St. Bride’s Roman Catholic Church. Hundreds of mourners looked on as Weir, Tully, Evans, Fallon, Stein and McGrory bore the coffin after requiem mass. The 200 strong cortege then followed the hearse, led by James McGrory, to Westburn Cemetery, where John ‘Jackie’ Millsopp was laid to rest.
The Celtic players and their Rangers counterparts had no time for sorrow, as they made the short trip to Parkhead for the match that afternoon. There, the flags were again at half mast, hooped jerseys were once more haunted by the presence of a black armband and a minute of silence was held before kick-off. The mood amongst the Celtic team was one of determination and disconsolation in equal measure. This oxymoron illustrated itself through the ability of Celtic to earn a 2-1 win, whilst Alex Rollo and James Walsh refused to celebrate their decisive goals.
Off the field, there was a subdued atmosphere in terms of vocal support from the 48,000 people in attendance. Although, even a backdrop of heartache failed to totally punctuate the violence that coincided with this fixture. The Glasgow Herald ran a headline ‘Hooligan Element At Parkhead’, whilst The Evening Times focused on ‘Why Are The Old Firm Crowds Falling Off So Much?’ Each newspaper had a small subsection to pay tribute to John Millsopp, whilst The Glasgow Herald piece covered his passing within the context of crowd issues.
The Glasgow Herald article, published on 22 September 1952, first praised Celtic fans for their behaviour since being permitted to fly the Eire flag, before laying the blame at the door of a pocket of Rangers supporters. Below is the relevant section of said article:
…The vast majority of Rangers fans were as shocked as anyone when during a most impressive minute of silence in tribute to the late John Millsopp, the Celtic player who died in midweek, a profane exhortation thundered over the ground. The rumble of disapproval that followed indicated how easily that spark could have started a conflagration.
At half time the disturbers of the peace continued their provocative behaviour but to the great credit of the opposite camp the only retaliation was a round of slow handclapping. An attempt was made to hoist a miniature flag of Eire but those nearby obviously put an end to it. Rangers Football Club have no desire that the hooligan type of follower should be linked with them…
In spite of the behaviour of some at the derby match, most people were moved by such a tragedy. None more so than Sean Fallon, who speaks of his despair at the death, in his biography by Steven Sullivan. Fallon said: “I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears around that time. I had got to know him well because we’d shared a cabin on the boat over to America the summer before, when the club took us over for a tour after we had won the Scottish Cup. We became good friends and Jackie was a lovely lad. Everyone at Celtic liked him, and it affected us all for a long, long time.”
The scenes of anguish around the club correspond with Fallon’s recollections, reportedly being reminiscent of the desolation experienced at the 1930s funerals for young Celts: John Thomson and Peter Scarff. (Peter Scarff was a great inside-left for Celtic, who contracted TB disease around the time that Thomson passed away. He died two years later.)