A Tragic Derby at Ibrox – France Football pays tribute to The Prince of Goalkeepers

France Football magazine, now in its 73rd year, remains the journal of record as regards European and international football, and this week, as part of a series devoted to footballers unable for whatever reason to achieve their full potential, pays tribute to John Thomson.

In a meticulously researched article, journalist Frank Simon recounts the fateful events of 5 September 1931: the collision between the blameless Sam English and Thomson, the tears of Thomson’s fiancée, Margaret Finlay, as the Celtic keeper lay prone on the edge of the penalty area, the immediate concern displayed by Rangers’ skipper David Meiklejohn.

Thomson had suffered a fracture of his skull; worse, an artery behind his right temple had been severed. Efforts of the medical staff at the Victoria Infirmary to save the life of the 21 year old from Fife were un-successful and at 9pm, after the game itself had finished in drab stalemate, Thomson was pronounced dead.

France Football records the sadness and disbelief that enveloped the entire country at the time. There is considerable detail on Thomson’s roots in the mining community of Cardenden, Fife, his early playing career at Bowhill Rovers and at Wellesley Juniors where he was spotted by Celtic scout, Steve Callaghan.

Thomson, slim and of average height, didn’t cut an imposing figure but his bravery, agility and deftness of touch stood out – Jimmy McGrory later called him “the goalie with the hands of an artist”. Thomson signed professional terms for Celtic against the wishes of his mother, who regarded football as a dangerous game…

Willie Maley handed Thomson his debut for the Hoops in February 1927 after Peter Shevlin conceded three goals in a Scottish Cup tie against Brechin City. Thomson never looked back, winning the Scottish Cup with the Celts just two months later. Thomson made his international bow in 2-0 win over France in Paris, and further distinguished himself in Dark Blue in another 2-0 victory, this time against England (Dixie Deans and all).

On Celtic’s summer tour of the USA, Thomson was hailed “the best keeper in the world”. Three months later he was gone. Nearly 30,000 turned up in Cardenden for Thomson’s funeral. Some had walked all the way from Glasgow.

One of my most treasured possessions is a Wee Green Book from the 1931-32 season. The scores have been faithfully recorded in pencil but there is an asterisk next to the home game against Rangers in September. At the foot of the next page, there is a poignant hand written note of explanation: “John Thomson met with serious injury which resulted in his death ….”. Aye, but as Thomson’s gravestone reminds us: “They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”

David Sleight

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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