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John Thomson (footballer, born 1909)

John Thomson (28 January 1909 – 5 September 1931) was a Scottish footballer who played as a goalkeeper for Celtic and the Scotland national football team. He died as a result of an accidental collision with Rangers player Sam English during an Old Firm match at Ibrox.

John Thomson
John Thomson, Celtic FC.jpg
Personal information
Full name John Thomson
Date of birth (1909-01-28)28 January 1909
Place of birth Kirkcaldy, Scotland
Date of death 5 September 1931(1931-09-05) (aged 22)
Place of death Glasgow, Scotland
Height 1.75 m (5 ft 9 in)
Playing position Goalkeeper
Youth career
1924–1925 Bowhill Rovers
1925–1927 Wellesley Juniors
Senior career*
Years Team Apps (Gls)
1927–1931 Celtic[1] 164 (0)
National team
1928–1930 Scottish League XI 4 (0)
1930–1931 Scotland 4 (0)
* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only and correct as of 23 July 2008
‡ National team caps and goals correct as of 23 July 2008

Club careerEdit

Early life and careerEdit

Thomson was born on 28 January 1909 in Kirkcaldy, to John and Jean Thomson. He grew up in the mining community of Cardenden in Fife, and was educated at Denend Primary School and Auchterderran Higher Grade School. By the time he reached High School he was already seen as a talented goalkeeper and was part of the Auchterderran school team that won the Lochgelly Times Cup.[2]

At the age of 14, he became an oncost worker at Bowhill Colliery, where his father also worked. He worked 300 yards below the pithead surface, uncoupling the chain clips of the waggons that carried the coal up from the mine. During the 1924–25 season, Thomson played for Bowhill Rovers. The following season, he moved to Wellesley Juniors, where his talent was spotted by the local press who predicted that he would become a very good goalkeeper in future.[2]


Celtic manager Willie Maley sent his chief scout, Steve Callaghan, to watch the Denbeath Star goalkeeper but instead came back with a rave review about Thomson. After playing against Denbeath Star on 20 October 1926, Celtic signed, 17-year-old, Thomson for £10. On 5 February, Celtic beat Brechin City 6–3, Maley was concerned by the fact his first choice 'keeper, Peter Shevlin, had conceded three soft goals. He then decided to give, 18-year-old, Thomson a chance in the next game, which was against Dundee. He kept his place in the team after this match, and helped Celtic to finish second in the Scottish First Division. He also played in Celtic's 1927 Scottish Cup Final victory, as they beat East Fife 3–1. The following season, after an Old Firm match where Celtic played against their rivals Rangers at Ibrox Park. Thomson received widespread praise from the press following an "immense" performance. On 5 February 1930, Thomson was seriously injured in a game against Airdrieonians. He broke his jaw, fractured several ribs, damaged his collar bone, and lost two teeth when making a diving save. On 11 April 1931, Thomson won the second medal of his career as Celtic beat Motherwell 4–2 in the 1931 Scottish Cup Final. The first match had finished in a 2–2 draw and over 105,000 spectators watched the replay at Hampden Park.[2]


International careerEdit

John made his first international appearance against France on 18 May 1930 in a 2–0 win. This was in the time before caps were awarded for matches other than Home Internationals, so Thomson was awarded his first cap against Wales on 25 October 1930. He made another two international appearances for Scotland, keeping clean sheets against Ireland and England.[8]

Style of playEdit

Thomson was very small and thin, standing at only 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m). Many people thought that he did not look like a goalkeeper due to his diminutive stature, and small hands. Although his team-mate Jimmy McGrory described him as having "artists hands".

In his biography of Thomson, author Tom Greig described him as having strong, slender fingers and powerful wrists and forearms. Saying that "The combination of these physical attributes was the basis for his extraordinary shot-saving and clutching capabilities."[2] Football historian Robert McElroy, described him as being "graceful, athletic, very brave and courageous".[9] Celtic chairman Desmond White said that Thomson was the best 'keeper he had ever seen, and described him as having "the ability to rise in the air high above the opposition. It was this almost ballet-like ability and agility which, in his tremendous displays, endeared him to the hearts of all Celtic supporters." After his death Thomson's manager Willie Maley said that; "Never was there a keeper who caught and held the fastest shots with such grace and ease. In all he did there was the balance and beauty of movement wonderful to watch."[9]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1931, Thomson got engaged to Margaret Finlay and also started making plans to open a tailor shop in Glasgow. Thomson was a member of the Church of Christ, a small Protestant Evangelical church.[2]


On 5 September 1931, Celtic were playing their Old Firm rivals Rangers at Ibrox Park in Glasgow in front of 80,000. Early in the second half Thomson and a Rangers player, Sam English, went for the ball at the same time. Thomson's head collided with English's knee, fracturing his skull and rupturing an artery in his right temple. Thomson was taken off the field in a stretcher; most people assumed that he was just badly concussed, but a few people who had seen his injuries suspected worse. One source said, "There were gasps in the main stand, a single piercing scream being heard from a horrified young woman"; this was believed to be the scream of 19-year-old Margaret Finlay, who was watching with Jim Thomson (brother of John). One Rangers player, also a medical student, said later that as soon as he saw him he gave little chance for his survival.

After having treatment from the St Andrew's Ambulance Association, he was taken to a stretcher. According to The Scotsman, he was "seen to rise on the stretcher and look towards the goal and the spot where the accident happened". The game ended 0–0. Thomson was taken to the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow.[10] He had a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones of the skull, which meant that there was a depression in his skull of 2 in (5 cm) diameter. At 5 pm he suffered a major convulsion. Dr Norman Davidson carried out an emergency operation to try and lower the amount of pressure caused by the swelling brain, but the operation was unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead by 9.25 pm.


His death shocked many people. English, who was deeply traumatised by the event, was totally cleared of any responsibility for the accident. Even at the start of the 21st century Thomson's grave in Bowhill, Fife remains a place of pilgrimage for Celtic fans. On his gravestone it reads "They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind".

Celtic manager Willie Maley wrote of him:

Thomson was known for his incredible agility, bravery and safe handling, who produced some magnificent displays of goalkeeping.

The journalist John Arlott wrote:

Around 30,000 people went to his funeral in Cardenden (where he lived as a boy) on 9 September 1931. Lots of them had walked the journey of 55 miles (89 km) from Glasgow. Another 20,000 turned out at Glasgow Queen Street station to watch two trains set off with two thousand passengers who could afford to pay the four shillings return fare.

Sam English was cleared of any blame in the incident but he was jeered by Scottish fans afterwards and moved south a year later to play with Liverpool. However, he quit the sport altogether in May 1938, he told a friend that since the accident that killed John Thomson he had "seven years of joyless sport".

In recent years, a book called "My Search For Celtic's John", written by Tom Greig, discusses his personal life and the fatal incident. Greig started a petition to persuade the Scottish Football Association to induct John Thomson into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. In November 2008, this was achieved.[11][12]

A local committee has also been set up called the John Thomson Memorial Committee. This organisation works to make sure that John's name and achievements are remembered throughout the community and Scotland. Every year children in the Cardenden and Kinglassie districts play for the John Thomson Trophy to help ensure his name is perpetuated.[13][14] On his gravestone, the simple inscription reads: "They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind."[15]

In 2009, a play written by Celtic historian David Potter was produced by children of the village and performed both in the village itself and at the Scottish Parliament before interested MSPs.

September 2011 marked the 80th anniversary of John's death and the John Thomson Memorial Committee (JTMC) worked in partnership with Celtic Graves Society (CGS) on a "Pilgrimage walk" from Glasgow to Cardenden. The aim was to re-create the walk that many fans took 80 years ago to attend John's funeral in Cardenden. The walk started on Friday 2 September and arrived in Cardenden on the morning of Sunday 4 September to coincide with the annual John Thomson primary school football tournament which JTMC has organised for nearly thirty years. Following the tournament and a prize giving ceremony the Pilgrimage walkers attended a wreath laying ceremony around 4.15 p.m. at Bowhill Cemetery. A play about John Thomson, written by Brian McGeachan and Gerard McDade was performed at Glasgow's King's Theatre from 5 to 10 September. The opening night fell on the 80th anniversary of John Thomson's death.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Thomson, John". FitbaStats. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e "John Thomson". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 9 December 2011.
  3. ^ "3–1 Vs East Fife (16/04/1927)". FitbaStats. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  4. ^ "4–2 Vs Motherwell (15/04/1931)". FitbaStats. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  5. ^ "2–1 Vs Rangers (08/10/1927)". FitbaStats. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  6. ^ "2–0 Vs Queen's Park (06/10/1928)". FitbaStats. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  7. ^ "2–1 Vs Rangers (11/10/1930)". FitbaStats. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  8. ^ "John Thomson – A Squad". Scottish FA. Retrieved 9 December 2011.
  9. ^ a b "Honour call for NI soccer star". BBC News. 26 March 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2011.
  10. ^ Honour call for NI soccer star, BBC News, 26 March 2008.
  11. ^ "Celtic legend John Thomson to be included in Scottish Football Hall of Fame". Daily Record. 24 September 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2011.
  12. ^ "BBC Scotland News Report (November 2008)". YouTube. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
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  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  • Greig, Tom (2003). My Search for Celtic's John. Ogilvie Writings. ISBN 0-9549135-0-7.