“A great player who came to the game as a boy and left it still a boy; he had no predecessor, no successor.” – These were the words spoken by journalist John Arlott at the time of the death of one of the most talented, innovative, and unique goalkeepers of the time- John Thomson. He did something that no one could’ve thought was possible, he brought the city of Glasgow together. Unfortunately, it was his death that brought the city together. Both Celtic and Rangers fans got together to mourn his tragic and early death.
Born in the town of Kirkcaldy, about 50 kilometers from the city of Edinburgh, to John and Jean Thomson, he grew up in the nearby mining community of Cardenden. He joined his father into work at Bowhill Colliery, a coal mine in Cardenden. His job was to uncouple the chain clips of the wagons and bringing coal to the surface. This experience probably helped him to have “vice-like strength, with powerful wrists and forearms”, according to biographer Tom Greig.
John Thomson was brought to Celtic for £10 from Wellesley Juniors, a local club. Manager Willie Maley sent chief scout Steve Callaghan to watch Denbeath Star FC goalkeeper, but instead, he returned with rave reviews about Thomson.
At 18 years of age, he was given his debut by manager Willie Maley, who was concerned with the performance of first-choice keeper Peter Shevlin. He impressed in the following games, helping Celtic finish third in the Scottish First Division and helped them win the 1927 Scottish Cup final, beating East Fife 3-1.
He helped Celtic win the Glasgow Cup in October the same year, beating Rangers 2-1 in the final. Although Rangers won the following league match a week later, John Thomson received plaudits from the Scottish media. A Daily Record journalist wrote:
“For the second week in succession, the Celtic ‘keeper was immense. All sorts of shots came at Thomson. Point blank range, low shots caught in a vice, running out to kick clear and clutch crosses again and again.”
On 5 February 1930, in a game against Airdrieonians FC, he broke his jaw, fractured several ribs, lost two teeth, and damaged his collar bone while he was trying to make a diving save. Despite his mother’s protestations, he continued playing.
John Thomson made his international debut against France and helped Scotland win 2-0. In a match against Tottenham Hotspur, he received a standing ovation from a White Hart Lane audience who were impressed with his performance, despite a 7-3 defeat to the English Football league team.
John made a total of 8 international appearances, 4 being for the Scottish League XI (a representative side of the Scottish Football league), and 4 for the Scotland national team. In his 4 appearances for the national team, Thomson conceded just one goal.
5th September 1931 is the date which neither Celtic nor Rangers fans would forget. Rangers faced off against Celtic in a classic derby day at Ibrox. Rangers striker Sam English was put clean through on goal, with only Thomson to beat. Both players, unfortunately, collided with each other as they were chasing the loose ball. Thomson’s head collided with English’s knee, causing a depression to the skull. Thomson was rushed to the Victoria Infirmary, while Rangers manager William Struth sent a car to collect Thomson’s parents. Thomson died that night at 9:25 pm, at just 22 years of age.
What followed was an even more remarkable sight. Around 30,000 people attended the service at Thomson’s hometown of Cardenden. Some took the train, others walked the 88 km distance (55 miles) from Glasgow to attend the service.
Sam English, the other person involved in the accident, often visited Thomson’s parents in the weeks after the accident. Although he was publicly exonerated of any wrongdoing, the accident still haunted his career. He went on to have a fairly successful career at Liverpool, before retiring at the age of 28. He said that his playing career became a “joyless sport” after the accident.
Today, we may rave about the performances of Manuel Neuer, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Alisson, and Jan Oblak. But it was John Thomson who revolutionized goalkeeping. Despite being only 5ft 9in, he was known for being athletic and courageous. He was known for putting his body on the line to make saves, trying to punch the ball in the air with both fists while defending corners and having a vice-like grip. Words alone cannot do justice for his stellar career, for he was successful in bringing two religions and two fierce sets of fans together.