One reason often given for the decline in the murder rate in the United States is improved emergency care: people now survive injuries that twenty years ago would have killed them. The same may or may not be true of football. There are signs that the sheer physical demands made by the modern game are taking some players into dangerous territory; witness the tragic death of Marc Viven Foe.
Petr Cech’s compressed fracture of the skull made me wince in sympathy. I received the same injury in the same place in November of 1992. I was working on a projected biography of Byron at the time and was shortly due to meet John Murray, descendent of Byron’s original publisher. The meeting was cancelled: Murray was taken into hospital where he later died. The man who set up the meeting, Dr. Angus Macintyre, died in a road accident not long afterwards. And I wobbled up Shalcombe Street NW3 under an uneasy column of Byron memoir. Outside my door, I was flattened without warning by three youths – they held me down, demanding my wallet – I refused, they threatened to kick my head in – I refused again, and they carried their threat through.
My particular fracture took a month of repeated badgering of the Royal Free to be discovered. It’s an awkward injury, because it’s not immediately obvious what to do about it. In my case, there was a lot of loose particles of bone floating about close to my frontal lobes, and they decided on that basis not to operate “for now”. I didn’t go back after that, and I’m still here. I don’t go after those hard driven crosses with quite the old enthusiasm though.
Cech may well have been lucky. He may not be feeling that way now, but what happened to him is an almost perfect parallel of the accident in September 1931 that killed Celtic goalkeeper John Thompson. Like Cech, Thompson was the great keeper of his day, and at the time of his accident was almost the same age. There is, somewhere, a blurry newsprint image of the moment when Sam English’s knee makes contact with Thompson.
We are lucky enough to live in a world with specialist head injury units in its major cities. Perhaps had Thompson had those at his disposal, rather than a bouncing journey through depressed industrial Glasgow to a despairing general hospital, he might have lived to knock out his pipe in disgust as, long retired, he watched Bobby Robson put the first of nine past his successor. We’ll never know.