I hadn’t known that it had been filmed: the shockingly violent moment when Sam English’s knee caught Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson’s head in a 1931 Old Firm derby. But there the whole terrible incident was, played out in front of a vast Ibrox crowd, and replayed now in commemoration of Thomson’s entry into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. It’s a fast, quick, clever Rangers attack – English and Thomson go for the same brilliant through ball – and you can feel the impact in your gut. Thomson is left lying still on the ground.
IÂ hadn’t seen the film before, but I was familiar with that press photoÂ ofÂ the accident. It wasÂ in an hundred of thoseÂ lavish 1970s histories of football. The picture’s grainy to the pointÂ where Sam EnglishÂ is scarcely recognisable as a man, yet you can tell straightaway that something is badly wrong from the acute angle of Thomson’s head. Thomson was rushed to the Victoria Hospital with a depressed fractureÂ of the skull. A depressed fracture of the skull: hat’s myÂ injury, “picked up”, as they sayÂ in the game, during a muggingÂ in 1992. But I was very lucky. I was able to “run it off.” Poor John Thomson died that evening. Perhaps he couldÂ have been saved nowadays, but we’ll neverÂ know.
Of course, Thomson’s commemoration does everything to justify the creation of “HallsÂ of Fame” -Â he was alreadyÂ oneÂ of the great keepers when his life was cut so short. And that’s whatÂ they exist for,Â isn’t it? to keep alive the memory of players who might otherwise be forgotten as the people who watched them play themselves come to the endÂ of their lives.
As I say, I was familiarÂ onlyÂ with that press photograph, butÂ it wasÂ one that had shaken me thoroughly at the young age at which I came across it. I was what, eight, ten? taking a lunch break high upÂ inÂ the little library of Parkwood Middle SchoolÂ in Bedford. Thirty years ago, before Thatcher, but I can still see it clearly without effort, where it sat on the page.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t get the idea of death. When I was a toddler, my grandmother’s sisters were dyingÂ one byÂ oneÂ of old age and related complaints, and there are a whole stringÂ of them who lived long lives in the twentieth century yet whom I’ve justÂ one memory of, the same one each time, of an old, old lady making a great fuss of my baby blonde hair, shortly before I am told thatÂ they’ve died.
What I didn’t really understand, and still struggle with now, is the nineteenth-century-and-earlier idea that death can comeÂ out of a clear blue sky at any age; thatÂ there are terribleÂ thingsÂ that can happen to anyone, andÂ that they are real and take time. No fade-outs: no changes of scene while some kindly anaesthesia helpsÂ the doomedÂ man over the line. A depressed fracture ofÂ the skull bloody hurts, let me tell you, but of course there’s much worse out there.
John Thomson’s accident told me that much. It can be you,Â it can be bad, you aren’t excused because you’re twenty and there’s no warning and you don’t get to say goodbye. “Lunar distances travelled beyond love” was Heaney’s lineÂ in another context, perhaps the loneliest and most heartbreaking aspect of this kind of death where there is no time to find some last familiar affection.
Of course, by 1931, this kind of event was becoming unusual. InÂ the last yearsÂ of the nineteenth and early yearsÂ of the twentieth century, the top echelons ofÂ the game saw somethingÂ of the sort most years. Archie Hunter, Aston Villa, 1890 (heart attack suffered during a game). James Dunlop, St Mirren 1892 (tetanus from a cut sustained during a game). Joseph Powell, Arsenal 1896 (infection following a badly broken arm). Di Jones, Manchester City, 1902 (gashed knee turning septic). Thomas Blackstock, Manchester United 1907 (seizure after being knocked unconsciousÂ heading a ball). James Milne, Hibs 1909 (internal injuries sustained during a game). Frank Levick, Sheffield United 1908, Bob Benson, guesting for ArsenalÂ in 1916… and this is just soccer. Rugby and gridiron were far worse.
There would be others after Thomson, andÂ other goalkeepers, but theÂ intervals were already widening and now suchÂ instances are scarce andÂ owing more to undiagnosed illnessÂ on the part of players than anything that happensÂ on the pitch.
Football isÂ one of the most familiar and most consistentÂ thingsÂ inÂ our lives. You can watch that 1931 Old Firm Derby, or the White Horse Final, or any of the many Mitchell and Kenyon filmsÂ of Edwardian matches and understand what’s goingÂ on immediately. And this is a very useful and underestimated thingÂ in terms of social history: football’s consistency and ever-present nature can be usedÂ as a measuring stick for change happening around it.
TheÂ impactÂ of Edwardian footballing deaths on the other men on the pitch was every bit as bad as it would be today. There’s no sign of their being hardened to that kind of thing: just shock, grief, horror, and attempts to inspire change. Blackstock’s death played a part in the formation of the first players’ union. But the further the distance from each incident, the more the weight of industrial accidents, injuries and deaths begins to tell, the more they fade amidst a welter of deaths from infectious disease or what would now be minor infections. Only as trade unionism, liberalism and technological advance reduce the numbers of industrial accidents, only as improved hygiene, better medical techniques and (it would appear) factors still unknown extend lifespans and change expectations do sporting deaths become the ghastly irruptions into fun and leisure that they are today. It was 1936 before the laws of the game prohibited your raising your foot to a goalkeeper.
And look beyond the pitchÂ into the stands. What you’d see there changed relatively little between 1905 and 1955. ButÂ the ’60s and ’70s grounds were uglier,Â more violent places, bringingÂ into acute focusÂ the increaseÂ in socially-unaccepted violence that was taking hold across society. (I’m referring to violence of a kind that wasn’t in-house to working and middle class people pre-1960, the kind the police were expected to keep out of). Football grounds now, especially at Premiership level, follow an aesthetic that demonstrates how British music/media and its aesthetic have permeated almost all levels of national life, taking the prevailing imperative and leeching people’s faith in other forms. Live Aid was a concert, not a match.. But that’s another argument for another day.
In 1930, John Thomson was injured playing against Airdrieonians. He damaged his collar bone, fractured a number of ribs, spat out a couple of teeth and, just for good measure, broke his jaw. The ball was there to be gone for, devil take the hindmost, he would have thought.
His mother, not for the first time, sought to persuade Thomson to retire from the game. She’d been troubled, for a long time, by premonitions of his death.