John Thomson and the History of Football

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.

I hadn’t seen the film before, but I was familiar with that press photo of the accident. It was in an hundred of those lavish 1970s histories of football. The picture’s grainy to the point where Sam English 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 fracture of the skull. A depressed fracture of the skull: hat’s my injury, “picked up”, as they say in the game, during a mugging in 1992. But I was very lucky. I was able to “run it off.” Poor John Thomson died that evening. Perhaps he could have been saved nowadays, but we’ll never know.

Of course, Thomson’s commemoration does everything to justify the creation of “Halls of Fame” - he was already one of the great keepers when his life was cut so short. And that’s what they exist for, 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 end of their lives.

As I say, I was familiar only with that press photograph, but it was 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 up in the little library of Parkwood Middle School 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 dying one by one of old age and related complaints, and there are a whole string of them who lived long lives in the twentieth century yet whom I’ve just 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 that they’ve died.

What I didn’t really understand, and still struggle with now, is the nineteenth-century-and-earlier idea that death can come out of a clear blue sky at any age; that there are terrible things that can happen to anyone, and that they are real and take time. No fade-outs: no changes of scene while some kindly anaesthesia helps the doomed man over the line. A depressed fracture of 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, 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 line 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. In the last years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the top echelons of the game saw something 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 unconscious heading a ball). James Milne, Hibs 1909 (internal injuries sustained during a game). Frank Levick, Sheffield United 1908, Bob Benson, guesting for Arsenal in 1916… and this is just soccer. Rugby and gridiron were far worse.

There would be others after Thomson, and other goalkeepers, but the intervals were already widening and now such instances are scarce and owing more to undiagnosed illness on the part of players than anything that happens on the pitch.

Football is one of the most familiar and most consistent things in our lives. You can watch that 1931 Old Firm Derby, or the White Horse Final, or any of the many Mitchell and Kenyon films of Edwardian matches and understand what’s going on immediately. And this is a very useful and underestimated thing in terms of social history: football’s consistency and ever-present nature can be used as a measuring stick for change happening around it.

The impact 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 pitch into the stands. What you’d see there changed relatively little between 1905 and 1955. But the ’60s and ’70s grounds were uglier, more violent places, bringing into acute focus the increase 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.