John Thomson

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 8th December 2005.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:01 pm, 8th December 2005

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3243, in the name of Helen Eadie, which is that supporters hope that the Scottish Football Association will admit John Thomson to the hall of fame. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that football supporters across Scotland continue to honour the memory of John Thomson, the young Celtic football player who so tragically lost his life in 1931; further notes that the people of Cardenden, in particular, and Scotland, generally, have continued annually since his death to honour and pay tribute to this legendary international football player who continues to serve as a role model for Scotland's children as a person who was so decent, so upstanding and so honoured for setting standards for behaviour in football of all that is best, and hopes that the Scottish Football Association will admit John Thomson to Scotland's Hall of Fame.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 5:08 pm, 8th December 2005

I am very grateful to Parliament for giving me the opportunity to lead this evening's debate—it is an honour and a privilege to do so.

I am pleased to welcome to the public gallery Mr Ronnie Hawthorne, who is the director of operations at Celtic Football Club. Brian Wilson, the acting chairman, has offered his apologies for not being able to attend the debate, but he sends a message of support for the motion. I am delighted also to welcome Mr Alex Burns and Mrs Jessie Burns, who are John Thomson Cardenden committee members, and Mr and Mrs Tom Greig. All are, in equal measure, responsible for the motion that we will debate.

This evening I hope to achieve three things: first, I want to secure the support of Patricia Ferguson, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport; the support of fellow MSPs; and the support of football fans and clubs from all over in an effort to persuade the Scottish Football Association to admit John Thomson to its hall of fame. I acknowledge that the minister has written back to me and although I appreciate the constraints under which she operates, I ask her to use whatever means are at her disposal to help me in my mission. I also want to explain why I think John Thomson should be admitted to the hall of fame, and to say something about the support that exists for that proposal, which is a consequence of John's having become a legendary figure.

In September this year, when I was at the memorial service for John Thomson in Cardenden, I was asked to do all that I could to help win his entry into the hall of fame. I wrote to the SFA and was apprised of the process by which such entry is achieved. I appreciate that the SFA has certain rules and criteria by which it operates. However, I pose the question: can the process be set aside so that the SFA can decide to admit John Thomson to the hall of fame? Later in my speech, I hope to set out the extenuating circumstances that merit that request's being met. I ask Patricia Ferguson for her support.

I turn to why John Thomson should be admitted to the hall of fame. Fife has nurtured some great footballers, including the late Jim Baxter, who died in September 2001 and whose statue is in Halbeath in my Dunfermline East constituency. John Thomson was a miner. In Fife at that time, 30,000 miners worked in 66 pits and all of them, whatever their religion, mourned the passing of John Thomson. He stood above any religious divide; he was a member of the Protestant Church of Christ who was also proud to play for Celtic.

John Thomson, the Celtic and Scotland goalkeeper, died at the tender age of 22 years, in the evening of 5 September 1931, following a tragic accident during a match against Rangers. By that time, John Thomson had four international caps. I believe that he is the only football player to have died on the pitch during a game. Wherever Cardenden or Celtic Football Club are mentioned, someone will talk about John Thomson. He is a goalkeeping legend who was a Celtic regular at 18.

Much of what has been written about him says that he would most certainly have spent at least the next decade being the last line of defence for his club and country. We are told that John Thomson would have excelled at any sport because of his great eye for the ball and tremendous natural ability. Added to that was his dedication and commitment, which ensured that he trained extremely hard, first at home in Fife and, later, under the professional guidance that he received at Celtic park.

As to how good a player John Thomson was, I have no doubt that other members will assist in painting a picture of his magical qualities. John was compared to Jesse Owens, the great black American Olympic athlete, who dominated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was said that, just as Owens seemed to have an extra kick in midair, Thomson appeared to have an extra lunge and even the ability to change direction.

John Thomson made 188 appearances for Celtic. The club's manager at the time was Willy Maley, who said:

"Goalkeepers come and goalkeepers go, but whenever I think of goalkeepers, the more I think of our genius Thomson."

John Thomson is a legendary figure in the annals of football: he has not been, and will never be, forgotten.

In the Parliament building, I need only mention John Thomson's name for virtually all my colleagues to say instantly, "Oh—you mean the Celtic goalie for whom tragedy struck when he died saving a goal during a Rangers match." His memory is still alive among Celtic supporters all around the world.

Shortly after I lodged the motion, I was very touched to receive a phone call from an old man in Chicago. In a voice that told me that he was near to tears, he said: "Helen, it is a great thing that the Scottish Parliament is considering the motion and I pray that your campaign to have John Thomson admitted to the SFA hall of fame is successful." In today's world of high-profile club and international football, John Thomson would have been up there among the very best. With far better exposure now on television and the possibility of huge salaries, his life would have been transformed to one of glamour and luxury. However, he will always be remembered as a sporting legend, a thorough gentleman and a wonderful representative of any club and country.

John Thomson may have been the greatest goalkeeper of them all or it may be that his tragic early death has led historians to romanticise him—who knows?—but what cannot be disputed is that he was a very good goalkeeper. Songs, poems and ballads have been written about him; many of them poignantly appropriate. Few footballers are remembered in the same way.

His funeral in Cardenden was attended by 30,000 people from all across the nation. The world's press came to Bowhill cemetery. A special train came from Glasgow, which included a wagon that contained only wreathes and floral tributes. The penniless unemployed people simply walked. Women wept, as did their menfolk, while they waited for the cortège to pass by. Some walked from Glasgow to Cardenden and back. An aeroplane was seen to land in a nearby field; it was believed to belong to a national newspaper. Hundreds of miners, grimy and toil-stained from their work in the colliery 200yd away, rubbed shoulders with scrupulously dressed men from a dozen cities.

If John Thomson had known me, he might have had a wry little smile to himself at the thought of Helen Eadie lodging in the Scottish Parliament a motion about football. He would probably have known that the only football match that I have ever seen was Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt, although everyone who knows that fact about me admires my taste; it was, I am told, the crème de la crème of football matches in 1960.

I also said that I wanted to speak about the enduring ways in which John Thomson's memory lives on. John and his folks would be so pleased and proud, I am sure, to know that he has inspired generations of youngsters—lads and lassies—to play football. Every year, more than 500 little boys and girls play football tournaments in Cardenden as a tribute to the memory of John Thomson. This year I have had the real privilege of being one of the presenters of the prizes.

Finally, I thank Tom Greig, Alex Burns, Jessie Burns and the Cardenden committee, who ensure that honour and respect are paid to one of the greatest footballers of that time. Jessie Burns, in her quiet little way, tends the grave of John Thomson and washes, dries and presses all the football scarves and shirts and returns them to the grave where they lie in John's honour.

I very much hope that everyone here this evening will do all that they can to help us secure the ultimate tribute that we seek for John Thomson. I hope that the SFA is listening and that it will accede to our request.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 5:16 pm, 8th December 2005

I know that John Thomson's memory means a lot to a lot of people, and Helen Eadie deserves some congratulations on having the motion debated tonight.

"They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind."

Glasgow Celtic's manager, William Maley, penned that tribute at the time of the untimely death, at just 22 years old, of John Thomson, the first-choice Glasgow Celtic goalkeeper.

Scotland-born author Tom Greig recently spoke to the Celtic Connection website about his newly published book, "My Search for Celtic's John". He said:

"If I were to take you today some 70 odd years on to the grave of John Thomson, it would still be maintained with dignity and care and visited by football fans, not just Celtic fans but of other clubs, because he was a Scottish international goalkeeper."

He went on to say:

"What always intrigued me was the uniqueness of John Thomson that he should be remembered when statues of great parliamentarians are entertained in street squares only by pigeons—yet a 22-year old boy could inspire such affection and love" in all those around him.

Among John Thomson's many attributes, he was known as the prince of goalkeepers and, as Helen Eadie said, as a gentleman on and off the field. He was also a deeply religious man, having been brought up by his parents in the Protestant sect called the Church of Christ. Thomson carried his faith and his Bible with him throughout his outstanding and exceptional career. Football fans came from all over just to see John Thomson in action on the playing field, and they were awed and inspired by his physical prowess. It was said that his eyes never left the ball on the field, and he was renowned for his bravery and fearsomeness. People who are involved in football say that someone who goes in hard will come out the other side okay and that someone who tackles hard will be all right. Tragically, however, as far as John Thomson was concerned, that was not how things transpired.

There is another side of the story that is not often talked about—another tragedy that happened to Sam English, the footballer who happened to collide with him that day. He was born in Ireland, in County Coleraine, but he grew up in Yoker in Scotland. During the 1930s, he played with Rangers and held records for Rangers for the most goals scored in one season. The official inquiry into the incident said that it was an accident and cleared Sam English of any blame—a view that was fully supported by John Thomson's family. He later transferred to play for Liverpool and also played for Ireland a number of times. No one ever seriously accused Sam English of malice in that situation, but he was constantly barracked by Scottish crowds, which caused his transfer to England, where he found that his reputation had preceded him and that he faced constant barracking from spectators when he played in England too, so he gave up football. He died at the Vale of Leven hospital in West Dunbartonshire aged only 58. A nurse who nursed him at that time said that he died before his time and looked very old. Therefore, two tragedies are associated with the death of John Thomson.

The song "Johnny Thomson's Ghost" is still sung by Celtic supporters:

"So come all you Glasgow Celtic

Stand up and play the game

For between your posts

There stands a ghost

Johnny Thomson is his name".

John Thomson played in goal for Glasgow Celtic for the first team when he was, I think, only 17—it might have been 18 as Helen Eadie suggested. He also made four appearances for the national team.

As Helen Eadie said, 40,000 mourners turned up for his funeral; some of them had walked 55 miles from Glasgow to John Thomson's childhood home. I have a good friend in Milnathort called John Watt, who is a singer. He wrote "The Kelty Clippie" and "Methil by the Sea", but he also wrote the words:

"Between the posts at Parkhead

He was the Prince of Men

John Thomson came from Bowhill

Bowhill, Cardenden".

Two special trains left Glasgow on that day to come to Bowhill and many people slept on the crags along the bing that night. The Bowhill pipe band and the Bowhill silver band were in attendance and, as Helen Eadie said, an aeroplane landed in the Daisy park in Bowhill.

John Thomson came to play for Celtic by chance. One Saturday he was playing for Wellesley Juniors—a pit team—against Denbeath Star. A Celtic scout at the game saw him play and signed him up. In his first game, Celtic won 3-1 in front of 20,000 supporters at Dens park. He was a hero from the first day he played for Celtic.

John Thomson's part of Fife is a tremendous area with a great history in the sport. It has produced a remarkable number of professional footballers: 50 players from the Cardenden area have played in the professional leagues in Scotland. John Thomson was perhaps one of the best of them all.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:22 pm, 8th December 2005

I congratulate Helen Eadie on securing the debate. Until I read her motion, I had little knowledge of John Thomson, but since then I have found out how much he meant to so many. I was reminded of the lyrics of a John Lennon song:

"A working class hero is something to be".

This man was certainly a hero and he is a legend. It was a tragedy that he was accidentally killed, aged only 22. They say that only the good die young. The epitaph on his gravestone says it all:

"Honest and upright he played the game

Loved and respected he made his name".

People today would do well to follow that inscription if they want to live a useful and happy life.

I agree with Helen Eadie that John Thomson should be in the Hampden hall of fame. I was lucky enough to spend a day at Hampden recently, at sportscotland's annual general meeting. Afterwards, I visited the excellent museum, which includes the hall of fame, where I was asked to nominate a player. I looked at who was already in the hall of fame, and I chose wee Willie Henderson—the Rangers and Scotland right winger—who I believe was never really recognised. In the 1960s and early 1970s his dribbling and passing skills brought gasps of admiration.

I come back to John Thomson. He is the man who, as the Celtic goalkeeper, put Bowhill on the map. It is staggering to think that 30,000 to 40,000 people went to his funeral and that people from all over the world attended it. As Bruce Crawford said, the Bowhill pipe band and the Bowhill silver band were there and an aeroplane arrived and landed in Daisy park.

John Thomson's excellent record on the pitch speaks for itself at domestic and international level. It interested me that John Thomson, the miner's son from Fife, was—unlike most of his team-mates—a Protestant. I did not know that. One would think that in those days he might have found it difficult to win acclaim, but that was not the case, because people like John Thomson are bigger than religious intolerance. He inspired respect: people like him set a shining example, on and off the field, which is worth following. His huge fan club is the best testament to that. In 1993, he had a street—Thomson Court—named after him.

I agree with Helen Eadie that since we have a hall of fame, John Thomson should be in it both as a footballer and as a man.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:25 pm, 8th December 2005

I, too, congratulate Helen Eadie on the motion. When I read and signed it, I recalled my father talking to me about the brave young goalie John Thomson. It was the view of my father, among many others, that John Thomson would have been Scotland's goalkeeper for at least another 10 years. That was certainly the opinion of the sportswriter John Rafferty, who said of that young man:

"A great player, who came to the game as a boy and left it still a boy; he had no predecessor, no successor. He was unique."

Few, if any, would dispute that opinion.

John Rafferty later taught me at school and talked a lot about Celtic, Rangers, football in general and boxing, and he talked a lot about John Thomson in particular. Indeed, if he had talked as much about my schooling, I would have passed my qually, but I was too interested in listening to the football stories that he had to tell.

John Thomson was unique, certainly when compared with some of today's football heroes. In those days, earnings were not as they are now. Players had to have another job, so he worked in a gents retailers in Renfield Street in Glasgow. He knew that he would not play football for ever and needed something to fall back on. A quiet, unassuming young man, he was walking out with a young Glasgow girl, who was at the match the day he died. Because of his football talent, he avoided a lifetime down the mines. He loved football. The future looked good.

As Bruce Crawford said, John Thomson was discovered by the Celtic scout Stevie Callaghan. I declare an interest because, although Stevie Callaghan was a bit old for me, I had a notion for his grandson, who was in my class at school; I am afraid that I did not get very far with that. Stevie and my father used to say that John Thomson always went for the ball. He was fearless in front of his goal. One moment he was flying through the air like a ballet dancer, the next he was in the middle of a scrum, his hands and body wrapped round the ball, while at the same time trying to hold on to his bunnet.

Speaking as a lifelong football supporter—many members know that on a winter's night I run from here, get all my thermals on and run to watch a football game—I add my voice to those of others who have supported Helen Eadie's powerful case for this young player's memory to be honoured in the SFA hall of fame. There are few now who can recall seeing this gifted goalie play for Celtic and Scotland—they would need to be in their late 80s or their 90s to have seen him play. However, John Thomson is an abiding figure in Scotland's footballing history—a decent, modest young man who enjoyed the love and affection of his family and the respect and admiration of scores of thousands of Scots. Today, we would describe him as an exemplary role model for youngsters.

Helen Eadie is right when she says that even though many of those who knew John Thomson are themselves no longer with us, his memory should be honoured by his inclusion in the SFA hall of fame. I hope that those with the authority to make that decision will heed the sincere request from Fifers and those of us from other parts of Scotland to honour in that way the memory of young John Thomson—a truly remarkable Scottish football player.

Photo of John Swinburne John Swinburne SSCUP 5:28 pm, 8th December 2005

I thank Helen Eadie for giving us this opportunity to pay tribute to one of Scotland's outstanding football personalities, John Thomson.

I should declare an interest as I am a director of Motherwell FC, one of the finest exponents of Scottish football.

I remember working in the shipyards with an old chap called Pat McGinley. He worked away quietly—he was a tremendous engineer and fitter—but he was always singing a song of praise to John Thomson. I will not sing it—I will spare members that—but the song went:

"From out a west Fife village,

Of mining stock he came

To play for Glasgow Celtic

And make himself a name."

Everything that I was going to say in this speech has been said, but instead I will describe what happened when, as a good Motherwell supporter, I went to Parkhead in the early 1960s to see two former Motherwell centre-forwards playing in opposition to each other. Joe McBride was playing for Celtic, and Ian St John was playing for Liverpool. I managed to get a ticket for the Celtic end. Neutral fans would generally try to avoid the Celtic end, but I went there because I was desperate to see those two former Motherwell centre-forwards competing at Parkhead in an excellent European game.

We were standing there, packed like sardines, and the fans were singing rebel songs and other songs. A big chap turned round, pointed towards me and said, "He's no singing." I did not know the words to the song. The fans then broke into a song of praise to John Thomson and the words of old Pat McGinley came floating back to me. I could sing them as well as anyone in the crowd and they eased off after that. John Thomson got me out of trouble that day.

Our national stadium contains a hall of fame, which commemorates players and personalities who are deemed to have brought credit to the Scottish football scene. No one has brought more credit to the game than did the unfortunate John Thomson, who died in his prime at the age of 22. It would be remiss of the SFA not to act. The next time that I see David Taylor, I will tell him to get the lad's name in the hall of fame. There are many other players who should also be included in the hall of fame, but there is no one else who contributed quite so much to football or who literally gave their all to the sport.

The hall of fame is a post-war thing. I think that that is the only reason why John Thomson is not already there. That will be rectified by the football authorities. I am positive that we will be able to go proudly to the hall of fame and see John Thomson's name there.

The little ditty from old Pat McGinley ends:

"Come all you Celtic players,

Stand up and play the game.

Between the posts there stands a ghost.

John Thomson is his name."

I thank Helen Eadie once again for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to have contributed a little bit to it.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 5:32 pm, 8th December 2005

I should possibly declare an interest as a member of the Carfin (1948) Celtic supporters club. I had not originally intended to speak in the debate, but I said that I would support Helen Eadie today, as I supported her motion when she lodged it some time ago. I have something else that I have to go to this evening, but the more I heard people talking about John Thomson, the more I felt I had to make a contribution.

At the weekend, as we watched the burial of a legend of football, George Best, I was thinking how appropriate it was that in the same week we would have a debate on the death of a genuine Scottish legend, John Thomson. As I was sitting with my children, talking about the images that we were seeing on the television, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Belfast to honour George Best, I, like Helen Eadie, recalled how, at a time when transport, the media and people's financial resources were not as they are now, 30,000 football supporters still made the journey to the graveside in Cardenden to pay tribute to a man whom they had watched in their day.

As a Celtic-minded person, I was raised in that tradition. I remember learning at my father's knee about John Thomson, and my father had had the story passed on to him by his father. I visited John Thomson's grave. I felt that, as a Celtic supporter, it was my honour and privilege to do so. Indeed, I encouraged my own children to do the same and they have done so. I hope that they will pass it on to their children.

We have to keep alive the memory of legends such as George Best and John Thomson, because they are what football is all about. We got the good and the bad with George Best; all I ever heard about was the good of John Thomson. As a Celtic-minded person, I find it easy to discuss with my friends and fellow supporters traditions, history and people such as John Thomson, but it is unfortunate that outside that Celtic family too few people know about John Thomson. That has to be rectified because he was a giant of the game just as George Best was.

For that reason, I had no hesitation in supporting Helen Eadie's motion. It is good that she has brought the matter to the Parliament's attention. If we can get more people to learn about John Thomson, all the baggage that comes with Scottish football might start to dissipate and we might start to make progress in tackling sectarianism and taking that aspect out of Scottish football. We should do that in his honour and in his memory, of which Celtic-minded people are proud.

In honouring John Thomson in the way that Helen Eadie has requested, the SFA would be doing a service not only to Scottish football but to wider Scottish society. We need more people to learn about that remarkable young man.

John Swinburne mentioned the song about the ghost of John Thomson standing in the goals. As a Celtic supporter I often wonder whether that ghost is just too big for Celtic. Celtic is traditionally associated with attacking football—our number 7 is the greatest known to football fans anywhere. However, Celtic has not had a great tradition of goalkeepers. We have had Ronnie Simpson and Pat Bonner and we might have a great goalkeeper in Artur Boruc now. Celtic has not had the number of goalkeepers that it should have had. Perhaps in honouring John Thomson, we will lift the burden from the goalkeepers who have had to fill the gap that he left.

Before I sit down, it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to utter the words "hail, hail", because this might be the only time that we have a debate in which I can get away with it.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 5:37 pm, 8th December 2005

I congratulate Helen Eadie on securing the debate and congratulate the members who have contributed to what I think has been an interesting, informative and worth-while debate.

I, like others, am pleased to be here this evening to contribute to a debate that honours the memory of a young man who achieved much in a career that was cut short tragically and who continues to hold such a special place in the annals of our national game. As Trish Godman said, many of us heard about him at an early age from fathers, grandfathers and other family members who perhaps remembered the tragic day when he died. Fortunately, accidents such as that which befell John Thomson are extremely rare in football. Only two other people have died as a result of injuries received playing top-level football in Scotland: one in 1890 and one in 1909.

The motion recognises the high esteem in which John Thomson was held by Celtic Football Club and its supporters in the mining community in which he was born in Fife and in Scottish football generally—an esteem that is remembered to the present day. His great skill and ability earned him representative honours as well as success at club level and there is no doubt that he would have achieved further success and recognition if he had been able to enjoy a longer career in football.

Bruce Crawford quite rightly told us the interesting story of how John Thomson began his career with Celtic almost accidentally. It is worth adding to that story by pointing out that times certainly have changed, because I understand that Celtic bought John Thomson for just £10.

The motion refers to John Thomson's contribution as a role model for young people in his own and subsequent generations. By all accounts he was a quiet and unassuming young man but, when he took the field, he impressed with his ability, agility and bravery.

None of us had the pleasure of seeing him play, but one man who did was his manager, Willie Maley, who wrote:

"His merit as a goalkeeper shone superbly in his play. 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."

I think that it is excellent that we have sports halls of fame and rolls of honour that enable us to recognise great sporting achievements and let past champions motivate and inspire future generations to participate and excel at their own level. The Scottish Executive has been pleased to support the sporting champions scheme, for example, which assists and encourages the current generation of sportspeople to visit schools to promote the value of a healthy lifestyle, including participation in physical activity and sport.

The motion calls on the SFA to induct John Thomson into the Scottish football hall of fame, but I understand that it is not the SFA that is responsible for deciding on inductees and that, in fact, the hall of fame is administered by the Scottish Football Museum. Nominations are made by the general public and the museum convenes an expert panel of football panellists and former players who reach the final decisions. The criteria that the panel uses to assess nominations include, for example, the person's contribution to Scottish football and the longevity of their career at the top level. It is not just about honours won, as that would of course favour old firm players.

However, although I understand that the hall of fame needs to control the number of people that it inducts and ensure that its inductees are of the highest-possible level and that John Thomson's career was not as long as others—although there are few players who play until the end of their working lives—I think that the longevity that matters in this case is the longevity of his memory, which lingers to this day. For that reason, he should be inducted into the hall of fame.

To reflect a point that one of my colleagues raised earlier, I understand that one of the criteria is that the person must have been born in Scotland. If it were not for that unfortunate requirement, I would also have wanted the induction of Sam English, who was equally a victim of this tragedy.

Regardless of whether John Thomson is inducted, his name and his contribution to Scottish football are unlikely ever to be forgotten. Few players who played in that era are still sung about by the supporters of their club and have their grave visited by their fans. Of course, even fewer are celebrated in a Parliament that did not even exist at the time of their death.

I wish Helen Eadie success in her campaign. Further, I look forward to accompanying her to a football game in the near future.

Meeting closed at 17:42.