John Thomson

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:08 pm on 8th December 2005.

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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.