John Thomson

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:16 pm on 8th December 2005.

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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.