Old Firm Derby: 5th September 1931

Tragedy Strikes At Rangers v Celtic Match

By Russell McFadyen

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The date of 5th September 1931 will forever be etched into the history of Scottish football. Rangers met Celtic in the first derby match of the season. The Light Blues were reigning and defending league champions, whilst the Parkhead men had wrestled back possession of the Scottish Cup 4 months earlier. It promised to be an intriguing contest at Ibrox, with 2 points separating the two sides in the league table.

Rangers led but had also played a game more. Willie Maley’s team had drawn their previous week’s fixture away at Third Lanark, their second draw of the season but were as yet unbeaten. The Gers were free scoring. 28 goals had been recorded in their first 8 games, and 12 of those were to the name of summer singing from Yoker Athletic Sam English, who was well on his way on what would prove to be a record-breaking season.

There was at least some fallibility about the Ibrox men. They had suffered a reverse on league business away at Motherwell but had since steadied the ship and were sat atop of the table by the first week of September and the visit of Celtic. The football match would pale into insignificance.

80,000 were in attendance at Ibrox. The teams lined-up as follows:

Rangers: Jerry Dawson, Dougie Gray, Bob McCauley, Davie Meiklejohn, Jimmy Simpson, George Brown, Jimmy Fleming, Jimmy Marshall, Sam English, Bob McPhail and Alan Morton.

Celtic: John Thomson, William Cook, Willie McGonagle, Peter Wilson, Jimmy McStay, Chic Geatons, Robert Thomson, Alex Thomson, Jimmy McGrory, Peter Scarff and Charlie Napier.

The match began in a tetchy manner. There was very little in the way of constructive play, and throw-ins and free-kicks were plentiful. If the first half-hour of the match was perhaps drab, it did not dent the enthusiasm of the roaring crowd.

35 minutes had passed until the first effort of note occurred. Napier called Dawson into action twice in as many minutes, but the stand-in Rangers shot-stopper was equal to the challenge.

There was still time for Rangers to threaten the goal themselves before the switch around. McPhail carried the ball forward and, shaping up as if to pass to English, the Celtic backs seemed to stop and appeal for offside. The ball instead went out wide to Fleming, who was just a yard off the pace and could only put his shot over the crossbar.

The second period saw the home side now assisted by the wind and started the stronger of the two teams. Just 5 minutes after the restart was when tragedy struck.

Jimmy Fleming slipped a through ball beyond the Celtic rearguard and racing onto it was Sam English. The Rangers no.9 touched it ahead as he progressed into the Celtic penalty area. John Thomson dashed off his line to and dived towards the ball to make the save as English went to shoot. A tragic collision occurred between English’s knee and the head of Johnny Thomson. The raucous crowd was instantly silenced when Rangers captain Davie Meiklejohn gestured for quiet, realising the seriousness of the incident. The Goalkeeper was knocked unconscious and left with a bleeding wound.

Immediately players of both teams waved frantically for trainers, doctors and ambulancemen to rush on to the pitch. Rangers inside-forward Jimmy Marshall was a medical student of the day and would receive his degree the following month becoming a qualified doctor was reported as saying afterwards that he feared chances of Thomson’s survival were slim as soon as he saw the severity of the injury.

He was treated on the pitch by members of the St Andrews Ambulance Association and staff of both Rangers and Celtic, including former Rangers player and Celtic’s club doctor Willie Kivlichan. Thomson was carried from the field on a stretcher, was briefly treated in the Ibrox pavilion and eventually rushed to the Victoria Infirmary.

The match continued with Chic Geatons taking-up the Goalkeeping berth for Celtic. There were minimal efforts on goal as the remainder of the game was played out in a half-hearted manner. The final score was 0-0.

The injuries Thomson had sustained were a depressed fracture of the skull and a ruptured artery in his right temple. He suffered a major convulsion at roughly 1700, necessitating an emergency surgery by Dr Norman Davidson in an attempt to relieve pressure caused by swelling of the brain. The operation was unsuccessful, and at the age of 22, John Thomson was pronounced dead at 2125 that evening.

Around 30,000 people attended the funeral 4 days later in his hometown of Cardenden, some famously making the 55-mile journey on foot from Glasgow. Another 20,000 turned-up at Glasgow Queen Street station to wave off two trains of mourners.

As expected, the Fatal Accident Inquiry cleared English of any blame, a verdict that was supported by all players who took part that day and the Thomson family. It didn’t stop cruel jeers from opposition fans of “murderer” until he eventually was transferred to Liverpool in summer of 1933 for £8,000 The abuse followed. At just 28 years of age he retired, saying later his football career after the accident was “7 years of joyless sport.” His own life was cut short, passing away at 58 after a battle with motor neurone disease.

A lasting legacy at Ibrox is the Sam English bowl, which is awarded to the club’s top League goalscorer every year. English himself still holds the record for most league goals in a season, 44, set in the season of the accident.

 The story of John Thomson remains one of the greatest tragedies of football. A young Goalkeeper who was already first choice for club and country struck down at the age of just 22. It was perhaps the BBC journalist John Arlott who paid the most fitting and succinct tribute to Thomson when he said, “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.”

Both English and Thomson have been inducted into the hall of fame of their respective clubs, ensuring they will never be forgotten.