Co Derry man’s Old Firm tragedy

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Eighty years ago this week marked one of the darkest hours of the Glasgow Old Firm derby and a County Derry man was right at the heart of the solemn story.

The tragic event in which a Celtic goalkeeper lost his life was indelibly etched in the memories of fans and officials from the rival clubs for the rest of their lives and is somberly remembered in annals of the Old Firm today.

Prolific Rangers striker Sam English will always be associated with the goal mouth collision which resulted in the death of Celtic ‘keeper John Thomson.

English’s life was recently commemorated by a plaque at his farmhouse home at Aghadooey near Coleraine, following calls for a fitting memorial from East Derry MP Gregory Campbell, the footballer’s family members and Rangers supporters.

Mr Campbell, who raised the matter at Westminster in 2008, has always maintained that there were two victims on that fateful day of September 5, 1931. “It must be remembered that following the accident not only did John Thomson die, but Sam English’s football career and life in general were never the same again. The incident was something that stood with him throughout his life.”

Mr Campbell added that memories of the incident and taunts from opposing fans “were like a noose around his neck” in subsequent years, even when he moved to Liverpool, Queen of the South and Hartlepool United. When he retired at 28 years of age, English had experienced five years of relentless taunting by fans shouting “murderer, murderer” and even a whispering campaign on the street - “that’s the man who killed John Thomson”, resounded in his ears time and time again.

The footballer, who even today holds the Glasgow Rangers record for scoring the most goals in a single season - 44 strikes in 45 appearances - eventually turned to drink and was consumed by chronic alcoholism.

English and Thomson faced each other at Ibrox on September 5, 1931 in a match which would never be forgotten in Glasgow for the tragedy which unfolded.

Five minutes into the second half the 22 year-old goalkeeper and the 23 year-old Co Derry man collided less than 12 yards from Thomson’s goal-line in a 50-50 challenge.

Grainy black and white footage of the clash, which can be viewed online, shows both players rushing to a loose ball and Thomson’s head colliding with the knee of English as he dives to save. Realising something had gone badly wrong, the huge crowd - reported to be over 100,000 - fell silent except for a single scream from a female voice, which was believed to be that of Margaret Finley, John Thomson’s fiancee.

As he was being stretchered off the field, the Celtic goalkeeper was said to raise his head to momentarily look at the goal mouth where the accident occurred. The many thousands of stunned fans looked on in horror as Thomson was rushed to the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow. He died later that day - despite the best efforts of medical staff - having suffered a depressed fractured skull in the collision.

Despite being cleared of any blame by an official enquiry and going on a blistering run to score a record 44 goals that season, the event cast a dark shadow the career of English - who was deeply traumatised. His life or career would never be the same again as although English and Thomson were on opposite sides of the footballing divide, they were said to be friends.

Eyewitnesses at a memorial service some days later said that the sound of English’s weeping could be heard above the voices of the speakers throughout the service.

At the end of 1933, he left Rangers for Liverpool FC, where he scored 26 times in 50 games. However, the jeering followed him and he retired from professional football aged 28 after spells at Queen of the South and Hartlepool United.

He returned to Clydebank where he found solace in drinking alcohol. He was tormented as he walked down the street by the whispering campaign. Suffering from severe alcoholism, he developed motor neuron disease and in 1967, he died a painful death in the Vale of Leven Hospital, near Loch Lomand. He was 58 years old.

In 2008, Gregory Campbell, tabled an Early Day Motion at Wesminster calling for the a memorial to English to mark what would have been the footballer’s 100 birthday.

Around six months later Glasgow Rangers FC and Coleraine Borough Council collaborated in the erection of a plaque to remember the great talents of the Co Derry man at his family home. The official unveiling was attended by club and council representatives, as well as family members.

A new exhibit to commemorate Sam English’s footballing achievements is to be installed soon at Garvagh museum.”

Meanwhile, drama dedicated to John Thomson is being staged at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow this week to mark the 80th anniversary of his untimely death.

The Prince: The John Thomson Story tells the story of the short career and sad early death of the former Hoops goalkeeper.