Tag Archives: Rangers

Celtic’s Prince of Goalkeepers

4 Sep

My recent piece for In Bed With Maradona on John Thomson, whose image will be the header picture on the blog for the month of September.

In early September, a theatre in Glasgow will host a production which focuses on the life of a former footballer who most of the audience will never have seen play.

Their knowledge of John Thomson will have been gleaned from the occasional grainy piece of newsreel, anecdotes passed down through the generations, and media articles – they all tell the tale of a young man whose life was tragically cut short due to his bravery on the football field.

Thomson was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1909, before moving with his family to the mining village of Cardenden.  Like most young men of his age, Thompson was expected upon leaving school to work in the local mine.  Aged just 14, he joined his father at the Lady Josephine colliery in nearby Bowhill, where as an oncost worker he spent his days some 300 yards underground, unclipping the chain clips of wagons which carried coal.

However, Thomson’s aptitude for football – more specifically, goalkeeping – set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  Despite being only 5ft 9, his early performances meant he was something of a sensation in the east of Scotland.  After a short spell with local team Bowhill Rovers he joined junior side Wellesley Rovers with local newspaper the Fife Free Press stating that the club had: “unearthed a champion goalkeeper.”

There have been various suggestions as to how Celtic became aware of Thomson.  According to the club’s manager at the time, the legendary Willie Maley, he was advised of a promising young keeper by a friend who lived in Fife.  Regardless of the circumstances, Celtic liked what they saw and paid a fee of £10 to take Thomson to Glasgow.

It took around six months for him to be given his chance in the first-team, but after his debut in a win against Dundee, Thomson never looked back.  He quickly established himself as an automatic choice and the honours soon followed.  Celtic lifted the Scottish Cup in 1927 and 1931 and Thomson was also called up by his country, making four appearances for the national side.

As a keeper he had it all.  His grace and agility were matched by his bravery, as he regularly threw his head and body into places were some players in the modern era would be reluctant to place their feet.  With regular shoulder-charges (and a bit more) from opposing players, goalkeeping in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was not for the faint hearted.

There was no requirement however, for Thomson to be reminded of the dangers of his occupation.  In 1930, a match against Airdrie left the keeper with a broken jaw, fractured ribs, damage to his collarbone and two teeth missing.  Thomson’s mother Jean was so concerned by his injuries that she urged him to quit the game, stating that she’d had a premonition that her son would be killed playing football.  Nearly 18 months later, Mrs Thomson’s vision would become a horrible reality.

On 5th September 1931 Celtic travelled across Glasgow to Ibrox stadium for a league encounter with their oldest rivals.  The match was goalless early in the second-half when Rangers centre-forward Sam English ran onto a through ball from team-mate Jimmy Fleming and bore down on the Celtic goal.  Thomson, as expected, was off his line at the first sign of danger.  When asked previously what went through his mind when he faced such situations, Thomson replied that his only thought was keeping his eye on the ball and going for it.  It was no surprise therefore when he threw himself head-first at the feet of the onrushing English.

Thomson’s head collided with the knee of the opposing player.  He lay motionless on the turf and very quickly, many witnesses both on the field and in the crowd, realised that this was no minor injury.

It was reported that a single female scream was heard from the main stand at Ibrox.  That was said to be Margaret Finlay, Thomson’s fiancée who had attended the match with his brother Jim.

Thomson was removed from the field by stretcher and taken to Glasgow Victoria Infirmary, on the south-side of the city.  He had suffered a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones, resulting in a depression of the skull.  An operation was carried out to try and alleviate the pressure caused by the swelling in the brain.  It proved unsuccessful and John Thomson died at 9.25pm that evening.  He was 22 years old.

Glasgow was united in grief, Scotland a nation in mourning.  Thousands gathered at Glasgow’s Queen Street railway station to see off trains taking fans to Fife for the funeral.  Many others who were unable to afford the fare instead walked the 55 miles to Cardenden.

It’s estimated that around 30,000 people were in attendance as Thomson was buried.  Despite the traditional religious divide that exists with Scotland’s two largest clubs, Thomson was not a Roman Catholic.  Instead he was a member of the Church of Christ, a small Christian sect whose members conducted services themselves and took charge of events as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’ was laid to rest.

Amongst the tributes paid to Thomson, Maley said of his goalkeeper: “Never was there a keeper who caught and held the fastest shots with such grace and ease.”

The journalist John Arlott meanwhile, described Thomson as: “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.”

It would be remiss not to note the impact that the events of that tragic incident had on the other party involved.  Sam English was born just a few months before Thomson and after playing junior football with Yoker Athletic, had earned his big move to Ibrox.  An official enquiry confirmed what most observers already knew – that English was an honest player who made a genuine attempt to win a ’50-50’ challenge with a goalkeeper.  There was no malice whatsoever.  Thomson’s family agreed, making it clear that they did not hold English in any way responsible for the keeper’s death.

Sadly, not everyone shared that point of view.  Opposing fans – from various clubs, not only Celtic – never allowed the striker to forget his involvement in Thomson’s death and he was mercilessly barracked wherever he played.  Even after leaving Ibrox and playing for Liverpool, Queen of the South and Hartlepool United, the player’s ‘reputation’ seemed to precede him.

English retired from the game in 1938 aged just 28.  He described the part of his career which followed that day at Ibrox as “seven years of joyless sport.”

Sam English died in 1967, at the age of 58.

Over the years there have been various efforts to ensure that Thomson’s name lives on.  In 2008 a campaign backed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown led to Thomson being inducted into Scottish football’s Hall of Fame despite failing to meet the normal criteria of 50 international appearances.

In 1983 the John Thomson Memorial Committee was formed, with the aim of promoting Thomson’s memory in his local area.  Their activities include an annual football tournament (bearing Thomson’s name), which is contested by local primary school children.  This year will also see the JTMC, along with Celtic Graves Society, organise a pilgrimage from Celtic Park to Cardenden, following the route of those who walked to Thomson’s funeral in 1931.  They will reach their destination on 4th September.

The following day sees the ‘The Prince – The Johnny Thomson Story’ begin at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre.  Its opening coincides with the 80th anniversary of Thomson’s passing, and a potential audience of thousands are set to attend over an eight-show run.

The fact that so many people are prepared to attend or participate in such events, gives credence to the words which adorn Thomson’s headstone:

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


Demolition Derby

27 Aug

This article originally appeared in Just Football as part of their ‘Your Boys Took One Hell of a Beating’ series.

While Martin O’Neill’s appointment as Celtic manager was warmly welcomed by the club’s fans in July 2000, the general consensus was that he would have a huge task on his hands to build a successful side.  Although the Irishman was handed a sizeable transfer budget, it was thought that he and his new club may have to play second fiddle to their great rivals.

Rangers had won 11 of the previous 12 league titles, including the last two under Dick Advocaat.  With David Murray’s millions funding the Ibrox club, they were expected to continue their domination of the Scottish game.  One ‘expert’ in the media believed it would take Celtic as long as five years to challenge again for the league title.

The first Old Firm contest of that season took place at Celtic Park on 27/8/00.  Although the home side had opened their league campaign with four straight wins, even a point against their old foes would have been a step in the right direction – a sign that this time, Celtic weren’t going to meekly roll over.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, could have foreseen what was about to unfold.  Ten years of failure and submission had led to Celtic holding an inferiority complex as big as their 60,000 seat stadium. However, the balance of power between Scotland’s big two effectively shifted in just over ten minutes.  It went something like this:

1 min

A great start.  An early corner for Celtic, and Henrik Larsson’s mis-hit shot is turned into the net by Old Firm debutant Chris Sutton. 1-0

8 mins

Another corner and another goal – this time a header by Stilian Petrov, as he rises above a stunned Rangers defence. 2-0.

11 mins

If the first two goals produced wild celebrations amongst the home support, the third prompted complete and utter bedlam.  Pocket genius Lubo Moravcik twists and turns on the byeline, before his cutback is met by Paul Lambert, who calmly guides the ball into the far corner, past former Borussia Dortmund team-mate, Stefan Klos. 3-0.

15 mins

If the match wasn’t already over, it should have been at this point.  Larsson, through one-on-one with Klos, tries to go round the keeper instead of picking his spot.  The German gratefully smothers the ball.

21 mins

Fernando Ricksen’s first Old Firm game comes to a premature end as the Rangers defender is replaced by Tugay.  Playing at right-back, the Dutchman has been torn to shreds by his fellow countryman, Bobby Petta.  Ricksen’s next visit to Celtic Park later in the season isn’t any more successful as he receives a red card before half-time.

40 mins

A lifeline for the visitors.  Claudio Reyna’s header appears to have been saved by Jonathan Gould but the ball is ruled to have crossed the line. 3-1.

50 mins

Any hopes Rangers have of a second-half fightback appear to be snuffed out as Larsson scores one of the finest goals ever seen in an Old Firm match.  After receiving a chested pass from Sutton around 30 yards out, the Swede skips past Bert Konterman, nudging the ball through the Dutchman’s legs.  As he heads in on goal, Larsson opens up his body as if ready to curl a shot inside Stefan Klos’ left-hand post.  The German keeper tries to anticipate the strike but seconds later he’s grounded and can only admire Larsson’s glorious chip which sails towards the opposite side of the goal.  Larsson wheels away in celebration as the ball drops under the crossbar and into the net. 4-1.

53 mins

A Billy Dodds penalty narrows the deficit as the visitors hang on in there. 4-2.

62 mins

The goal that finally ends the match as a contest.  Petta’s free-kick from the right is met by Larsson, whose glancing header leaves Klos rooted to the spot. 5-2.

80 mins

Already on a yellow card, Barry Ferguson receives his marching orders after deliberately handling the ball and subsequently throwing it away.  Unfortunately for Ferguson, it’s not his only Old Firm battle that day – he is later involved in a street brawl with Celtic fans.

90 mins

The cherry on top of the icing on the cake.  Petta’s ball down the left wing is collected by Stephane Mahe and the Frenchman’s low cross is met at the far post by the outstretched foot of Sutton.  The striker ends the match as he started it – putting the ball in the opposition net and thus, in one game, scoring more goals than he had in all of the previous season at Chelsea. 6-2.

The importance of this result, and the manner of the victory, cannot be underestimated.  A narrow win could have been attributed to good fortune or home advantage, but this was different – Celtic had swept aside their biggest rivals with a breathtaking display of power and pace.

This was no plucky, hard-fought win – more a signal of intent.  During much of that season, O’Neill would describe Rangers as the “benchmark”, but he was fooling no-one.  Despite losing 5-1 at Ibrox in the next meeting of the sides, Celtic were comfortable league champions as they completed their first domestic treble since 1969.

During his time in Scotland, Martin O’Neill won three SPL titles, three Scottish Cups, a League Cup and reached the 2003 UEFA Cup final.  This match was the catalyst for that success, as Celtic didn’t just overcome a psychological barrier, they smashed it to pieces.

SPL Preview 2011/12

1 Aug

A recent piece for Just Football. 

The whole of Europe is eagerly awaiting the new SPL season which kicks-off on 23rd July – well no, actually they’re not.  Not surprising really, given that the last campaign turned out to be a truly horrible affair for so many reasons.  Hopefully this year will be more about players, teams and results, rather than referees, politics and death threats.  Here’s a look ahead to 2010/11:

Some Old Favourites Return

Were the SPL to adopt a Champions League-style theme tune, then ‘Welcome Home’ would be apt.  Hibernian have brought back Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule, Willo Flood has signed on again at Dundee United, and Callum Davidson has returned to his first club, St Johnstone.  Chris Clark meanwhile is back at Aberdeen and at the time of writing, Rangers are trying to agree a deal for Carlos Cuellar and may yet move for Kenny Miller.

McCoist v Lennon

That’s as rival managers, not squaring up to each other on the touchline as they did at the end of the Scottish Cup replay in March.  As Ally McCoist embarks on his first season in charge at Rangers, he has money to spend now that Craig Whyte’s takeover is finally complete.  However, he is learning the same lesson as Neil Lennon did last summer – the top two are not as big a draw as they once were, with Rangers’ signing targets Craig Conway, Neil Danns and Tomer Hemed all choosing other clubs.  McCoist has brought in Spanish midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz and others should follow.

Celtic have brought in Kelvin Wilson to strengthen a defence which, although statistically was the best in the league, conceded too many cheap goals in too many important matches.  Kenyan Victor Wanyama provides options in midfield or at the back.  Lennon is on record as saying that it’s “imperative” that Celtic win the league – he’s not wrong.  Four years in a row without the title hasn’t happened since the dark days of the early 1990’s and if it does, then Lennon’s own future will be in doubt.

Heart of Midlothian

There’s rarely a dull moment at Tynecastle, particularly with club owner Vladimir Romanov around…or even when he’s back in Lithuania.  His most recent act was a bizarre statement via the club’s website which included:

“Every year Hearts fights to be in the top three, but even last season in the last 12 games of the season it was almost like someone replaced the team with a different one. Whose fault is that? Players? Manager’s? Or it is mafia?”

This is the same Romanov who previously suggested that Celtic and Rangers were “buying” officials and has had run-ins with numerous managers and players during his time in charge.

The latest controversy to hit the club is defender Craig Thomson’s conviction for lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour involving two under-age females.  Hearts had originally allowed Thomson to continue his career as if nothing had happened.  However, they then suspended him after public condemnation from fans, sponsors and Edinburgh City Council – even First Minister (and Hearts fan) Alex Salmond had his say.  Hearts have now announced Thomson will leave the club, though there has been speculation that he will move to one of Romanov’s other clubs in Eastern Europe.

Despite the flak they’ve been receiving, it’s looking rather promising on the field.  Excellent in the first-half of last season, the squad has been bolstered with experienced SPL campaigners John Sutton, Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil.  They won’t win the title but are clear favourites to repeat last season’s third-place finish.  Don’t be surprised if they land a domestic cup either.

The Top Six

Dundee United should be Hearts’ main challengers for third place, but will have to cope without the departing Conway and David Goodwillie.  Motherwell should also finish comfortably within the top-half – Stuart McCall has made a positive start to his time in charge at Fir Park, including last season’s Scottish Cup final appearance.  Much will depend on new signing Michael Higdon following the loss of Sutton.

Inverness Caley Thistle will look to finish in the top six after being there for much of last season but they too have lost a striker, with the impressive Adam Rooney heading to Birmingham City.  If low-scoring St Johnstone are able to find the net more often (only 23 goals in 2010/11) they may surprise a few people.

The Rest

Kilmarnock will find it tougher this time round without so many of their key men from last year, including Paatelainen, Bryson, Eremenko and Sammon. Craig Brown, meanwhile, will continue his rebuilding job at Aberdeen and any kind of finish above seventh will be a decent return.

Like the Dons, Hibernian need to make a good start or risk being dragged towards the bottom.  Hibs’ preparation has been hampered by speculation surrounding the future of manager Colin Calderwood, who is wanted by Birmingham and Nottingham Forest as an assistant.  Clearly, the timing of such a departure would be far from ideal, but it wouldn’t be a disaster: there has been little evidence during his tenure to suggest that Calderwood is the man to take the club forward, and some of his statements to the media indicate that he wouldn’t be too disappointed to leave either.

For St Mirren and Dunfermline, it could prove to be a difficult season.  The Paisley side were 10th and 11th in the last two seasons and will hope to avoid continuing on that downward trend.  The Pars meanwhile, will take heart from the likes of St Johnstone and Hamilton, who in recent years have both survived in the top flight after promotion.

Off The Field

Scottish football seemed to appear on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers almost as often as the back pages last season.  The threats to Neil Lennon’s life and the touchline attack at Tynecastle showed the world what the Celtic manager has to contend with in order to live and work in Scotland.  Then of course, there was the Dougie McDonald decision-changing fiasco which led to industrial action by referees.  As if that wasn’t enough drama, Celtic and Rangers met seven times during the course of the season, with that explosive cup-tie in March resulting in high-level meetings between the clubs, Scottish Government and the Police.  Anti-sectarian legislation is expected to follow later in the year.

So, expect another quiet season in Scotland.

Overrated Players Of Our Time – Madjid Bougherra

8 Jul

The Scottish media have come up with some great transfer stories in recent years.  Steven Fletcher to Real Madrid was good, Kenny Miller and Scott Brown being linked with the Milan clubs even better.  However, possibly the best of the lot was the suggestion that Madjid Bougherra could be on his way to Barcelona.

There have been plenty of Old Firm players who didn’t deserve the hype that surrounded them, and Bougherra appears to be the latest.  By SPL standards, he’s a decent defender, possibly his biggest asset being his ability to bring to break from a back.  However, he simply doesn’t have the temperament to be a top-class centre back.

During his time at Rangers, Bougherra has regularly made numerous unnecessary tackles and challenges to the detriment of his team.  The Scottish Cup replay at Celtic Park in March was a prime example – a needless stamp on Gary Hooper’s leg halfway up the pitch could have been a straight red itself.  It was then followed up with the childish reaction where he grabbed at Calum Murray’s arms, in an attempt to stop the referee sending him off.

Bougherra may well move on before the end of the transfer window, but the chances of his next stop being one of Europe’s top clubs are slim.

Old Firm Discussion

26 Apr

Some thoughts on the 0-0 draw between Rangers and Celtic on Sunday.

1. A poor first-half followed by a second period which, although lacking in quality, provided plenty of goalscoring opportunities.  The standard of passing however, was truly awful.

2. Nikica Jelavic was again a threat, particularly during the opening 45 minutes.  He continues to improve and will be a key player for Rangers in the years ahead.  Kyle Lafferty was Jelavic’s partner up front and as is often the case with Lafferty, he made a bright start before fading.  During his Ibrox career Lafferty has never come close to justifying his transfer fee – the talent is there, he just keeps it well hidden.

3. Lafferty had Rangers’ best opportunity of the match, and he really should have buried his header after getting ahead of Charlie Mulgrew.  Despite having several clear chances, Rangers rarely tested Fraser Forster.

4. Maurice Edu has plenty to offer but his confidence is so low that the end of the season cannot come quick enough.  An awful performance.

5. In the opening exchanges Celtic looked nervy, perhaps realising what a win would mean.  They only really came into the game after the enforced introduction of Kris Commons, who became the link between midfield and attack.  Why he wasn’t included in the starting line-up, is anybody’s guess.  Scott Brown and Beram Kayal were more influential after the break.

6. Lennon was right to publicly defend Georgios Samaras after the penalty-miss.  However, the striker is now starting to live off his two goals at Ibrox in January.  Anthony Stokes looked more menacing in the short time he was on the field, though he was crazy to take the dive that lead to a yellow card – there appeared to be a clear shot at goal.

7. The penalty award was soft, but they are often given.  The Joe Ledley incident meanwhile, wasn’t a spot-kick as Steven Whittaker had pretty much no time to move out of the way.

8. Once again Allan McGregor showed his class, with two outstanding saves to deny Majstorovic and Izaguirre.  Will a Rangers takeover allow them to keep him at the club?

9. Should they maintain their goal difference advantage, Celtic need four wins and a draw to clinch the title.  The finishing line is in sight, and Celtic should cross it first.  Victory in their next two games, against Dundee United and Inverness CT, would be massive steps towards doing just that.

10. That’s enough Old Firm games for one season.

Old Firm Comment

21 Mar

1. Rangers collect the first silverware of the season, and probably deserved the win.  This was more a war of attrition, rather than a football classic, but great entertainment as usual.

2. It’s almost as if Walter Smith thought: “What the hell, it’s only the League Cup.”  Caution was thrown very much to the wind, with a far more positive formation and attitude from his side, highlighted by the inclusion of young Gregg Wylde.  Had they sat back as they have in recent visits to Celtic Park, they may well have been on the end of another hammering.

3. Steven Davis and Steven Naismith were the main men for Rangers.  Busy, energetic, and in the faces of the opposition from kick-off.  Davis looked more like his usual self.  A mention also for David Weir – on the receiving end of all sorts of stick recently, but made some vital clearances.

4. Nikica Jelavic will receive much of the acclaim for his winning goal.  Another hard-working performance but he’s difficult to work out.  On one hand he gave Thomas Rogne a difficult afternoon, but his dive was poor, particularly when he could have been in on goal.  Still doesn’t look like and out-and-out scorer, and needs a prolific partner.

5. Celtic on the other hand, never really got going.  They didn’t take the initiative after the equaliser or during extra-time following Bougherra’s departure.  There were too many average performances on the one day and too many players overrunning the ball and failing to release it when they had the chance.

6. Georgios Samaras started the match like a man on a mission and looked set for another barnstorming Old Firm performance.  However, it was ultimately a frustrating afternoon for the Greek – poor first touch and no genuine chances.

7. Walter Smith’s decision to bring on Vladamir Weiss proved to be a masterstroke.  A player with a lot to prove after a poor season, his pace and direct running helped Rangers get the better of their old foes during extra-time.  He also played the pass for Jelavic’s winner.

8. Celtic seemed to miss Daniel Majstorovic more than Rangers missed Kyle Bartley.  The big Swede’s physical presence was needed and had he been on the pitch, Jelavic may well have seen less of the ball.  Thomas Rogne seemed to struggle without his usual defensive partner and at times, Charlie Mulgrew looked like more of a natural centre-back – Mulgrew however, went to ground too quickly at the winner.

9. A decent performance from Craig Thomson and his assistants, and credit to Thomson for being brave enough to reverse his initial penalty decision when Jelavic dived.  Rangers could have had a spot-kick when Wilson’s arm connected with the ball and there was the bizarre award of a free-kick in Bougherra’s favour after he barged Kris Commons.

10. Rangers will take heart from their performance and the result.  The destiny of the SPL title is still in their hands and they will look ahead to the remainder of the season with some confidence.  However, both sides know that one slip could cost them the title.  The last Old Firm encounter at Ibrox will be huge, but it’s unlikely to be decisive.


Old Firm Analysis

2 Mar

1. A senior Police officer this week called for Old Firm games to be scrapped due to the trouble they cause.  Maybe he has a point after this battle – complete and utter madness.

2. Celtic deserved the win.  They created the few chances that came in the match and were never threatened at the back.

3. Rangers weren’t exposed nearly as often as they were in recent league defeat at Celtic Park, thanks to playing an extra man at the back.  However, this resulted in the Ibrox side being even less of an attacking threat.  It worked against Sporting Lisbon, but not tonight.

4. That extra man, Kyle Bartley, was one of Rangers’ better performers.  His pace helped nullify the threat of Georgios Samaras on more than one occasion, and he was a different player from the one who picked up an early yellow card in the last match between the two sides.

5. Steven Whittaker’s first booking was possibly soft but there was no doubt about his second.  Madjid Bougherra can have no complaints – yes he took the ball, but he took Kris Commons with it.  The challenge on Hooper for his first booking was pointless, and his conduct after the second yellow was pathetic.  Still one of the most overrated players to turn out for either half of the Old Firm in recent years.  Ironically, he was Rangers’ biggest attacking threat in second-half when he broke out of defence.

6. El Hadji Diouf – where to start.  He was left isolated so was unable to make an impression on the game.  Despite his talent, Rangers should never have went anywhere near this guy.  Yes, the Celtic players and management were trying to provoke him, but he must be used to it by now.  He only gets a hard time from the opposition because of his previous conduct, so he has nobody to blame but himself.  Did Rangers not think that he may draw a bit of attention if he came to the SPL?

7. The best player on the park was Beram Kayal.  He seems to thrive in these contests and is one of several Celtic players set to attract the interest of English and European clubs. 

8. Mark Wilson is showing the best form of his Celtic career and the recent goals are a well deserved bonus for the way he is playing.  A mention also for a sensational clearance from Sasa Papac for Wilson’s shot before the goal, even if it didn’t do him much good in the end.

9. Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist need to grow up and move on.  The current Celtic manager and the future Rangers boss squaring up like two dads at an under-14’s match is embarrassing.  Not much of an example, considering what goes on in Glasgow and the surrounding areas on Old Firm day.

10. After all that, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Inverness Caley knock Celtic out in the cup quarter-final.