IN the pantheon of Celtic legends, one name stands out taller than others, as the epitome of what our club is. He is Johnny Thomson, who died on this day in 1931, well before his time. He will never be forgotten. Here Mark Cameron pays tribute to the ‘Prince of Goalkeepers.”
Every Celtic fan remembers how they were told the John Thomson story for the first time.
It is indeed a terrible tragedy for anyone to lose their life so young. But the John Thomson story only had a tragic ending.
From an early age, John Thomson showed great natural agility, extreme dedication in training and was able to show wonderful anticipation and great reflexes. His teacher at Auchterderran High School commented “He was a fine lad. Even at school he was a hero”.
Throughout his career John maintained his natural modesty and was always thoughtfully generous to his family and friends back home in his beloved Cardenden.
Having watched him play for the first time in October 1926, for Fife side Wellesley Juniors, Celtic’s chief scout Steve Callaghan excitedly told Willie Maley, the Celtic manager, that Thomson could “jump like a cat”. John signed for Celtic the same night.
The Prince of goalkeepers’ made an immediate and long lasting impact on our support with his skill, agility, brilliance, confidence, dedication and determined performances. He showed a complete lack of fear and unfaltering bravery to protect his goal to the point where he is still honoured by generations who have never seen him play.
Perhaps his mother, who always feared for John every time he left home to play the game he loved, realised that her son would protect his goal whatever the cost. In those days goalkeepers were afforded little of the protection that is given in the modern game.
Although John was quiet he was supremely confident in his own ability. Following a mistake during his debut v Dundee at the tender age of 18, John told Celtic Director Tom Colgan, “Don’t worry sir. I’ve been taught not to make the same mistake twice. I’ll be fine for next week.”
Initially John preferred to commute daily from his parents’ home in Cardenden, but he still managed to quickly fit in with the rest of his new team mates. He had a great sense of humour and built up great friendships with Alec Thomson (no relation) and legendary striker Jimmy McGrory. Always polite and smartly dressed, John was often asked to accompany Willie Maley when the chairman went to give talks to youth organisations.
Here was a young man in his prime, making the goalkeepers’ jersey his own at one of the biggest clubs in Britain. In his four years at Celtic he played on 211 occasions for the club and had an impressive shut out rate of 34%. Remarkably for a player so young, John never lost his place due to lack of form. Despite playing for a Celtic team in much transition, John helped Celtic to two Scottish Cups and three Glasgow Cups.
Thomson showed supreme dedication to the art of goalkeeping. It is said that during a match his eyes would never leave the ball. He would regularly seek out more experienced goalkeepers and ask their advice, in particular, Jack Harkness of Hearts. They became great friends.
Before his 20th birthday John had replaced Harkness, one of the famous Wembley Wizards, in goal for Scotland, with Harkness describing one Thomson performance as “unsurpassed brilliance”.
While many modern day Celts don’t get cheered by their own fans while on Scotland duty, John was not only loved by the Scotland support but incredibly given a standing ovation and cheered by England fans following a breath-taking performance in the English league v Scottish league clash in 1929. In total John achieved four Scottish League caps and four full international caps. In his four full internationals he had three clean sheets and conceded only one goal.
Throughout his short career John Thomson showed maturity beyond his years and we can only speculate on how many more honours he would have won. What is clear is that John achieved more in his short career than many modern day ‘legends’ achieve in a lifetime.
Today we commemorate the anniversary of the tragic, untimely death and acknowledge the special place he holds in our hearts and we remember him as John Thomson ‘the Prince’ – a wonderfully gifted lad from Cardenden, a brave footballer and an exceptional role model.
“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.” John Thomson’s Epitath