by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

7 July 1931: Glasgow Rangers sign record scoring forward Sam English

Sam English was born in 1908 in, Aghadowey, Coleraine in what is now Northern Ireland.  In 1924 his family moved to Dalmuir in Scotland and English began work at a shipyard.  He also began playing for junior side Yoker Athletic, and by scoring over 200 goals in three seasons he soon came to the attention of Glasgow Rangers.  He signed professional terms with them on 7July 1931.

English was to be an instant success at Rangers and he still holds the record for the most league goals scored in a season by a player after netting 44 times in his first season from 35 appearances, but that first season was not all plain sailing.

His first game for Rangers came on 8 August 1931 at Ibrox and he got two goals in an easy 4-1 win for Rangers over Dundee.   The Daily Record was exuberant in their praise of their new striker describing him as possessing electric pace.   In fact English had more than just pace, he was a strong and powerful man, and, at just 5 feet 8 inches, he was deceptively good in the air.  After his first six games he had twelve goals to his name and had scored in every appearance, including five in a 7-3 win over Morton.  Sadly though after such a bright start what occurred in his next game was going to forever overshadow the rest of his career.

On 5 September 1931 English was playing for Rangers against Celtic at Ibrox Park when early in the second half he collided with the Celtic keeper John Thomson who had carried out a trademark act of bravery by diving at the feet of English as he took a shot.  Thomson had been injured in a similar fashion in the previous year when a collision with an Airdrieonian forward had left him with a broken jaw, fractured ribs, a damaged collarbone, and the loss of two teeth. Afterwards, his mother Jean attempted to persuade her son to retire from the game. She said later that she had a premonition that he would be killed playing football.

This time Thomson’s injuries were to be more horrific.  In the collision with English’s knee Thomson fractured his skull and ruptured an artery in his temple.   English also dazed and limping became quickly aware of the seriousness of Thomson’s injury and waved frantically for assistance

Thompson was taken off the field on a stretcher unconscious.  The 80,000 people in the crowd stood in stunned silence as he was taken off the field the only noise being a single scream from a woman.  This was believed to have come from Thomson’s young fiancé, 19 year-old Margaret Finlay, who was in the crowd with Thomson’s brother Jim.  Thomson received treatment from the St. Andrew’s ambulance service present, and he was even seen to regain consciousness and sit up and look around back to the spot where the accident had happened.  While the game drifted to a 0-0 draw he was taken from the ground to the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow where it was found that he a depressed skull fracture, but before he could receive any further treatment at 5 p.m. he suffered a major convulsion.  A frantic effort by the emergency surgery team to relieve the pressure in his skull was to no avail and could not save his life, and by 9.25 p.m. John Thomson was pronounced dead.  He was aged just 22.

Thomson, who had previously worked as a coal-miner, had been an exceptionally talented keeper and was already capped at international level.  In a tribute the legendary journalist John Arlott wrote “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.”

The tragedy briefly united many of the Rangers and Celtic fans.  Thousands of fans from both sides paid a visit to a shop where a floral tribute had been placed in a shop window by a Rangers’ fan.  Many tens of thousands went to the train station to witness Thomson’s coffin being loaded onto a train to take him to his final resting place on the day of the funeral.   Around 30,000 people attended his funeral on 9 September, in Cardenden where he had grown up.  Many, unable to afford the train fare, had walked the 55 miles from Glasgow such was the desire to pay tribute to their fallen hero.

On the morning of the funeral English talked how he had been friends with the keeper and he was visibly upset with several newspapers reporting that he broke down and wept openly during the service.  A week after the funeral, Sammy English, Rangers’ manager Bill Struth and captain Davie Meiklejohn visited Thomson’s parents to pay their respect and they in their turn let English know that they in no way held him responsible and wished him a successful career.

At the time of the accident the referee never gave a foul, and an inquiry fully dismissed any notion of English being to blame for the incident, and this was a view that was also stressed by all of Thomson’s family and the players from both sides who were on the pitch at the time.  Even the Celtic program at the first home game after the accident noted “We are sure all who were at Ibrox will agree in exonerating English completely from blame.”  Nonetheless English was deeply affected by what had happened.  He was goalless for his next four games as Rangers lost their spot at the top of the table to that season’s eventual champions Motherwell.

The season was to end on a brighter note for English as he scored in the 3-0 victory over Kilmarnock in a replayed Scottish Cup final to win his first medal as a professional, but the jeering of opposition football fans whenever he played did not help matters and his form began to tail off.  In his second season he only managed 10 goals in 25 games and at the end of the season he left Scotland when Rangers sold him to Liverpool for £8,000.  He had a good start for his new club scoring 13 times in his first 16 games and ending the season with 21 goals.  The insults alluding to the incident with Thomson though kept on haunting him as jeers and shouts similar to those heard in Scotland began to be heard in England.  The next season he struggled for form and Liverpool sold him to Queen of South.  He had only moderate success there and went back to England again, this time with Hartlepool.

Obviously the loss of a man’s life in no way compares to a career in football, but English was never able to truly get over his part in Thomson’s death, which happened so early in his Rangers’ career.  He retired in May 1938, never having lived up to his early potential, telling a friend that since the accident that killed Thomson he had had “seven years of joyless sport.”  He worked as a coach after playing with Duntocher Hibernians and Yoker Athletic and returning to employment in shipyards.

Sam English passed away in 1967,aged 58, in a Vale of Leven hospital having had a battle with motor neurone disease.  In 2009, in recognition of the 100 year anniversary of his birth date Rangers had a trophy designed and named “the Sam English Bowl” to be presented to the club’s top scorer in the league each season.   The bowl is a single piece of solid silver containing 44 silver balls, one for every goal Sam scored in that historic season.  It is a fine tribute and for once it is recognition of the man solely for his football skills and not of his part in the events of a tragic afternoon in 1931.