A thick mane of hair stood above his handsome features so the actor playing him on a theatre stage next month ought to be able to replicate the physical appearance without too long in make-up.
Thomson’s easy charm and charisma should not be beyond an actor of James MacKenzie’s range. Mercifully MacKenzie will be spared having to display how good a footballer Thomson was. No actor could pull that one off. It was generally recognised that Thomson was world class.
A new play called “The Prince -- The Johnny Thomson Story” opens in Glasgow on September 5. The date was non-negotiable. It is the 80th anniversary of the night when Thomson became more than a footballer. He died a few hours after diving at the feet of striker Sam English in an Old Firm game, his head crashing on to the Rangers man’s knee, causing a depressed fracture of the skull.
He lay motionless on the pitch as seconds turned into minutes. Gradually, Ibrox hushed as the seriousness of what they were watching dawned on 80,000 people. Thomson was placed on a stretcher and taken away, his head wrapped in bandages. Some blood was seeping through.
The quiet was broken by a woman’s scream. It was his teenage girlfriend in the stand. The game restarted but no-one had the stomach for it. Thomson died later that night in the Victoria Infirmary, just a few minutes after his parents arrived from Cardenden in Fife to be at his bedside.
The story of Thomson’s death is incredibly powerful, an episode in Old Firm history which must be handled with sensitivity even now. “The Prince” has attempted to do so, and also attempted to do more than merely glorify a Celtic icon.
Co-writers Gerry McDade and Brian McGeachan believe they have produced a thoughtful, rounded piece of work which does something to respectfully flesh out the story of a remarkable individual. Thomson was so much more than a tragic statistic.
How good was he? The circumstances of the fatal accident make Thomson an obvious candidate for lionisation. It is tempting to wonder whether his ability and potential may have been exaggerated a little. But the 1920s and ’30s weren’t entirely different from the present day: there was still something extraordinary about a boy of 22 being the ‘goalkeeper for club and country’ at the time of his death.
Consider this newspaper report, written while he was alive and therefore not clouded by sentiment: “Thomson is coolness personified. His anticipation is positively uncanny. High shots, low shots, point-blank or long range, Thomson deals with them all in masterly fashion and his cutting-out of crosses from either wing is well-nigh perfect. He’s not big as goalkeepers go, but in his lithe, boyish frame is the agility of a tiger and his brain is like ice.”
There was bravery in spades, bravery which left him more vulnerable than most goalkeepers to being injured in action. He lost teeth at the feet of strikers and suffered concussion more than once after throwing himself down to protect the Celtic net. Thomson would think nothing of hurling himself at the flying boots of a striker baring down on him.
Celtic played with only two ‘backs’ protecting him in those days -- three was common around other clubs -- which meant there was often a space in front of his penalty area filled by some centre-forward charging at him. Five minutes into the second half of that Old Firm game, the forward charging down was English. It was a routine moment in a match, but a freak combination of contact, speed and angles changed everything.
How is that awful moment represented in the play? “I don’t want to give the game away,” said McDade. “But we had to do it in a way that people were very, very clear about what was happening. We will be using original footage from the time. The whole thing is a visual spectacle. People know there is tragedy at the end of the story, so the challenge for us is how to deal with that. We want to make it thought-provoking and maybe try to put a different slant on it.
“You have to treat the subject matter with complete respect because Johnny is an icon and a legend. But there is also a sort of one-dimensional view of John Thomson and that’s what we wanted to try and change. He went from a mining village in Fife as a 17-year-old to suddenly playing in front of 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 people. I don’t care who you are, you have to have a certain amount of arrogance about you to be believe in yourself and handle that. So we wanted to get behind the story and find out what he was really like. He couldn’t have been that shy, that humble, if he had to go out in front of 100,000 people.
“Because he died so young we weren’t allowed to find out how great Johnny was. Was he that good? Was he that great? Or was it just that he died so young? And what was his personal life like? Mention Johnny Thomson to people and they think ‘young death in a football match’. But he was a young guy, a good-looking guy, he was living in a big city, playing for one of the biggest football clubs in the world, and he was falling in love. You have to look beyond the tragedy of his death and celebrate his life. The guy had a story.”
English is treated respectfully too. “Obviously, the big tragedy was Johnny losing his life but to a degree Sam English never really recovered either. He would be going for a corner kick and he’d hear someone from the crowd shouting something ludicrous like ‘murderer’ or ‘killer’. You don’t recover from that. We’ve tried to get that across as well.”
Only days after their boy’s funeral Jean Thomson invited English and his wife to Cardenden, and later the Thomson family placed a notice in their local newspaper: “The parents of John Thomson have made a request to us to publicly announce that they entirely exonerate the Rangers centre forward, Sam English, of any responsibility for the accident which resulted in their son’s death. They realise it was an accident, pure and simple.”
The Prince - The Johnny Thomson Story runs from September 5-10 at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow.