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Deaths in Football

John Simkin

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Everybody is shocked by the death of Motherwell midfielder Phil O'Donnell. It is today very rare for a footballer to die on the pitch. However, it has not always been like this. It was once a very dangerous game.

In 1892 James Dunlop of St Mirren died of tetanus as a result of a cut received in a match. A report published by The Lancet on 24th March 1894 pointed out the dangers of playing football. The doctor who wrote the article warned about the the practice of charging a man trying to head a football: "To smash cruelly into him and knock him over unnecessarily and perhaps savagely is clearly a brutality and perhaps savagely is clearly a brutality which is permitted by the rules."

On 23rd November 1896, Joseph Powell of Arsenal went to kick a high ball during a game against Kettering Town. His foot caught on the shoulder of an opponent and Powell fell and broke his arm. One of the men who went to his aid fainted at the sight of the protruding bone. Infection set in and, despite amputation above the elbow, Powell died a few days later when just twenty-six years of age.

The Lancet continued to record details of these incidents and in an article published on 22nd April 1899 that over the last eight years around 96 men had died while playing football and rugby.

It was unusual in the 19th century for footballers to die early deaths. It was a game played by the working class and all of them had to endure poor living conditions. Tom Bradshaw, West Ham's star winger, died of consumption on Christmas Day 1899.

In a pre-season public practice game in 1902, Di Jones, who played for Manchester City, gashed his knee. Despite treatment from the club doctor, within a week the wound had turned septic and the player died.

In April 1907 Thomas Blackstock collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St. Helens. 25 year old Blackstock died soon afterwards. An inquest into his death returned a verdict of "natural causes". Several players at the club were angry about the way Blackstock's family was treated after his death. Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts, Charlie Sagar, Herbert Burgess and Sandy Turnbull, decided to form a new Players' Union. The first meeting was held on 2nd December, 1907, at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester and the Association Football Players Union (AFPU) was established.

When Frank Levick of Sheffield United died aged 26 in 1908, the AFPU sent his family £20. They also entered into negotiations with his club about the compensation to be paid to his wife. The AFPU also explored the ways that football players could make use of the Workman's Compensation Act (1906).

In 1909 James Milne of Hibernian died from internal injuries sustained in a game in the Scottish League. In April 1916, Bob Benson, Arsenal's experienced full-back, played in a game against Reading. He left the field feeling unwell and later died in the dressing room with a burst blood vessel. Others who died during games or as a direct result of injuries include Tom Butler (Port Vale, 1923) and Sam Wynne (Bury, 1928).

It was goalkeepers who were most likely to be killed on the pitch. On 5th September, 1931, Celtic played Rangers in front of an 80,000 crowd at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow. Early in the second half Sam English raced through the Celtic defence and looked certain to score, when Celtic's international goalkeeper, John Thomson dived at his feet. Thomson's head collided with English's knee and he was taken unconscious from the field. According to The Scotsman, Thomson "was seen to rise on the stretcher and look towards the goal and the spot where the accident happened".

John Thomson was taken to the Victoria Infirmary but he had fractured his skull and he died at 9.25 that evening. He was 22 years old. Over 40,000 people attended the funeral in Cardenden, including thousands who had travelled through from Glasgow, many walking the 55 miles to the Fife village.

In 1934 Simon Raleigh of Gillingham died from a brain haemorrhage following a clash of heads with Brighton's Paul Mooney. The Brighton player was so distressed by Raleigh's death that he retired from playing football.

On 1st February 1936, Sunderland played Chelsea at Roker Park. According to newspaper reports it was a particularly ill-tempered game and Chelsea's Billy Mitchell, the Northern Ireland international wing-half, was sent off. The visiting forwards appeared to be targeting the Sunderland goalkeeper, Jimmy Thorpe, who took a terrible battering during the match.

Sunderland took a 3-1 lead but Chelsea fought back and Jimmy Bambrick, scored with a shot outside the area. A few minutes later, with Bambrick rushing in at full speed, Jimmy Thorpe misjudged a back-pass and allowed it to run over his arm. Bambrick continued his run and had an easy tap in to make it 3-3. One newspaper reported that "atrocious goalkeeping cost Sunderland a point".

The Sunderland Football Echo argued that: "Thorpe has shown some excellent goalkeeping this season, but he seldom satisfies me when the ball is crossed. On Saturday his failures had an entirely different origin, and I can come to no other conclusion than that the third goal to Chelsea was due to 'wind up' when he saw Bambrick running up." As the author Nick Hazlewood has pointed out in his book about goalkeepers, In the Way! Goalkeepers: A Breed Apart?: "Thorpe was scared said his critics; he'd turned chicken at the moment of truth."

As a result of the battering he had received, Jimmy Thorpe was admitted to the local Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital suffering from broken ribs and a badly bruised head. Thorpe had also suffered a recurrence of a diabetic condition that he had been treated for two years earlier. Thorpe died of diabetes mellitus and heart failure on 9th February, 1936. Thorpe, who was only 22 years old, left a wife and young son.

The following day, the Sunderland Football Echo journalist apologized for what he had written a few days earlier: "I know many who would give anything now to feel that they had not uttered the harsh words they spoke in the heat of the moment regarding Jimmy Thorpe's failure to prevent the two Chelsea goals in the second half last week. They did not know that the man whose failures were cursed was actually a hero to carry on at all. Neither did I know, and I confess now that I myself would give anything to have been in the position to have known and never to have given pen to what I wrote. I do not think he was able to read them and if this is so I am glad that his last days were not saddened by anything I had written because I know he was sensitive about his job."

Sunderland won the First Division league title that season and Thorpe's championship medal was presented to his widow.

As a result of Thorpe's death, the Football Association decided to change the rules in order to give goalkeepers more protection from forwards. Players were no longer allowed to raise their foot to a goalkeeper when he had control of the ball in his arms.

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