The Darkest Day: 1930-39

There could be little doubt that Rangers FC had dominated the Scottish scene in the 1920s and they would do the same in the 1930s, as the following tables show. Only 9 seasons made up the list in League and Scottish Cup, as, because of the war, in season 1939-40 there were no national competitions, only regional leagues. There were, however, 10 titles at stake in the Charity and Glasgow Cups;


…………………. League   Scottish Cup   Glasgow Cup   Charity Cup  Total

Rangers              6                  4                          7                     6                  23

Celtic                   2                  3                         2                      3                  10

The decade had got off to a reasonable start for Celtic, as they won a Scottish Cup/Glasgow Cup double in the first season of 1930-31, then made their first-ever visit to North America. In a five-week trip, Celtic played 13 matches, won nine, drew three and lost one, with 48 goals for and 18 against. It proved to a pleasant but exhausting tour. The matches were nearly all played in high humidity, the players having to contend with hard, narrow pitches, rather embryonic refereeing on occasions and tough, enthusiastic opponents. The team also had to cope with constant entertaining, exiles travelling from miles around just to see the Scottish Cup then waiting to talk to the players.


The new season of 1931-32 started with a league match against Leith Athletic, the 3-0 win being seen as a good sign by everyone connected with the club as they contemplated the new campaign. In the 8th league match of the season, though, against Rangers at Ibrox on 5th September 1931, there occurred the greatest tragedy in Celtic’s history.

Five minutes into the second half, with the game still goalless, Rangers right winger Fleming pushed a fine ball into the path of centre-forward Sam English and he raced towards goal. Just as he prepared to shoot, Johnny Thomson came out of the Celtic goal and dived to block the shot.

English rose, limping; Thomson lay where he had fallen. Trainer, manager and doctor raced on to the field; a stretcher was called for.

The incident had occurred at the Rangers end of the ground and their support, like fans everywhere, were not unhappy to see an opponent down and a section even cheered. Rangers captain Davie Meiklejohn was quick to go behind the goal and gesture for silence; it was an effective appeal and John Thomson was stretchered off in peace and quiet. Chic Geatons went into goal for Celtic but in truth, the heart had gone out of the game and it petered out into a goalless draw. Some six hours later, Johnny Thomson died from his injuries in the Victoria Infirmary. He was 23 years old.

Deaths as a result of injuries received on the football field are fortunately very rare. There can be little doubt that the club involved – and everyone connected with it – would have been affected by the loss of a player. In the case of John Thomson, recognised as a most talented custodian for club and country as well as being a very popular guy with teammates and supporters, the after-effects would have been extensive and far-reaching.. Did the shock of his death play a part in the relative lack of success in the rest of the decade of the 1930s? Certainly a case could perhaps be made for this view.


After the death of John Thomson, Celtic won two league championships – in 1935-36 and 1937-38 – as well as another Scottish Cup, in 1933, joining the one picked up when Thomson was in the side in 1931.

On 4th October 1933, while a Scotland team without a single Old Firm player in it was being beaten 3-2 by Wales at Cardiff, Celtic won 2-1 against a touring Chile/Peru select at Celtic Park.   It turned out to be an interesting game and a real contrast of styles; Celtic open and adventurous, the visitors intent on possession and close-passing. A crowd of 15,000 was present on the chilly night and seemed to enjoy the occasion. However, in the papers of the following day, the play of the Chilean and Peruvian players came in for some criticism.   For instance, one report read : ‘The footwork of the visitors was dazzling and they could master the flight of the ball and pass it on with remarkable swiftness but their positional play was faulty and their methods lacked direction’.   The Daily Record commented : ‘Although the South Americans were not adept at heading the ball and seemed to shirk a tackle, they were full of original tricks worth seeing’.   Were these comments valid or were they a reflection of the insularity which the British football associations displayed at this time? Don’t forget that none of the four Home Countries was in FIFA and that the match took place just over three years after the first World Cup finals in Uruguay, when both Chile and Peru took part and Uruguay won the title.

In the mid-1930s, there were comments from press and fans that the team lacked discipline. Manager Willie Maley also came in for some criticism, some fans wondering if he was getting too old for the job. Then, just as the criticism was reaching its peak, the team came up trumps, winning the league in that season of 1937-38, collecting the Charity Cup in successive years in 1937 and 1938 and quite remarkably, winning a very important all-British competition.


The Empire Exhibition Trophy

In 1938, the Empire Exhibition was staged in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. It was a most impressive, well-laid out display which covered many countries and aspects of the British Empire.

As part of the Exhibition, a knock-out football tournament was included as a special attraction and this would comprise four teams from Scotland and four from England. The best Scottish and English sides were invited. From England came Sunderland, FA Cup winners in 1937; Everton, Chelsea and Brentford. Current league champions Arsenal were invited but had to decline due to touring commitments. Ironically, this tour was later cancelled and they were free to join in but the organisers stuck to their original choice. From Scotland came Celtic, league champions; Rangers, champions the previous year; Aberdeen, second to Rangers in that season and Hearts, runners-up to Celtic. All the matches would be played at Ibrox Park – just down the road from the Exhibition – and the Scottish and English sides were kept apart in the draw for the first round. When the draw was made, some interesting ties came and the competition got underway towards the end of May 1938;-


25th May          Celtic 0 Sunderland 0

26th May         Celtic 3 Sunderland 1

27th May          Aberdeen 4 Chelsea 0

30th May          Rangers 0 Everton 2

1st June           Hearts 1 Brentford 0

3rd June     SF   Celtic 1   Hearts 0

6th June     SF   Aberdeen 2 Everton 3


Those results put Celtic and Everton into the final, played on 10th June 1938, with 82,000 watching. For 90 minutes, play ranged from end to end in hectic fashion but defences were slightly on top, with the result that no goals had been scored and the match went into extra-time. The deadlock was eventually broken in the 96th minute, Johnny Crum scoring with a well-placed shot. In his excitement, Crum ran behind the goal and did a little dance while waving to the Celtic fans, an action which more than one newspaper correspondent commented on un-favourably the following day!

The rather special trophy – a replica of the main tower of the Exhibition, officially referred to as the ‘Tower of Empire’ but more commonly known as ‘Tait’s Tower’, after the architect William Tait – was presented to captain Willie Lyon by Lord Elgin on a special platform erected in the grandstand enclosure and the players received their miniatures of the trophy there as well.

It was a fine win by Celtic and the tournament had been a great success. The most important point from a Celtic point of view was that a decade that was frankly something of a real disappointment ended in an excellent performance in an all-British competition. It may have put a gloss on the decade but figures do not lie and the stats produced above for each half of the Old Firm show which team dominated the 1930s.


Special Moments

1          The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930, when only 13 countries took part, only four of which ( France, Yugoslavia, Romania and Belgium ) were from Europe. The hosts met Argentina in the final in the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo, when 93,000 packed in and got their reward for hosting the competition with a 4-2 victory.


2          After the death of John Thomson, Celtic tried out two other keepers, John Falconer and Joe Coen, without either of them impressing too much. Then somebody remembered that, on the recent North American tour, when they had played Fall River in Massachusetts, their goalkeeper had played extremely well to give his side a 1-1 draw. Celtic got in touch with that particular goalkeeper and asked if he would like to come to Scotland. The player agreed to do so, came as quickly as he could then seized his chance to impress the management, so much so that they signed Joe Kennaway, who became the club’s regular custodian right up the start of World War 2.


3          Towards the end of 1933, inside-forward Peter Scarff started to complain of tiredness and played his last game for the club on 19th December. He was admitted to hospital, where tests confirmed that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Over the next two years – while there were periods of remission – he continued to deteriorate and died on 9th December 19?


4          Scotland’s 2-2 draw with Austria 0n November 29th 1933 was the first time that a Continental team had played an international in Scotland.


5          The second World Cup was held in Italy, with dictator Benito Mussolini keen to show what his country was capable of. 16 teams took part in a knock-out system and eventually Italy met Czechoslovakia in the final in Rome. The match was all square at 1-1 after 90 minutes but Italy got the vital goal in the added period to take victory 2-1.


6          In season 1935-36, Jimmy McGrory scored 50 goals, including 7 hat-tricks.


7          In the autumn of 1936, Scottish League champions Celtic played two matches against English League champions Sunderland in an unofficial British Championship. The first game at Roker Park ended in a 1-1 draw; Celtic won the second match at Parkhead 3-2, thus winning the ‘British Club Championship’ by four goals to three.


8          In the Scottish Cup final of 1937, when Celtic beat Aberdeen 2-1, the attendance was 147,365, the biggest ever for both a Scottish Cup Final and any match in Europe. It was reported that another 30,000 or so were locked outside the ground.


9          The 3rd World Cup was held in France in 1938 and as before 16 teams took part, only three of which – Cuba, Brazil and Dutch East Indies – came from outside Europe. Once again, as occurred four years previously, Italy reached the final in Paris, to be joined this time by Hungary. The Magyars tried their best but the experience of Italy helped them to close the game down after they had gone into a 3-1 lead. Hungary did pull one back but just could not get enough of the ball and the Italians scored a fourth goal to take the final 4-2.


10        For season 1937-38, an arc was added outside the penalty area so that players would be 10 yards away from the ball when a penalty was being taken


Special Moments Outside Football

 1930    British Airship R101 crashes in France, killing 48

1931    Official opening of Empire State Building, the world’s tallest building.

1932    Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo.

1933    Prohibition in the USA is repealed by the 21st Amendment.

1934    Bonnie and Clyde killed in an ambush.

1935    Alcoholics Anonymous founded in Ohio, USA.

1936    Jesse Owens wins 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.

1937    Joe Louis wins world heavyweight title.

1938    Nazi Germany invades Austria.

1939    Coronation of Pope Pius X11.