WHEN Jeff Holmes started the research for his biography of the Rangers legend Davie Meiklejohn, the author had, like so many people over the decades, a preconceived idea about who his team mate Sam English had been.
“I always thought of him as ‘the guy who killed John Thomson’,” he said. “I didn’t know any better. That was really unfair, really incorrect.”
Celtic and Scotland goalkeeper Thomson lost his life at the age of just 22 as a result of the injuries he sustained in a collision with English in an Old Firm game at Ibrox on September 5, 1931.
Yet, as Holmes delved deeper and unearthed further information, he found the commonly-held perception of the Northern Ireland-born, Glasgow-raised footballer did him a gross disservice.
English was cleared of any malicious intent by a fatal accident inquiry and graciously absolved of any blame by Thomson’s grieving family. Psychologically, however, he was deeply traumatised by the tragic death of his brilliant opponent. It would haunt him for the remainder of his days.
The striker was also singled out for abuse by rival players and supporters - including by Celtic fans when he was playing for Liverpool and Hartlepool down in England - for years afterwards until he was forced out of the game at 28.
It was a sad end to the career of a one-time goalscoring phenomenon who had been the hottest property in British football during his brief but glorious peak and had commanded record transfer fees on every occasion he was sold.
What Holmes discovered inspired him to write Tortured: The Sam English Story. It is a detailed, absorbing and compassionate work about an individual who still, 88 years on, holds the record for the most league goals scored by a Rangers player in a single campaign.
“I don’t think Sam ever put it behind him,” he said. “It was always there. It never went away. I spoke his son-in-law, Ronnie Cree, when I was writing the book and he told me it had affected him until the day he died.
“He would slump into a state of depression every September around about the time of the game and refuse to speak to anyone. He never spoke about football, never spoke about his career, never spoke about that incident.”
The Rangers striker would endure open hostility towards him on the park as well as some brutal treatment following the death of Thomson. It started when he returned to action in the Glasgow Cup semi-final against Celtic at Parkhead a few weeks later.
“The Celtic players said publicly they had nothing but sympathy for Sam,” said Holmes. “But in his next match he had to go off twice because of fouls against him. He was kicked off. At one point his captain Davie Meiklejohn went over to the referee and asked him to do something about it. There was obviously ill feeling towards him.
“In the first-half, Sam went up with the keeper John Falconer for a ball and accidently caught him in the jaw with his head. Falconer went down motionless. As soon as it happened the Celtic players got a hold of English. But the keeper got up and played on.”
He continued: “There was sympathy there at first. He got a lot of sympathy from players and fans over the next month or two. But it slowly dissipated. Before he knew it he was a target. Players would say: ‘Watch that murderer’. If he went near a keeper they would say: ‘He’s killed somebody else’.
“I always wondered how he could end up as Rangers record goalscorer in that first season (he netted 44 times in 35 league games in the 1931/32 season). How could he do that with the death of John Thomson preying on his mind? It would eventually finish him. But it was because he had a lot of sympathy at the start. It got worse and worse and worse.”
Bill Struth, the Rangers manager, sold English to Liverpool for £8,000 in 1933 after the troubled forward’s form in front of goal waned. Initially, he performed well at Anfield and netted regularly. But he quickly realised would be unable to escape his notoriety and enjoy a fresh start down south.
“Liverpool played Sheffield United in his third match,” said Holmes. “A rival player called him a murderer and gave him a hard time. A report of the game said that English adopted a fighting stance when he did. The referee found out about it afterwards, the player was reported to the FA, severely censured and forced to apologise.
“Sheffield United had an outstanding Irish striker called Jimmy Dunne at that time. He was a staunch Republican and had once served time in his homeland for being a member of the IRA. He was playing in that game. Was he in the dressing room winding his team mates up before the game? You just don’t know. But the death of Thomson followed English.”
An ill-considered comment by Willie Maley, the Celtic manager who hadn’t witnessed what happened in the fateful Old Firm game from his vantage point in the main stand, inadvertently turned many of those who stood on the terraces at Parkhead against English.
“Maley was renowned for being gracious when it came to Rangers,” said Holmes. “But he was asked if he thought it was an accident. He said: ‘I hope it was an accident’. That coloured how English was regarded by a lot of Celtic fans.”
Cree, who married one of English’s three daughters, revealed they had pursued the forward after he had left Scotland. “He told me that Celtic supporters used to travel down to England so they could jeer him at matches,” he said. “Even when he moved to Hartlepool, who were in the bottom league, they were down there giving him a hard time.”
English eventually grew disillusioned, hung up his boots after what he described as “seven years of joyless sport”, returned to Glasgow, took a job as a sheet metal worker in the shipyards and retreated from public view.
“It scarred him,” said Holmes. “He tended not to go anywhere. He loved his wife and his kids and his garden. His roses were his big passion. He played a lot of golf at Dalmuir too. But his son-in-law told me he despised being out, having people looking at him. He described himself once as ‘a grizzly peep show’. People would just stare at him. It must have been awful.”
English passed away aged 58 in 1967 following a battle with motor neurone disease. Rangers have since honoured their former player posthumously by inducting him into their Hall of Fame. They also award the Sam English Bowl to the player who finishes each season as their leading scorer in the league.
“It is such a gorgeous, unique trophy,” said Holmes. “There are 44 balls, which signify each goal he scored in the 1931/32 season, on a silver rose bowl. It is really beautiful. His family absolutely love it. Roses were his passion.”
It is a fitting commemoration. So is Tortured: The Sam English Story. Hopefully, the book will help to ensure that future generations have a different opinion of a true Rangers great.
Tortured: The Sam English Story, published by Pitch Publishing, is now available from all good bookshops, or by contacting the author, Jeff Holmes, via Twitter at @JeffH1960 or through his website at jeffholmes.co.uk.
TOMORROW: An exclusive extract from Tortured: The Sam English Story.