James Horatio Thorpe and the tale of a tragic but gifted goalkeeper forgotten to time

James Horatio Thorpe and the tale of a tragic but gifted goalkeeper forgotten to time

ON 18 APRIL 1936, Sunderland were crowned First Division champions for the sixth time in their history by defeating Huddersfield Town by four goals to three. Most fans present would have struggled to be convinced that this would be the last ever league title for Sunderland. Neither they nor their north-east rivals, Newcastle United, have managed to claim the trophy since.

This was a star-studded side which Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, referred to as the best team he had ever played against. Sunderland scored 109 goals as league winners, a total only surpassed by Wolves in 1958 and Tottenham  in 1961.They were captained by the legendary Horatio “Raich” Carter, who was the youngest ever captain to win the title.

However, as the team received the trophy, one player was not present to receive the adulation of the crowd. He was the Sunderland goalkeeper, who had played 59 consecutive games for the club. His name was James Horatio Thorpe, known to everyone as Jimmy, and in February 1936 he had died as a result of injuries received in a league match against Chelsea at Roker Park.

Jimmy Thorpe is the only player to have died on a professional English football pitch as result of injuries caused by the actions of opposition players, and the last to have been awarded a Football League championship winner’s medal posthumously. The events that led to his death forced the Football Association to amend the laws of the game to offer protection to goalkeepers to prevent a similar outcome occurring again.

He was an insulin-dependent diabetic and was possibly the first player with this condition to play top-tier football in England, and the only with type one diabetes to have earned a championship-winning medal. He was tragically just 22 when his injuries tragically led to his premature death.

It is worthwhile reflecting that, until the discovery of insulin in 1921, to be diagnosed with diabetes was to effectively be given a death sentence. Patients with diabetes did not live long as there was nothing much that medical science could do for them. The most effective treatment was to put patients with diabetes on strict regimes with minimal carbohydrate intake, known by many sufferers as the “cabbage leaf diet”. This could buy patients a few extra years but couldn’t save them. Some of the more enlightened doctors of the time allowed patients to smoke opium to alleviate their suffering.

By the middle of the 1920s, insulin had transformed the lives of all who were suffering from diabetes. However, the process of using it to manage the condition was still in its early stages. Insulin was extracted from the pancreas of cows and pigs, which could result in complications from impurities. This meant that many patients suffered allergic reactions after injection, causing additional infections and severe bruising.

Unlike today, a person with diabetes had no tools to help them accurately establish their blood glucose levels. Insulin was injected via a large glass syringe which had to be sterilised daily, and the needles had to be sharpened on a pumice stone. All carbohydrate intake had to be measured and weighed as part of a restricted diet. The general population still regarded anybody with diabetes as an oddity; if you had the condition, you did not publicise it.

Jimmy Thorpe was diagnosed with the condition in 1934 at the age of 21, at a time when he had established himself as Sunderland’s first-choice keeper. His medical details were known by the club but the average Sunderland fan would have been unaware. In fact, evidence would seem to suggest that even his fellow teammates were without knowledge or understanding of his medical state.

Sunderland captain Raich Carter remembered how Thorpe had lost a significant amount of weight during the previous season, a fact he tried to hide by wearing a bulky goalkeeper’s jersey. Rapid weight loss is often one of the early indicators of diabetes but Thorpe, like many newly-confirmed diabetics of those times, would have been keen to hide his illness to his friends due to the prevailing social stigma.

He now had to learn how to control his diabetes without the understanding of his fellow players and with the extremely primitive medical tools of the time if he wanted to continue his playing career. Even worse, it would have appeared to Thorpe at the time that he was the only professional footballer who was also a diabetic. There weren’t any role models from whom he could learn.

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Thorpe was born in Jarrow on 13 September 1913. Although he left school to work in the nearby shipyards, he was spotted playing in goal in a local league game by a Sunderland scout and was signed by the club on his 17th birthday, in 1930. After only two appearances for the reserve side, he made his first-team debut and, by the 1932/33 season, had established himself as the first-choice custodian. He played a total of 139 games for Sunderland.

Life as a goalkeeper in the 1920s and 30s was a hazardous occupation due to the existing laws under which football was officiated at the time. Even if the ‘keeper was holding the ball in his hands, opposition attackers were quite within their rights to try to regain possession by kicking the ‘keeper until he released it.

In 1921, 24-year-old Joshua Wilkinson was playing in goal for Dumbarton against Rangers. As a result of a challenge he received early in the game, he suffered a ruptured intestine which he unwittingly made worse by his exertions during play. After the match, he complained of feeling unwell. Tragically, peritonitis had set in.

Despite undergoing emergency medical surgery in Glasgow, he died on the Monday following the game. An investigation by the Scottish Football Association absolved any of the Rangers players of blame. His father had a different view. He claimed that his son had met his death as a result of “some blow received during the match”, but found that the authorities were not prepared to listen.

On 5 September 1931, Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson was playing in a fiercely-contested Old Firm derby against rivals Rangers. Five minutes after the interval, Gers forward Sammy English was put clean through. Thomson was famed for his bravery; the previous season he had broken his jaw making a save against Airdrie. As English advanced towards goal, Thomson hurled himself at the forward’s feet, his head smashing into the protruding knee of the forward.

As Thomson lay motionless and unconscious, English was the first to realise the gravity of the situation and waved urgently for assistance. He was stretchered off the pitch and died at 9.25pm due to a depressed fracture of the skull. He was just 22.

Thomson had been a promising youth player who had apparently slipped through the net, due mainly to his mother who had dreamt that he would be severely injured playing in goal and refused to let him sign for any professional club. Two dead goalkeepers in 10 seasons really should have led to some form of active intervention by the footballing authorities to prevent this situation from ever happening again.

On 1 February 1936, league leaders Sunderland were due to play mid-table Chelsea for what appeared to be a routine fixture. There was no history of animosity between the two teams. The clash wasn’t seen as a grudge match, nor did the players have a particular propensity towards violence. It would, however, be remembered for rioting in the stands, extreme violence on the pitch, and be described as “a disgrace to first class football” by the coroner.

Jimmy Thorpe would have administered his routine shot of morning insulin. It would have been extremely painful as ever but was something he had probably become accustomed to this stage. He caught the local bus – as players did in this bygone era – to Roker Park and prepared himself for his 59th consecutive game for the club. It was to be the last ever game of football he played, and his medical condition was later to assume immense significance as well as becoming a source of controversy.

The match appeared to be going according to form. With only 20 minutes left, Sunderland were leading 3-1 and, according to the Sunderland Echo report, Thorpe had performed well producing numerous saves. Then, Thorpe was at the centre of the most controversial moment of the match. After claiming a ball in the penalty area, he dived to the ground to protect it from three onrushing Chelsea players.

Incredibly, they proceeded to repeatedly kick out at Thorpe’s head, neck and upper body for some time, which was allowed under the laws of the game, until a swathe of Sunderland defenders arrived and intervened. Notably, the referee, Mr H.S. Warr from Bolton, was more than happy to allow the assault to carry on and made no attempt to rescue the ‘keeper by blowing his whistle.

Many present at the stadium noted that Thorpe was clearly disorientated after the incident and even had to pause numerous times and lean against his goalpost in order to reorient himself. A local police constable on duty described the ‘keeper as having a “ghastly white” look on his face. However, the referee did not allow the Sunderland trainer, with the famous powers of the magic sponge, to assist him, and although the goalkeeper should have been taken off immediately, in the days of no substitutions he carried on playing.

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Thorpe was clearly struggling from his injuries. He made two uncharacteristic mistakes, letting a weak shot roll over the goal line and then losing out in a challenge with a Chelsea forward which allowed the opposition to claim an undeserved 3-3 draw. After the match, the Chelsea team departed to a chorus of cacophonous jeering from the home fans and the referee was escorted off the pitch by two members of the constabulary to ensure his safety.

The local press coverage gave little regard to the traumatic injuries that Thorpe had suffered during the game, laying the blame for the dropped point firmly at his feet. The Sunderland Echo made its feelings clear: “Atrocious goalkeeping cost Sunderland a point.” In a particularly unfortunate choice of words, the Newcastle Journal stated that Thorpe had made a “tragic mistake” in allowing Chelsea to score their equaliser. Sympathy for the goalkeeper’s plight was clearly in short supply.

Most of his teammates were completely unaware of how potentially serious his injuries had been. This was the era of not making a fuss. Carter, the Sunderland captain, later said: “I heard that during our match against Chelsea … Jimmy had been bumped about a bit. I remember most distinctly that when we left the ground Jimmy appeared to be all right and made no complaint of feeling ill.”

Instead of going to hospital to have his injuries investigated, Thorpe chose to return home to his wife and young son. His father, who had been present at the game, decided to call round to check on his son. They had a brief conversation during which Thorpe mentioned that he had been kicked three times in the side of his body and once in the head during the attack by the Chelsea forwards.

By this point it was obvious that he was seriously ill; his eye socket was swollen and he had a noticeable deep wound on his head. It was to be the last ever conversation between father and son. Thorpe collapsed at home that evening and spent all of Sunday and Monday unconscious and bedridden.

There are no records to indicate if he was still receiving his vital daily insulin injections at this stage. It is strange that no one from the medical staff at Sunderland thought to call in to check on Jimmy’s well-being. He was admitted to hospital but never regained consciousness. On 5 February came the news that every Sunderland fan was dreading – Jimmy Thorpe had died. His injuries had caused him to lapse into a diabetic coma and he died of heart failure.

The reporters who had been so quick to criticise his performance the previous Saturday rushed to express their regrets. The Sunderland Echo published the following apology: “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.”

It is debatable whether Jimmy’s teammates had understood the gravity of the situation. The Raich Carter’s quote seems to indicate that they had not quite grasped the severity of his condition. “It was a terrible shock to us when we reported as usual for training on the following Wednesday and learnt that he was dead.” If any of his teammates had been able to visit him, they would surely have been aware of the seriousness of the situation.

Thorpe left behind his young wife May and his three-year-old son Ronnie. On 10 February, Thorpe was buried at Jarrow Cemetery. The streets were lined with Sunderland supporters and the local community paying their respects to the young goalkeeper whose life had been tragically cut short. His fellow teammates, still deeply shocked, acted as pallbearers. Many wreaths were received from other clubs, notably Newcastle and Everton, but the one which may have drawn some comment was from Chelsea. The tragic circumstances of Jimmy’s death proved unbearable for his mother Emily. Totally bereft, she died within three months of his passing.

An initial preliminary inquest was held at Sunderland Central Police Station on 7 February. The pathologist concluded that this had been a violent encounter and that Thorpe had held the ball safely in his grasp until the kicks came from the Chelsea players. He came to the conclusion that this type of rough play would have precipitated a diabetic attack. This was to be a crucial decision.

On 13 February, after examining the pathologist’s report, the coroner, Mr J.C. Morton, ruled that the cause of death was due to diabetes “accelerated by the rough usage he received in the game”. Thorpe’s father did confirm that his son had the condition known as “sugar diabetes” and as a result had spent four weeks in hospital being treated, but his medical record stated that he had been “completely cured”.

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The coroner also insisted that the Football Association should urge its referees to take greater control of football matches. Inexplicably, no member of the Sunderland medical team who had supported Jimmy for two years were invited to submit their views or challenge the reasons given for the cause of death.

On 17 February 1936, the Football Association decided to set up its own commission in London to look into Thorpe’s untimely death. This governing body has gathered a well-deserved reputation for incompetence and ineptitude over the years, yet even now, over 80 years after the event, the decisions reached defy any logic.

The panel consisted of three Football Association counsellors over the age of 75. Both Sunderland and Chelsea were invited to make their comments. A key figure of this process should have been the match official, Mr H.S Warr. Incredibly, the commission decided not to seek his views on the sequence of events that unfolded so the referee was not questioned over his failure to control the game or prevent the assault on the goalkeeper.

The Sunderland club doctor, once again, was not called upon to give evidence so he was unable to highlight the fact that Thorpe had played in 59 consecutive games for the club and had never received any medical treatment from the club nor from outside medical professionals. His diabetes had never been an issue for them.

Clearly the cause of death must have been due to the vicious nature of the assault inflicted on him by the Chelsea attackers. Any final judgement surely had to take these matters into account. This apparently was not the case. After the deliberations had concluded, the FA exonerated both the referee and the Chelsea players from any blame and they were to face no further action. Instead, the initial coroner’s report had allowed them to direct their attention towards a convenient scapegoat – Sunderland.

Sunderland were charged and admonished for fielding a player “who was not in good health”. In other words, despite the fact that he had played 59 consecutive games for the club since his diagnosis, he should not have been allowed to play football. Sunderland as a club and as a community were shocked and outraged by this decision. The Sunderland Echo exclaimed on its front page: ‘Sunderland amazed by Football Legislator’s decision. Thorpe should not have played’.

The charge against Sunderland is still to this day in the annals of the FA and the club is still technically at fault for Jimmy Thorpe’s death, whilst neither the referee nor any Chelsea players were subject to any subsequent suspension or investigation.

Sunderland were quick to move on from the tragedy but Thorpe’s young wife May faced an uncertain future as the club made no provision to support her financially. She was allegedly told that as she was still young she could go and find herself a job. Their son, Ronnie, benefitted from an allowance which the club paid until he was 16 but, when interviewed in 2006, he was still resentful of how the authorities had dealt with his father, especially as they appeared to blame his diabetic condition for his death: “The diabetes didn’t help him, I imagine, but neither did getting kicked in the head.”

Sunderland went on to win the title in 1936. Jimmy Thorpe was awarded a league winner’s medal posthumously at a celebration dinner for the team on 7 May, which was presented to his wife and son. Ronnie still has a picture of himself, aged three, holding the medal. But Thorpe seemed to vanish from the collective consciousness of Sunderland in the years after the Second World War and his grave lay unmarked without a headstone in Jarrow for decades.

Eventually, 75 years after his death, local football historian John Kelter led a successful campaign supported by Thorpe’s remaining family members for his achievements to be given true recognition. A new headstone was erected on his grave and he was admitted to Sunderland’s footballing hall of fame. In February 2011, Sunderland honoured the memory of their last title-winning goalkeeper on the 75th anniversary of his death. Both custodians, Craig Gordon and Peter Čech, wore black armbands as a mark of respect.

Back in 1936, the Football Association were forced to take action to prevent a similar situation occurring again. They recommended that in future no forward should be allowed to raise his foot towards a goalkeeper in possession of the ball. On Friday 24 April the following revision to the rules of the game was approved: ‘Although a player is entitled to charge the goalkeeper when the latter is in possession of the ball (i.e. holding the ball) it is not permissible to kick or attempt to kick the ball or man under any such circumstances. The use of the foot amounts to violent conduct and should be dealt with by the referee accordingly.’

They may not realise it but every modern goalkeeper owes a debt of gratitude to Jimmy Thorpe, for the tragic events of 1936 meant that they would never have to deal with strikers being allowed to legally kick the ball out of their grasp. Moreover, for the young, diabetic, working-class kid growing up in the terraces of any city in the 1930s, Jimmy Thorpe was to prove that being diagnosed with diabetes would not prevent them from playing football at the highest level 

By Paul Mc Parlan  

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