The north-east of England has always been considered a hotbed of football, with one city in particular boasting a lasting love affair with a great many strikers. Fans of Newcastle United were treated to two of the greatest goalscorers the area has ever produced during the 20th century, in Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer.
Before them, the goals came from a man who came to call the north-east home having moved there from Scotland, a talented but troubled man whose tragic tale was lost through the mists of time, yet his achievements remain equal to anyone who has donned the famous black and white stripes since.
Hughie Gallacher was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire during the winter of 1903. His Irish father had moved to Scotland in search of work in the vast coal mining areas the country had to offer. He soon settled and married a local woman, raising a family with a strict Protestant upbringing. This didn’t stop the diminutive Gallacher son from having Catholic friends, however, striking up a friendship with future Arsenal midfielder Alex James.
By 15, Gallacher had taken the well-trodden path of school to mine, working 10-hour shifts at the Hattonrigg pit. He was all the while enraptured with football, however, specifically Celtic, and by the age of 16 had signed for junior side Tannochside Athletic. Sensing a chance to escape the toil and danger of working in the mines, Gallacher’s proficiency for finding the net hadn’t gone unnoticed. Whilst representing the Scottish Junior FA side he was approached by Queen of the South, who offered him a £30 signing on fee with a £5 weekly wage.
Gallacher made his debut for the Doonhamers in 1921, making an immediate impression with four goals on his debut. His stay at Queens was short-lived, however, despite scoring 19 goals in nine games. Gallacher contracted pneumonia whilst on holiday and during his recovery in hospital was approached by Airdrieonians. This move took him back to Lanarkshire and an opportunity to play in the Scottish leagues.
The five foot five inch striker didn’t let his lack of height prevent him from taking the league by storm, helping the Diamonds to their first piece of silverware when they lifted the Scottish Cup in 1924, a season after finishing runners-up in the league. In all, Gallacher spent four years at the club, scoring 100 goals during his time there. Fans were up in arms when Newcastle, desperate to add more firepower to their side, offered Airdrie £6,500 for Gallacher. The money proved too good to turn down and in December 1925 he arrived at St. James’ Park.
Off the field, Gallacher had, in controversial circumstances for the time, met and married a Catholic. For many, married life is the beginning of a new chapter and for Gallacher, it was no different; sadly not for positive reasons. The young couple had a child who tragically died before its first birthday, sending the marriage into a tailspin. Gallacher was already a regular drinker and sought solace at the bottom of a glass in the local fleshpots; the grief of losing a child compounded by his increasing alcohol dependency which saw the couple split a little over a year later.
Now firing in the goals in England, Gallacher’s reputation began to proceed him. Despite his small stature, he didn’t suffer fools gladly and was frequently caught up in skirmishes on the pitch. Once such game saw Gallacher remonstrate furiously with the referee, yet by the game’s end, he’d calmed down enough to clear the air with the official. As Gallacher arrived to speak with him, though, the official was filling his post-match bath and, unable to resist, Gallacher ran in and kicked him up the backside, punting him fully-clothed into the water.
Despite separating, Gallacher and his estranged wife had not divorced. He now found himself continuously dragged through the courts, costing him most of the money he had made from the game. Controversy continued to hound him. Whilst on tour with Newcastle, Gallacher and several teammates were accused of being drunk during one of the games, allegations refuted by forward, who claimed he had merely used some whiskey to wash out his mouth. The tour culminated in a Hungarian XI disposing of the Magpies 4-1, with Gallacher on the verge of deportation after causing a brawl during the match.
In the fans’ eyes, however, he could do no wrong. Now captain, his hat-tricks against Everton, Tottenham and a brace in the final home game of the season secured Newcastle the 1926/27 title, a feat they are still trying to repeat. Internationally, Gallacher was part of the Wembley Wizards side that trounced England 5-1 in the British Home Championship. Eleven trainloads of fans travelled down to the home of English football in more hope than expectation. Gallacher’s old school friend James supplied two of the goals in a rain-dampened match that saw all five of Scotland’s attacking force stand no more than five foot seven inches tall.
A former teammate took the helm at St. James’ Park and, having clashed during their playing days, Gallacher found his days in the north-east numbered. The bright lights of London called and a move to Chelsea was completed, where Gallacher immediately struck up a friendship with two other displaced Scots. They could often be found out on the town, passers-by remarking on their gangster-style attire, with Gallacher continuing his tradition of drinking in the same pubs as the fans.
His time at Stamford Bridge saw him star in a resounding 6-2 win over Manchester United on his debut, before becoming embroiled in a fight with Fulham fans the night before a game. Gallacher’s drinking had increased, often found drunk on the eve of matches. He returned to St. James’ Park with his new club, with a record attendance of almost 69,000 crammed inside and another 10,000 locked outside. The Toon faithful were eager for another glimpse of their hero.
By now the court cases had taken their toll, emotionally and financially. The divorce was finally granted but at a huge cost for Gallacher, who found himself declared bankrupt at its conclusion. Desperate for money the 32-year-old once again moved clubs, this time to Derby, with his signing on fee being paid directly to the bankruptcy court. He played out the final five years of his career at various clubs, ending up at Gateshead, which brought about a move to his beloved second home back in the north-east.
After retiring from the game Gallacher stayed in Gateshead, married again and had three children. He had settled neatly into the next stage of his life until tragedy struck again when his wife Hannah died suddenly of heart failure. Grief-stricken, and with three children to raise alone, Gallacher once more found solace in the bottom of a bottle. As the drinking increased, his frustrations bubbled near the surface until one day he snapped. In 1957, after one of several arguments with son Mattie, Gallacher launched an ashtray at his teenage son, striking him in the face. Mattie fled the family home, leaving his father distraught at what he had just done.
Charges of assault were levelled at Gallacher and a court appearance was arranged. He was unable to shake off the shame his moment of anger brought and the look on his son’s face when the object struck. Gallacher never made it to court. The day before his appearance he walked into town, down an embankment and in front of an oncoming train. It killed him instantly.
Gallacher’s legacy reads 463 goals in 624 games, largely contributing to some of the only major silverware his teams have ever won. His diminutive frame wreaked havoc amongst cumbersome defenders of the time, a style not seen again until a certain Argentine burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, and for that he shall never be forgotten, despite the tragedies that had stirred Gallacher’s demons until they finally consumed him that bright June morning, aged 54.
By Matt Evans @Matt_The_Met