words: Paul Severn
Paul Severn tells the story of the man between the sticks when Forest lifted the FA Cup in 1959 – a gentle giant called Chic Thomson.
Heroes were easy to find in Nottingham in the late 1970s. Brian Clough’s team was conquering English and European football, but one place you didn’t expect to find a Forest hero was Oban House in Beeston – home of Broxtowe Social Services Department.
The football fans in the office (my father included) were excited to hear the identity of the new Social Work Assistant about to join the team. There were a large number of applicants for the role, but Chic Thomson certainly had a unique CV. He remains – to this day – the last Forest goalkeeper to win the FA Cup.
My father became good friends with Chic in the following years. In 2002, I needed an interview subject for my university coursework. As a family friend, Chic was a natural choice, and I knew just where to find him. As a keen cricket fan, he spent many summer days in his retirement in the upper tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand at Trent Bridge. I found him in his usual spot, and we arranged the interview.
When the day came, I was surprised when he didn’t pick up the phone when I called. There was a knock at the door – Chic had driven from Sandiacre to Cotgrave to be interviewed in person! He sat in our living room and took me into a bygone footballing world.
“Goalkeeping was so different,” said Chic. “I was barged and chased around the penalty area. Now no one can touch them. They play with beachballs and have gloves like a wicketkeeper!”Older fans will be pleased to hear he had little sympathy for Andy Dibble when Gary Crosby cheekily headed the ball out of his hand in 1990.
Chic was born in Perth, Scotland in 1930, and started his career at Clyde. In 1947, he got his big break. Chic recalled: “I was playing for the apprentices when a policeman arrived and stopped the match. He called me over and told me to get to Glasgow because I was needed to play against Rangers.”
Chic’s career went from strength to strength. In the early 1950s he enjoyed his happiest days in football at Chelsea. His five-year spell saw him secure his place as a Chelsea legend, playing the last 16 games in the 1954-55 League Championship winning side. But stiff competition for the goalkeeper’s jersey meant he joined newly-promoted Forest in 1957.
His first season saw Chic take part in two monumental games against Matt Busby’s Manchester United. On 12 October 1957, Duncan Edwards starred for the Busby Babes as they won 2-1 in an unforgettable match at the City Ground, before a then-record attendance of 47,804. Tragically, Edwards and many other United players died in the Munich air crash just a few months later in February 1958. In the first league match after the crash, Chic stepped out in front of 66,346 supporters at an intensely emotional Old Trafford.
Chic reminisced about his Forest career: “The manager Billy Walker kept only five or six players, but the new signings like myself fitted in quickly. We weren’t stars, just good professionals — even journeymen. Before we knew it we were sitting near the top of Division One.”
The 1959 FA Cup run started with a tricky tie away to non-league Tooting and Mitcham. The highlights can still be found on the British Pathé YouTube channel. The pitch is generously described as “a skating rink” by the reporter.
Chic remembered: “Their pitch was a great leveller, it was terrible — icy and full of ruts. They played so hard and led 2-0 at half-time. We got one back when the ball hit a divot and bounced over their keeper’s hands. We then equalised with a lucky penalty.”
An incredible 42,320 packed into the City Ground to see Forest win the replay 3-0. After beating Grimsby at home in the Fourth Round, Forest then faced another titanic struggle against Birmingham City. Centre forward Tommy Wilson saved Forest in the last minute at St Andrews with a crucial equaliser, and in the replay in Nottingham, Roy Dwight (cousin of Elton John) equalised in extra time to take the tie to a second replay.
My father, a 13 year-old schoolboy at the time, skipped school to attend the afternoon midweek kick-off at Filbert Street – a neutral venue. He recalls the match as one of the finest ever Forest performances, with quick passing and clinical finishing sending Birmingham crashing out 5-0.
But the path to the final was anything but easy. There is a fantastic photograph of Chic flicking the ball away from the head of the mighty Nat Lofthouse in the 2-1 quarter final win against Bolton Wanderers. After the semi-final against Aston Villa, the back-page headline of the Sunday Pictorial of 15 March, 1959 read: ‘Villa are out! — By a nose.’ The picture shows Chic saving a Jackie Sewell shot with his nose. Johnny Quigley’s goal sent Forest to Wembley to face Luton Town.
Confident Forest started the Final on fire. Flying Scottish winger Stuart Imlach played a perfect pass to Dwight to sweep home after nine minutes. Five minutes later, Wilson headed in a cross from Billy Gray. But disaster struck when Dwight broke his leg just after the half hour. And this was the era before substitutes.
“It looked like we’d get five or six, but then Roy Dwight broke his leg,” said Chic. “Roy was in hospital and refused to have an X-ray until he’d watched the second-half. He said the other patients gave him some funny looks as they’d seen him score on the television an hour ago!”
David Pacey of Luton pulled a goal back in the second half. Ten-man Forest were tiring. “I’ve never heard a referee asked so many times how long was left. Then the whistle blew and everyone sank to their knees. We had done it. Roy said it was the worst 45 minutes of his life, and he cried at the end.”
Chic was too modest to talk about the brave saves he made in the second half. Watching the final minutes, you are almost screaming at him to waste time over a goal kick – but this was a different era. Chic’s calmness and experience helped Forest become the first team to win the FA Cup with ten men.
On 4 May, my father was one of tens of thousands of fans to welcome Chic and the rest of the Forest team back to Nottingham. Chic recalled: “I looked into the sea of faces and saw my own dad waving frantically at me. I had to laugh; he should have been at work in Scotland!”
The Cup win proved to be the peak for most of that Forest team. In 1960 Peter Grummitt replaced Chic in the Forest goal. In Andrew S. Dolloway’s book, Nottingham Forest in the Sixties, Grummitt said: “He didn’t look at me as a rival, he really didn’t. He was very kind with advice and I especially remember on my debut game, he sent a lovely telegram to the dressing room wishing me all the best. He really was a gentleman.”
Chic said: “It was very different then. We earned four times the salary of the average man. But we still needed to find a job – especially as I had two young children. Only Billy Gray and Stuart Imlach stayed in football. Many of the other players borrowed money to run shops, post offices and garages.”
In an incredible twist of fate, Chic and my father’s paths did cross again, this time as social work colleagues rather than player and fan. Chic left a management job in the gas industry to provide support for the disabled and elderly, and ran sessions for young people at risk of offending. His kindness and dedication helped to improve the lives of so many people in Nottinghamshire – paying back the community who supported his achievements as a footballer. My father remembers him as a popular and well-loved colleague, with a genuine desire to help others inspired by his Christian faith.
On 6 January 2009, Chic died suddenly, aged 78. My father attended the funeral, along with Cup-winners Billy Gray and Jeff Whitefoot. Another former teammate, Henry Newton, told the Nottingham Post: “He was a big, friendly guy. We were all a bit in awe of him.”
My brother and I went to The Valley to watch Forest against Charlton Athletic shortly after Chic’s death. During a tribute to all those in the Charlton footballing family who had died in the past year, Chic was also remembered. The respectful applause of the Forest fans was fitting and very moving.
A true hero, however, is not just made on the football pitch. Heroism resides in a person’s character and humanity. Chic was not just a footballer, but also a social worker, husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend. He is missed greatly, but leaves a unique and authentic legacy. At the funeral, Chic’s daughter-in-law Annee read from a poem by Brian Patten:
“How long does a man live after all?… A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us, for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams… for as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.”
This was originally published in Issue 3. You can purchase a copy of Issue 3 here in either hard copy or digital form.
Issue 12 is imminent. You really don't want to miss this one.