Harry Thomson: Flamboyant goalkeeper known in Burnley as ‘God in a Green Jersey’

After his Naples supershow he was spat on by an opponent and threatened by furious fans

The flamboyant, occasionally tempestuous Scottish goalkeeper Harry Thomson was a man to inspire a colourful nickname. Most indelibly inscribed in the annals of his principal club, Burnley, was “God in a Green Jersey”, in reference to his spectacular heroics in a stormy goalless draw with Napoli in 1967. Then later, at Blackpool, he was “Sir Harry”, and whenever chants of his affectionate title thundered around Bloomfield Road – and they did so frequently as he shone in the Seasiders’ rise to the top flight in 1969-70 – he played up to the crowd by going down on one knee to receive his “knighthood”.

Though decidedly on the short side for a goalkeeper at 5ft 9in, Thomson was exceptionally agile, unfailingly brave and dripping with confidence, an appealing cocktail which endeared him to the fans even if his fiery nature caused periodic ructions with authority figures such as Burnley’s famously autocratic chairman, Bob Lord. As for his team-mates, they warmed to an extrovert, quick-witted, enthusiastically convivial individual whose ceaseless patter was ideal for lightening the dressing-room atmosphere.

Recruited as a teenager by the Clarets from the Scottish junior club Bo’ness United in 1959, for whom he had played while making his living as a pit worker, Thomson spent the next six years in the formidable shadow cast by his ultra-consistent countryman Adam Blacklaw during the most auspicious era of Burnley’s modern history. However, it was time well spent, as he helped the Clarets to lift two reserve league titles and honed his game so that he was ready for his senior debut when it came at Leicester in March 1965.

That day at Filbert Street he saved a penalty – a knack at which he became gratifyingly expert – in a 2-0 victory and retained his place until season’s end, but then suffered a broken hand, which offered Blacklaw a reprieve.

Thomson bounced back to reclaim a regular berth midway through 1966-67 and it was during that February that he cemented his niche in Turf Moor folklore for his Naples supershow. Having performed efficiently in the 3-0 home win in the European Fairs Cup tie, he reached rarified new heights in front of some 60,000 partisan Neapolitans, making at least a dozen outstanding saves – including one from a spot-kick by the Brazilian star Jose Altafini – as Burnley clung on to a 0-0 draw.

The upshot was the “God in a Green Jersey” tag, bestowed by an imaginative newspaperman, who added that the goalkeeper’s display had been “fantastico”. It was not a view shared by the crowd on the other side of the moat which surrounded the pitch in Naples, who hurled missiles at the final whistle, while the Burnley hero was spat upon by an opponent and threatened by a group of incandescent Italians. 

He was rescued by his club rival, the big-hearted and muscular Blacklaw, who hurled one attacker down a flight of steps and was confronted by armed police as he hustled his fellow Scot to the safety of the dressing room.

Thereafter Blacklaw departed and Thomson retained his place, helping the Clarets remain safe in the middle of the top tier for the next two and a half seasons. He was at his peak and seemingly entrenched at Turf Moor, but then his incendiary nature got the better of him and he was dismissed over a disciplinary breach in the spring of 1969.

Second Division Blackpool paid £5,000 for his services and in his first season at Bloomfield Road he missed only a handful of games, captivating the fans with both his splendid form and his outgoing antics as Les Shannon’s Seasiders earned promotion to the top division as runners-up to Hudderfield Town.

Sadly for Thomson, it proved too good to last. The team struggled woefully at the higher level, and his own form was erratic. Shannon departed in mid-campaign to be replaced by Bobby Stokoe, and the temperamental keeper experienced more problems with officialdom, which contributed to his sacking by relegated Blackpool in the spring of 1971.

All that remained of his professional career was the 1971-72 season with Barrow, who finished third from bottom of the Fourth Division and failed in their application for re-election to the Football League.

In the final analysis Thomson, who never won a full cap but played four times for a Scotland Xl on tour in the summer of 1967, could be classified as a talented but only partially fulfilled entertainer who might have achieved even more but for his up-and-down relationship with authority.

Henry Watson Thomson, footballer: born Edinburgh 25 August 1940; played for Burnley 1959-69, Blackpool 1969-71, Barrow 1971-72; married (one son, one daughter); died 14 March 2013.

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