ON A bright morning in June 1957, two young trainspotters saw a small man wearing a flat-cap standing on a footbridge over the main London-Edinburgh railtrack at Gateshead, near Newcastle. For half an hour they watched him as he paced backwards and forwards. He seemed agitated and confused, openly weeping, talking to himself and occasionally pounding the bridge-rail with his fists.
At exactly 12.08 he looked up suddenly as he heard the whistle and roar of a northbound express train. Moving quickly now, his mind apparently made up, he stepped down from the bridge, jumped over a low fence and began to clamber up the embankment. He paused briefly near the young trainspotters, smiled almost in embarrassment, and said only one word - "sorry" - before walking without hesitation on to the line and into the path of the oncoming train. His decapitated body was found 100 yards down the line, at a spot known locally as Dead Man's Crossing.
Neither of the two boys who witnessed this brutal moment of self-destruction had ever met the stranger. But in those brief seconds of their passing on the embankment they recognised his face instantly. It was a face - a broad, chiselled and unforgettably strong face that looked almost too big for his tiny 5ft 5in frame - known to every football-crazy schoolkid in Newcastle, and to millions of others throughout Britain.
Hughie Gallacher was 54 when he died. He had not kicked a ball in competition for nearly two decades, and he was not even a native of Tyneside. He had been born and raised in Scotland and was fiercely proud of his roots. Yet his death - and the mystery and horror surrounding it - practically paralysed an entire region of northern England. Crowds packed into the city for his funeral, young and old, men and women, many weeping as if they were saying farewell to a friend. Even those too young to have seen him play knew all about the fame and glory of Hughie Gallacher. Their dads had told them all about the man they called the King of Tyneside, the deadliest centre forward of them all, hero of the Scottish teams ("the Wembley Wizards") who trounced England in the Twenties - and one of the most prolific goalscorers of the century.
And all of them, on that day, were asking the same question: how had this gutsy, cheerful little man - who enjoyed dressing like a dandy, who loved his status as a living legend and who enjoyed being feted in pubs and clubs - come to end his life in such a savage way?
Even I, a schoolboy in short trousers in 1957, knew more about Hughie Gallacher than I knew about Jesus. He had been born in the Lanarkshire mining town of Bellshill, just a mile up the road from me. And my grandfather, intensely proud of him as all Scotland was, had indoctrinated me with tales of his exploits practically from the moment of my birth. There was even a big photograph of Gallacher in pride of place in our council house. It must have been taken around 1927. He wore the famous dark blue jersey of Scotland, and the picture showed his wolfish grin in the instant when he had battered yet another goal past a pole-axed English 'keeper.
Over the years, I had been taken, almost in pilgrimage, to the street where Gallacher was born. I had stood, freezing, on the terraces at Airdrie football club, scene of wee Hughie's early playing days. And I had been indoctrinated by the facts and figures of goals and more goals, hundreds of them, for Airdrie, Scotland, Newcastle, Chelsea, Derby and the other clubs he had led to fame and victory in the inter-war years. All of these events had happened long before I was born, but it didn't matter. To me, and to every Scottish schoolboy saturated in football folklore, Hughie Gallacher was, quite simply, the greatest of them all.
But, for some unfathomable reason, nobody ever told me about his death and the events surrounding it. In fact, I only learnt the truth a few weeks ago, when reading an article about the forthcoming Scotland-England sudden death play-offs for entry into the European Championships - a rare revival of what was once the most famous of footballing fixtures. The writer, an exiled Scot like me, recalled some of the great England-Scotland games of the past, including the Wembley Wizards' fabulous 5-1 victory in 1928. Almost as a casual endpiece he mentioned that the greatest player in that team, Hughie Gallacher, had later committed suicide after being "accused of child abuse".
This callous, almost casually thrown indictment hit me like a hammer blow. Child abuse? Suicide? The great Hughie Gallacher? Could this really be true? For days I could not get these terrible words out of my mind. I could not accept that this man, whom I had revered throughout my childhood, could have done such things. Yet phone calls to every football journalist in Scotland that I could think of left me none the wiser. A few recalled that he had indeed died tragically, but nobody could remember the exact details. A few days later, full of foreboding, I took a train to Newcastle.
The stretch of track on which Gallacher died is still there, at Down Bell Vue Bank on the Gateshead side of the Tyne before it sweeps across the river and into Newcastle Central Station. So is the little bridge where he took his decision to die. And from the high ground of Gateshead, the small town on the north bank of the Tyne, you can look across the great river and its tangle of bridges and see a sight that symbolises the power and majesty created by an old and simple game: the great modern cathedral of St James's Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. The great slab-like colossus of concrete and steel dominating the city bears little resemblance to the St James's Park that Gallacher knew. But even in Gallacher's day the ground was, as it is now, both the cultural heart of Newcastle and its theatre of dreams.
Gallacher came here in 1925, already a cocky and often sharp-tongued little 20-year-old eager to take on the best that English football could throw at him. He had been down the pit at the age of 15, working 10-hour shifts, and he was as handy with his fists as he was with his feet. For three years, from the age of 17, he had been the best-known player north of the border, the leading goal scorer in the land and already a full Scottish international. It was inevitable that one of the big English clubs would sign him, and it was Newcastle who finally outbid everybody else by paying the then huge sum of pounds 6,500 to Airdrie.
He was that rare combination - a natural athlete and a player of tremendous speed and guile and instinct, with the added dimension of a kind of physical ruthlessness that often made him dangerous to the health of his opponents. Even as a teenager, his goal-scoring record was incredible. At his first club, the non-league Queen of the South, he had banged in 19 goals in nine games. And in the Scottish First Division, with Airdrie, he scored 100 goals, often in multiples of three, four and five a game.
There was never anything shy or modest about Gallacher. From the moment he walked into the Newcastle dressing room, he was a dominant figure. Men 10 years his senior and a foot taller than him were made fully aware that they were privileged to be playing in the same team. There was nothing of the sporting gentleman about him, either. On the field he was known for his full-blooded tackling, and he had developed every sneaky trick in the book, regularly fooling goalkeepers by imitating the voice of one of their team-mates and scoring when they let the ball go through. One of his other favourite tricks was to stand "accidentally" on the foot of the 'keeper at corner kicks, thus effectively screwing him to the ground. Yet strangely, these goalkeepers always talked fondly of him. "He was the greatest centre forward I ever saw," said the legendary Frank Swift. "But he had more tricks than a bucketful of monkeys."
Goals were everything to Gallacher. If he failed to score in any game he was inconsolable, even when his team won. It would take pages of statistics to show the full scale of his achievements. But even in the modern era - where far more games, both league and international, are played - there are few players, if any, who could match his record as a goal scorer. In a career spanning more than 20 years he played in a total of 624 league, cup and international matches, scoring a total of 463 goals. In an age when there was only a handful of Home International matches each year, Gallacher played 30 times for his country at junior and senior level, and scored 46 goals. In full and league internationals he played 20 times and scored 24 times. This goals-per-game ratio has never been equalled, and he is the only player who ever scored five goals in one match for Scotland.
After one season with Newcastle he was made captain, and led the team to their first and only league championship in the 1926-27 season. He could do no wrong in that golden year, rattling in 39 goals in 41 games, a club record that still stands. And off the field he enjoyed his fame on a nightly basis, drinking and carousing in the city's numerous pubs and clubs.
He often drank heavily and throughout his life smoked up to 40 Woodbine cigarettes a day - but he was never a problem drinker. Every morning he was first on the pitch for training, and right up to the end of his playing career, at 36, he could cover 50 yards faster than most athletes.
He was brave, too. From the very first match he played in England he was a marked man, hacked and elbowed and gouged by defenders acting on instructions to stop him scoring at all costs. One team-mate described how Hughie would sit in the dressing room, sucking on his half-time Woodbine, with pieces of flesh hanging from his legs and his socks and boots soaked in blood. He sometimes wept with pain, but he couldn't wait for the second half to start. He wanted both goals and revenge.
His personal life was just as hectic. He was barely 17 when he met and married Annie McIlvaney, a girl who worked at the Hattonrig Pit where he worked as a miner. The marriage foundered after only a couple of years. He rarely saw Annie over the next 20 years, but her refusal to grant him a divorce cost him huge sums in legal fees and finally drove him to bankruptcy in 1934. Their bitter marital battles were one reason why Gallacher never returned to Scotland.
But, in any case, England was providing everything he wanted, in the way of money, fame and girls. Newcastle in the Twenties became a playground for the young superstar. He loved expensive, double-breasted suits and matching waistcoats, and began to wear what became his trademark accessories - white spats and a snazzy bowler hat. Photographs of Gallacher and his cronies out on the town circa 1925 were more reminiscent of Al Capone and his hoodlums than of young athletes in hard training.
He loved the pubs and clubs of the city. And he spent his money as fast as he earned it. In his entire career he was never paid more than pounds 10 a week, including pounds 1 bonuses for wins, even though crowds of 70,000 and 80,000 were turning out to see him every Saturday. Indeed, in 20 years at the top, Gallacher never earned more than pounds 500 a year, making a total of just pounds 10,000 - about a fifth of what some present day strikers earn in a week.
But to Gallacher, with his poverty-stricken background, this was fine loot. Like other stars, he was not averse to taking back-handers from local businessmen who enjoyed being seen in his company. And he made tidy sums in illegal payments through his various transfer deals. Most of this money went across the bar, or on the horses, or on the latest in imported Italian suits. He had no need to buy a house. In those days modest accommodation was provided by the clubs as part of the transfer deal.
Within a few months of coming to Newcastle he met and fell in love with Hannah Anderson, the 17-year-old daughter of the landlord of one of his favourite pubs. That caused gossip in the town, and he was threatened several times by her relatives. But Hannah was the only girl for Hughie, although it wasn't until 1934, when he finally divorced, that he was able to marry her. She was beautiful and serene, the only person he ever seemed to be afraid of, and she was to become the core of Gallacher's life, giving him three sons and a home life that seemed to calm him both on and off the field. Over the years she followed him in his football wanderings as he was transferred to Chelsea in 1930, to Derby County in 1934, to Notts County in 1936, to Grimsby in 1937.
Some experts believe that with his settled home life and a more mature attitude he became an even better player. At the age of 32 he was still playing for Scotland. But he missed living on Tyneside, and finally, in 1938, Gateshead FC, a modest team languishing in the bottom division, paid pounds 500 for him. "It's grand to be back on Tyneside," said an emotional Hughie, when he climbed off the train. "My heart has been here ever since I left United eight years ago. I intend to spend the rest of my life with my adopted folk in Gateshead."
That is how it should have been. If ever any sportsman had earned his honours and his retirement, it was Hughie Gallacher. Right to the end he gave full value. Crowds at the Gateshead ground soared to 20,000 a week; in his final season, 1939-40, he scored 18 goals in just 31 games.
When he finally hung up his tiny, size-six boots, Gallacher - those who knew him insist - was a happy and contented man. He had a home and a family he adored. He was regarded as an honorary Geordie and he could not walk the streets or go into a pub without being greeted like a hero. So why then did he chose to take his life in 1957?
There are no available court records in existence concerning the events inside the Gallacher home in the spring and early summer of 1957. Even the press reports of the time are flimsy and short on detail, although they are rich on speculation and innuendo. All that is known is that in May of that year officers of the local branch of the NSPCC made a complaint to the local authority that the youngest of Gallacher's three sons, Matthew, aged 14, had been injured following an incident at the house. Shortly afterwards Matti, as he was known, was taken into care and his father charged with assault.
I spent several days in Gateshead, scouring the records and checking the newspaper offices and trying to find members of the Gallacher family. I found, after 42 years, only a handful of people who remembered Hughie - and no trace of any of the family members.
In a Gateshead pub I met an elderly man who had lived a few streets away. He said that he assumed, as the press had at the time, that drink and mental decline had brought tragedy into a family home. "He ill-treated his bairn," said the man. "That's what the papers said, and that's all folk knew about it. Very sad, but there it is."
And that is what the papers seemed to suggest. But there is another account of the affair, and I heard it from a man who knows more about the Gallacher story than anybody else, and who heard first-hand of the events leading up to his death. And if what he says is true then history and fate dealt a very unfair and savage final blow to Hughie Gallacher.
Paul Joannou, a Newcastle-born author and sports historian who now lives in Edinburgh, spent years researching Gallacher's life and became a friend of Hughie Gallacher Jr, the oldest of his three sons. Hughie Junior has now left the Gateshead area, and his whereabouts are unknown, but the story he told Joannou was vastly different from that hinted at in the press reports.
"Stories of abuse and neglect inside that family were a complete nonsense," said Joannou. "If anything it was the opposite. Hughie adored his kids and he never laid a hand on any of them. The real reason for the tragedy was the death of his wife some years earlier. She had a heart complaint and she died suddenly. And it seemed that the whole of Hughie's life was shattered. Over the following years he became a very depressed and lonely man, but according to his sons he did the very best he could in looking after them.
"He hadn't saved any money from his footballing days, but he was willing to go out and earn a living to keep his family together. He did a variety of jobs, often menial types of things, just to keep the family together. And by all accounts it was a comfortable and happy home. What happened was so sudden and stupid and trivial that it should have stayed a domestic affair, but somehow the details got out and the authorities acted out of all proportion. Then the newspapers blew it all up, implying there had been drunkenness and persistent abuse in the house.
"People who knew him were convinced that it was all nonsense. They knew that he would never harm his lads. But the shame contained in the very accusation of child abuse and neglect was too much for him. For a man as depressed as he was, and who was so proud of his achievements, the hints and the innuendoes were more than he could bear. It just destroyed him." Hughie Junior's account of the incident in the house, told to him by the alleged victim, Matti, is that Matti had been misbehaving and had been told off by his father several times. When he persisted his father lifted an ashtray, a small plastic dish and threw it across the room in exasperation. It struck the boy on the temple and he ran from the house. There was no injury, not even a cut. Later Gallacher apologised, said his son, but by then Matti had probably told some friends of the incident and an unknown neighbour may have telephoned the NSPCC.
It wasn't until the next day, when police and social workers called to take the boy away, that Gallacher realised he was about to be charged with an offence that could mean losing custody of his children. For several weeks, according to his friends, the shattered man spent hours wandering the streets. Many people spoke to him during this time. Even players and officials from Newcastle came to see him, offering their support and assuring him that nobody would believe he had done such a thing intentionally. Many offered to give evidence on his behalf.
But for a man like Gallacher, bred in a Scottish culture where cruelty to a child is worse than murder, the looming court appearance and the fact that he could not see his son was driving him closer and closer to the edge. Days before his trial, scheduled for 12 June at the local magistrates court, he met a local journalist pal who reported that he looked like a man walking in a dream, glassy-eyed and traumatised.
"It's no good fighting this thing now," said Hughie. "They've got me on this one. My life is finished. It's no use fighting when you know you can't win." And on the morning of 11 June he scrawled a short note, addressed to the office of the Gateshead Coroner, in which he expressed his regrets at the trouble he had caused, adding that if he had lived to be 100 he would never be able to forgive himself for having hurt Matthew. After posting the letter he began to wander aimlessly through the streets. He was seen by several people, but he ignored their greetings and kept walking.
Finally, he headed up the hill towards the railway track and up on to the little bridge. From there it would have been possible to look across the river and see the huge ramparts of the old St James's Park stadium, the place where had given and received so much all those years ago.
But it was a weekday, and the stadium would have been silent. And anyway, for Hughie Gallacher the sounds of glory were long gone, and all he could hear was the sound of an oncoming train.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies