Hughie Gallacher was one of the finest centre forwards ever to grace the dark blue jersey of Scotland. At club level he was a hero at both Newcastle United and Derby County.
However, despite his status as a hero and his goalscoring exploits, he is not as well-known as he should be. He deserves to be up there alongside the likes of Maradona, Pele and George Best, but the memory of his footballing genius is tainted by tragedy.
Hughie Gallacher was, in today’s terms, a football ‘Bad Boy’. He had a fiery temper and no respect for authority. Drinking, gambling, womanising and ‘hangers-on’ gave Gallacher trouble both on and off the park. As with today, the media covered such goings-on and ultimately helped to push the man over the edge. On 11 June 1957, Hughie Gallacher or ‘Magic Feet’ as he was called, took his own life, aged 54.
Gallacher was born on 2 February 1903, in the town of Bellshill near Glasgow. And this was where the trouble began for the man. As with many industrial and working class towns, it had a pub on every corner. By the time Gallacher was 16, he was down the pits and playing amateur football, but he was also turning to the drink.
A year later, at the tender age of 17, Gallacher married Annie McIlvaney. And before his 18 birthday he had suffered greatly, with the death of his infant son and becoming separated from his wife. They got back together again sometime later, and in that period they had another son. But their relationship could not last, and they split permanently in 1923, when Gallacher was still only 20. Certainly, not a great start to his adult life and these were by means the final troubles of his life.
Hughie signed firstly for Queen of the South, then Airdrie, followed by Newcastle United in 1925. He became a hero for the Geordie side, captaining Newcastle to the League Championship in 1926-67.
Gallacher left the North East for the bright lights of the capital, where he made a shock move to Chelsea in 1930. There he took London and its attractions – mainly the pubs and clubs – by storm. On the pitch he scored 72 goals in 132 games.
By the time the Scot arrived at Derby County in 1934, he was one of the country’s most celebrated footballers. He only stayed with Derby for one season, but managed an astonishing 38 goals in just 51 games.
The Derby manager at the time, George Jobey, was a tough Geordie and he knew all about Gallacher’s growing reputation.
During Gallagher’s time with Newcastle, after a game with Huddersfield on New Year’s Eve in 1927, he pushed the referee, Mr Fogg, into the team bath. The Football Association was not amused by Gallacher’s behaviour and punished him with a two month ban.
Another incident occurred on a tour of Europe with Newcastle in 1929. Gallacher was accused by opposition players of being drunk on the field of play. He replied to the accusation by saying, “It was a boiling hot day, so I rinsed my mouth out with a wee drop of Scotch and water”.
During his time with Derby he seemed to have calmed down. But his time with the club certainly did not spell the end of his troubles. In 1941, the club was investigated by the FA over suspected financial irregularities. One accusation was that the manager had paid Gallacher a signing-on fee, which was illegal at that time. Gallacher refused to admit the claim, but despite that Jobey was given a massive 10-year suspension for his part in the signing-on fee scandal.
After Derby, Gallacher moved to Notts County, Grimsby Town and Gateshead, where he played his last game in 1939, aged 36.
With today’s bad boys, such as Roy Keane and Paul Gascoigne, entering management with little or no interference from the FA, Hughie Gallacher was not granted such leniency. The Football Association prevented Gallacher from becoming a manager, so the football genius had to make ends meet by taking on a series of factory jobs.
Hughie made a total of 20 appearances for Scotland, scoring 23 goals. Never being booked. He made his debut on 1 March 1924 against Northern Ireland in the British Home Championship; Scotland won 2-0. He scored for the first time in Scotland colours a year later against Wales, when he bagged a brace. Scotland won 3-1.
Hughie was a member of the famous ‘Wembley Wizards’ team that demolished England 5-1 at Wembley in 1928.
His last game was in the 2-0 victory over England in April 1935.
Gallacher bagged two hat tricks during his international career, his first in 1926 against Northern Ireland, with Scotland running out 4-0 winners, and in 1928 he scored another in the 4-2 win over Wales. The following year, he scored four goals in the 7-3 win over Northern Ireland.
During his international career, the Scots won a total of 17 games, drew twice and lost just once. In fact, from March 1924 to April 1927, Scotland were unbeaten.
The tragic end of a footballing genius
It was a difficult time for Gallacher and things just went from bad to worse, when his second wife Hannah died of a heart attack. Her death hit Hughie hard, sending him into a deep depression, and he turned to drink to seek a temporary escape from his troubles.
In May 1957 his youngest son Matthew was taken from his care after a domestic incident. Gallacher was said to have lost his temper and threw an ashtray which hit the boy in the head. It was a glancing blow, and he was wrong to do so, but what happened next was little short of a media-driven lynch-mob. Justice was nowhere to be seen, and the media and public gossip saw him branded as ‘guilty of assault’ without the issue having gone to trial.
He was wracked with guilt over the incident and when sections of the media went in for the kill, he was at an all time low. A friend quoted him as saying, “It’s no good fighting this thing now. They have got me on this one. My life is finished. It’s no use fighting when you know you can’t win.”
Gallacher was eventually summoned to appear before Gateshead magistrates court on the 12 June 1957, but the football legend never made it. The day before, at 12.08, he jumped in front of the York to Edinburgh express train close to his home.
Before he committed suicide, Gallacher had written a letter of apology which was read at the inquest. It said, “I’ll never forgive myself for having struck Matthew, even if I live to be a hundred.”
Today’s media coverage of the life of footballers is even greater than in Hughie Gallacher’s days, with statistics, ratings and newspaper sales coming before the feelings and emotions of their subjects. Then, just as now, perhaps we should be more mindful of the effect such intense pressure can have on the lives of those involved.
Name: Hugh Kilpatrick Gallacher
Date of Birth: 2 February 1903
Place of Birth: Bellshill, Scotland
Place of Death: 11 June 1957
Height: 5ft 5 in (1 .65m)
Position: Centre Forward
Queen of the South 90 (19) – 1921
Airdrieonians 111 (91) – 1921-25
Newcastle United 160(133) – 1925-30
Chelsea 132 (72) – 1930-34
Derby County 51 (38) – 1934-36
Notts County 45 (32) – 1936-37
Grimsby Town 12 (3) – 1937-38
Gateshead 34 (18) – 1938-39
Scotland 20 (23) – 1924-35
First Published in Issue 9 of The 12th Man fanzine….