As Nottingham Forest prepare to play Rochdale AFC in the third round of the FA Cup on Saturday, Paul Severn remembers the Reds’ last cup win in 1959 — with the help of a 2002 interview with an old family friend, the late Chic Thomson
As the New Year begins, football’s attention turns towards the magic of the FA Cup. Lower division and non-league clubs get their chance to topple one of the giants of the game.
On 10 January 1959, Tooting & Mitcham United came so close to knocking out top-tier Forest in their first ever third-round tie on a frozen rutted pitch. Sadly for Tooting, they lost their two-goal lead and were knocked out in the replay at the City Ground. The heroes that year would turn out to be the Forest players — who went on to lift the FA Cup by beating Luton Town on a sunny May afternoon.
And my family were lucky enough to know one of those heroes.
In 2002, former Forest FA Cup-winning goalkeeper, the late Charlie ‘Chic’ Thomson, arrived at our family home to be interviewed as part of my university project. He talked about his time at the City Ground which began in 1957.
He recalled: “I knew nothing about Forest, only that they played near the Trent Bridge cricket ground. Somebody said they had been promoted so that was great. 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 defence was experienced and reliable with Bobby McKinlay at centre-half and Bill Whare and Joe McDonald as full-backs. Then we had two great wingers — Stuart Imlach could cross the ball at right-angles and Roy Dwight scored some great volleys. Tommy Wilson was the centre-forward. He wasn’t too tall but could head a ball.”
The Tooting game was a vivid memory for Chic who recalled: “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.”
After a 3-0 win in the replay, Forest moved through the rounds — the highlight being a fifth-round second replay at neutral venue Filbert Street against Birmingham City. My dad was a 13-year-old schoolboy and skipped school to travel with my grandparents for the afternoon midweek kick-off. He was mesmerised by one of the finest ever Forest performances. The Reds won 5-0 in a truly devastating display of quick, accurate passing combined with clinical finishing.
The back-page headline of the Sunday Pictorial of 15 March 1959 read: ‘Villa are out! — By a nose.” The picture showed Thomson diving to save a Jackie Sewell shot in the semi-final against Aston Villa with his nose — a painful experience but one that was worth it. Johnny Quigley’s goal sent Forest to their first Wembley final in 61 years.
Chic said the team were very confident ahead of the final against Luton: “We really thought we were going to win. We had fun in training with tracksuits as goal posts and committee men playing. We even practised fetching the cup!”
Confidence was not misplaced as goals by Dwight (cousin of Elton John) and Wilson put the Reds two goals up inside the first 15 minutes.
Chic remarked: “It looked like we’d get five or six, but then Roy Dwight broke his leg.”
These were the days before substitutes and Dwight was taken to hospital, leaving Forest with 10 men. Dave Pacey pulled one back in the second-half to set up a nerve-wracking finale.
“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!
“I’ve never heard a referee asked so many times how long was left. I had a couple of routine saves to make and a header went just wide. 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 cried at the end.”
On Monday 4 May, Nottingham city centre was packed by thousands of Forest fans dressed in red and white to welcome their heroes home with the trophy.
Chic remembered: “I looked into the sea of faces and saw my dad waving frantically at me. I had to laugh; he should have been at work in Scotland!”
Chic was born north of the border in Perth in 1930 and goalkeeping was in the genes with both his father and grandfather having professional careers between the posts.
“I was crawling around dressing rooms as a baby and grew up in the game. I was determined not to be a goalkeeper but I played in a game where we were 9-0 down at half-time. I was then put in goal because I was the biggest. We only lost 11-0, so I suppose I must’ve done well!
“When I played, goalkeeping was so different. 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!”
Chic started his career at Clyde with his father negotiating his contract. In 1947, he got his big break.
“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.”
The match was the final of the Glasgow Charity Cup against a star-studded Rangers side. Chic helped Clyde to a 2-2 draw – beaten only by two penalties. He kept his place and continued to play for Clyde while doing national service. It was his performances for the Army which were spotted by Reading manager Ted Drake. When Drake moved to Chelsea, he took the Scottish keeper to Stamford Bridge.
During a happy and successful five-year spell, Chic won a League Championship winner’s medal in 1954 — the club’s first league title. He shared goalkeeping duties at Chelsea with Bill Robertson. However, when England international Reg Matthews was signed, it was time to move on to Nottingham.
Forest’s return to Division One in 1957 was a highlight never to be surpassed by many older fans, with Thomson and his teammates coming up against the legends of England’s post-war era such as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney.
On 12 October 1957, Duncan Edwards starred for the Busby Babes in an unforgettable match at the City Ground before a record attendance of 47,804. United won a close game 2-1. Tragically, Edwards and many other United players died in the Munich air crash just a few months later in February 1958.
Chic played at Old Trafford against United in their first league match after the tragedy — a match of high passion in an intimidating atmosphere in front of 66,346 supporters. He mentioned the professionalism and discipline of the Forest players, under extreme provocation from a hurriedly patched-up and decimated United team who understandably were driven with a will to win at all costs. The match ended 1-1 with Forest receiving well-deserved plaudits for their professional and sensitive approach towards some over-enthusiastic young United players.
A bad back brought an end to the league career of Forest’s goalkeeper. He spent a final season at Valley Sports (Rugby Town). But in the 1960s, retired footballers had to find new employment. 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 loaned money to run shops, post offices and garages.”
For my dad, the glory days of the late 1950s seemed a distant memory. But one day in 1978, news swept the Broxtowe Social Services office in Beeston that a new social work assistant, Charles Thomson was joining the team. This was the start of a friendship which was to last nearly three decades.
Chic was a man who was dedicated to helping the people he worked with – the disabled and frail elderly. He was a much respected and loved colleague in the social services department. He had an underlying wish to work with needy people, which was motivated by the kindness of his humanity and Christian faith.
Chic told me that he was never a great watcher of football and didn’t get excited like a fan as he watched it from a “technical” point of view. Instead he preferred to watch cricket in the Radcliffe Road stand at Trent Bridge, just a few hundred yards from where he kept goal at the City Ground. As a cricket-mad youngster, I got to know Chic myself at Nottinghamshire and England matches. At one game I asked him to be interviewed for my project. On the day, I telephoned him, but there was no answer. I was a bit concerned, but heard a knock at the door. Chic had driven over from Sandiacre to be quizzed in person.
That afternoon he told me the story of a great career which saw him win the highest honours in English football. Chic was known to three generations of my family – as a player, work colleague and friend. It was truly fascinating hearing about life as a footballer in the 1950s. His achievements stood the test of time. Chic’s part in winning a League Championship with Chelsea was only matched recently by Russian billions, and even the genius of Brian Clough was not enough to capture the FA Cup for Forest.
Chic was 78 years old when he died suddenly on a country walk near his home when out with his wife Pat, on 6 January 2009. A funeral and service of thanksgiving saw friends, family and footballers pay their respects. Billy Gray and Jeff Whitefoot, at that point the only surviving members of the 1959 Forest team, were in attendance. And so was my dad.
The address was given by the Reverend Martin Swan, chaplain to Chelsea. Charles’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.’
The Saturday after Chic died, my brother and I — the latest generation of Forest supporters — attended The Valley to watch Forest play Charlton. Before a pre-match tribute to members of the Charlton footballing family who had passed away in the previous year, Chic was also remembered. The Forest fans applauded him with genuine respect. It was moving and emotional.
Most fans at The Valley were not lucky enough to meet Chic in person and hear his amazing stories. Many, like me, were born long after the 1959 final. But the FA Cup ensures that great achievements are passed down year after year, generation after generation — as each third-round day, the present team tries to emulate the victories of the heroes who came before them.