On November 12th 1921, Rangers played Dumbarton in a Scottish League game at Ibrox. In goal for the Sons was a promising 24-year-old former Scotland schoolboy international named Joshua Wilkinson. He had already packed an incredible amount into his young life. More commonly known as Joe, during the First World War he spent three years at sea where, according to newspaper reports, he had his ‘fair share of adventure’, including being torpedoed twice. On his return to Scotland, he spent a season with Rangers and another at Renton before signing up for his hometown team, all this while studying for an honours degree in the Arts at Glasgow University. According to his father William he was ‘a young man of robust constitution.’
Dumbarton were no longer the force they had been when they shared the very first league championship with Rangers 30 years earlier. They were destined to be relegated from Division One at the end of the season, but on the day they played above themselves and managed to secure a draw against the champions. Despite telling one member of the Rangers training staff he hadn’t been feeling ‘up to the mark’ before the start of the match, Wilkinson had a brilliant game and managed to limit Rangers to just one goal, from Tommy Cairns. In the style of the day, Cairns had shoulder challenged the ‘keeper as he stood on the line with the ball in his hands. Wilkinson carried the ball over the line and a goal was given. Dumbarton players claimed the challenge was illegal but the referee was in no doubt it was a fair challenge
What no-one realised at the time was that Wilkinson was already suffering from an internal injury that he had picked up earlier in the game. At the Fatal Accident Inquiry into his death, several incidents were suggested where he might have suffered the injury. Dumbarton right back Donald Colman, who had travelled to the game with Wilkinson on the subway from Partick to Govan, told the inquiry that the goalkeeper asked him to take goal kicks because he was in too much pain to take them himself. Despite his pain, he played on until half time, when he complained his injury was ‘pretty bad’. But he went back out for the second half and completed the game. Colman recalled, ‘He played extraordinarily well, right through the game.’
Following the game, Wilkinson was violently sick. He went to White and Smith’s, the restaurant where the Dumbarton team had their post-match tea. But according to the club’s director John Carrick, instead of joining his team mates at the table he crouched down beside the fire. When Carrick asked him how he was he pointed to his left side and said ‘I have an awful pain here.’ He said he got the injury when he ‘knocked against’ the Rangers forward Andy Cunningham. For his part, Cunningham told the inquiry he was certain he had not had any sort of collision with Wilkinson during the game.
As his condition worsened Wilkinson was put in a taxi and driven home to Dumbarton from the restaurant. He was seen by a local doctor, who immediately diagnosed peritonitis. He was driven back to Glasgow the next day and underwent emergency surgery at the Western Infirmary. Rangers manager Bill Struth visited him in hospital after the operation and although the young goalie recognised Struth, he lost consciousness soon after and never woke up again. His devastated parents were at his bedside when he died on the Monday morning. His father’s last words to him were, ‘You have played the game too well’.
Mr Wilkinson may well have been right. Doctors discovered that his son had suffered a ruptured intestine during the game that had caused infection to set in. The cause of the rupture was never established, but one expert speculated that the intestine might have been damaged early in the game, but did not fully rupture until later, possibly as a result of his own exertions in goal.
The Fatal Accident Inquiry heard that Wilkinson told his mother that nothing out of the ordinary had happened at Ibrox and that he had not been kicked. His family were at pains to exonerate Rangers from any blame attached to his death and as a mark of respect, the Glasgow club paid for his headstone.
It was a tragic loss of life and it is sad that the death of such a promising and popular young footballer has gone largely forgotten. In those more stoic days, the sort of collective, public grieving that is commonplace today was largely unheard of. Life simply went on and so did football, with both Rangers and Dumbarton fulfilling their respective fixtures the following Saturday, just two days after his funeral.