The recent news that former Celtic player and current Aston Villa captain Stilian Petrov had been diagnosed with leukaemia sent shock waves round football. Coming just a couple of weeks after Bolton defender Fabrice Muamba’s near death experience during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, it showed that not even famous footballers are immune from tragedy.
The most important battle of Stilian Petrov’s life brings to mind the story of a Hearts player from nearly a century ago. Glasgow born Tom Gracie began his senior football career at Airdrieonians before moving to Hamilton Academical, Arthurlie and Morton. He moved south of the border in 1911 and played for both Everton and Liverpool. However, his time at Anfield wasn’t a particularly successful one and he returned to Scotland in 1914 when Hearts spent the not inconsiderable sum of £400 for the services of the centre forward. Hearts began season 1914/15 with eight consecutive league victories and Gracie endeared himself to the Hearts support by scoring in a 2-0 win over reigning champions Celtic at Tynecastle in the opening game of the league season. The Maroons were labelled favourites for the league title but events more important than football would dictate otherwise. Gracie was Hearts leading goalscorer and a hero with the supporters. He and his team mates could have continued playing football as the sport was exempt from conscription to the services. However, Gracie and ten of his team mates decided their country’s need was greater and they enlisted for service to Sir George McCrae’s Battalion The 16th Royal Scots in November 1914. The story of this act of courage is told in Jack Alexander’s excellent book McCrae’s Battalion.
Gracie’s admirable commitment to his country meant, naturally, he would miss a number of games for Hearts - the football season continued much to the chagrin of many. Hearts would lose key games as the effect of the war effort on their players took its toll. Nonetheless, Gracie would end the season as the league’s joint top goalscorer with 29 goals. How much would a club pay for a player with such goalscoring prowess today?
Hearts missed the league title but for Tom Gracie, much more was at stake when the Glaswegian was diagnosed with leukaemia in March 1915. Despite the diagnosis, Gracie continued to serve his country and play for Hearts - which summed up the immense courage of the man. Eventually, fatigue took its toll and Gracie was admitted to hospital in Leeds before he returned to Scotland to be with his family. He died in October 1915 in Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital.
Today, huge advances in medicine mean leukaemia is not the killer it once was. Stilian Petrov has vowed to fight his illness and every right thinking football fan offers their very best wishes to the Bulgarian and hope he makes a full recovery. It’s a chilling reminder, though, that illness and the threat to life itself can strike in the most unexpected places and to people who work incessantly on their fitness to try to be the best there is.
It was suggested that the immediate presence of the medical team at White Hart Lane was significant in saving Fabrice Muamba’s life. Stories that he had ‘died’ for over an hour were reported in the days that followed and while it remains doubtful if the Frenchman will ever play top class football again, his family are just grateful he is still alive and seemingly on the way to recovery. Other players in recent years haven’t been so fortunate. The sudden deaths of Rangers Davie Cooper in 1995 and Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell in 2007 left Scottish football in a state of shock. Football players, of course, cannot be protected from life’s tragedies and when famous players are affected, the fans who idolise them share their anguish.
Stilian Petrov and Fabrice Muamba are aware of the support they have from fans of all clubs, not just those from Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers. Just as a player from a century ago earned huge respect from a nation. Tom Gracie may have been from several generations ago but his brief and notable contribution to the proud history of Heart of Midlothian FC will never be forgotten. And neither will his courage and dedication to his country and club.