Tom Wright details the story of James Main, who sadly received a mortal injury playing away to Partick Thistle on Christmas Day in 1909, passing away a short couple of days later.
Born in West Calder on 29th May 1886, James Main spent his early playing days with local juvenile side Mossend Swifts before signing for Motherwell. Then a centre-half, he failed to make the breakthrough into the first team at Fir Park and was released at the end of season 1903/04. Recommended to Hibs by the former Easter Road player James Hogg then with Portsmouth, Main signed for the Club the following season, quickly becoming the recognised right-back.
Within a few seasons James had developed into one of the best defenders in the League, and at the time was regarded as a mainstay of the Easter Road side who had already turned down a bid from Newcastle United for the player. Furthermore, his impeccable conduct and sportsmanship on the field of play, allied to his kindly disposition and retiring nature made him extremely popular with team mates and fans alike. It is said that although strong and robust in the tackle, he never once resorted to questionable tactics and was held in high esteem even by his opponents.
Main’s consistent form was finally recognised at international level when he was selected for the Scottish League against the Football League in 1908, winning the first of what surely would have been many more full caps when he lined up at right-back in Scotland’s comprehensive 5-0 defeat of Ireland at Ibrox on 15th March 1909.
James Main 1886 - 1909
Hibs first ever appearance at Partick Thistle’s newly opened Firhill on Christmas Day 1909 started badly when captain Willie Duguid took ill on the train. Arriving at the ground, it was immediately apparent that the underfoot conditions were far from ideal, the heavily sanded pitch ice bound and treacherous despite the fine overhead weather. Many of the players were of the opinion that the game should be cancelled, but with the directors of both sides deciding if the ground was playable rather than the referee and several thousand spectators already inside the stadium, it was decided that the game should go ahead. It was reported that after inspecting the pitch, Main was overheard telling manager Dan McMichael, “You are risking life and limb asking anyone to play out there.” They would prove to be prophetic words.
Vice captain Sam Allan injured his knee in the pre-match warm up and had to be withdrawn at the last minute. Ominously things were about to get much worse. With the absence of first Duguid, and now Sam Allan, McMichael had no hesitation in appointing James Main captain for the day, his first such honour. With a replacement for Allan not yet ready, short-handed Hibs started the match with only ten men but managed to open the scoring after just five minutes when outside right Sharp scored from close range. After 10 minutes, the numbers were level when Callaghan came on as a replacement for the injured vice captain, but he had only been on the field a matter of seconds when the home side equalised. Now well on top and handling the atrocious underfoot conditions better, Partick were relentless in their endeavour to take the lead, but Hibs appeared to have weathered the storm when the freak accident that was to prove so costly to Main occurred when both he and his immediate opponent, outside left Frank Branscombe, clashed in a fierce tackle. According to a newspaper report of the time, the clash seemed destined to leave one or the other of the opponents in trouble.
Unfortunately for Hibs, it was the visiting player who came off worse. After receiving attention on the field it was obvious that Main was in no fit state to continue and he was assisted to the changing room. With Hibs once again reduced to 10 men, in the few minutes remaining of the first half Partick Thistle took the lead.
IT IS SAID THAT ALTHOUGH STRONG AND ROBUST IN THE TACKLE, HE NEVER ONCE RESORTED TO QUESTIONABLE TACTICS AND WAS HELD IN HIGH ESTEEM EVEN BY HIS OPPONENTS.
Although at the time his injury was not thought to be serious, Main did not reappear after the break leaving Hibs, in those pre substitute days, to play the entire second half short-handed. The visitor’s position now seemed hopeless, and so it was to prove, although it was not until a few minutes from the end when Gardner scored a third that the home side could be assured of victory.
In the dressing room after the game, Main appeared to have recovered somewhat and was able to take tea with the rest of his teammates. The player felt well enough to travel to his home at West Calder by rail and after arriving at the station, was even capable of walking the half-mile or so to his home on the outskirts of the town. Later that night, his condition took a turn for the worse and he was attended on two separate occasions by local doctors who both diagnosed severe bruising, the imprint of Branscombe’s studs clearly visible on Main’s stomach.
In the morning, Main’s condition had deteriorated further and it was decided to rush him to the Royal Infirmary Hospital in Edinburgh, where it quickly became apparent that an emergency operation was required. Later, the player showed some signs of improvement, but the following morning his condition took a turn for the worse and he died at 10.40pm on Wednesday 29th December 1909. It was reported that on the evening of his death, although still in severe pain, Main could be heard singing from his bed in ward 16, the hymn ‘He Died of a Broken Heart’, leaving everyone present close to tears.
James Main’s funeral was held on Monday 3rd January 1910. A short service conducted by the minister of the local Parish Church where he had been a well-respected member of the congregation was held in the player’s home before the party made their way to West Calder Cemetery. The overcast and gloomy weather did little to prevent a huge crowd, one of the biggest ever seen in the district, from attending the graveside. As well as the players and staff from Easter Road, representatives from most of the leading clubs in the country, including a large contingent from Partick Thistle, were present to see the mortal remains of a young and energetic sportsman who only days before, had been so full of life, laid to rest. It is not known if Frank Branscombe was among those present at the graveside but he did not feature in Partick’s 1-1 draw with Aberdeen that same afternoon.
Today, a slightly weather-beaten but still impressive nine foot tall granite memorial in West Calder Cemetery marks the last resting place of James Main. The memorial was originally surrounded by a small enclosure of granite posts, but all that remains today of this enclosure is a solitary pillar bearing the legend:
This enclosure was subscribed for by a few friends and supporters of the Hibernian Football Club as a token of respect to the late Jimmy Main.
Interviewed many years after the event, John Sharp, Hibs goalscorer that day, was firm in his belief that it was a simple but freak accident, recalling that, “Branscombe slipped on the treacherous surface, his foot catching Jamie in the groin as he fell.”
Written by Tom Wright