In any conversation about Newcastle United’s greatest ever players, Hughie Gallacher’s name simply has to be mentioned. Far more prolific than Jackie Milburn or Alan Shearer, Gallacher averaged a goal every 0.82 games, ranking fourth in Newcastle’s all time scoring charts, despite having spent only five seasons at St James’ Park.
As is so often the case among the brightest footballing stars, however, Gallacher was a flawed genius. A maverick and a heavy drinker, his life would end in sadness and solitude. It was a life which had begun on the turn of the Twentieth Century in North Lanarkshire, Gallacher began working at Hattonrigg Colliery when he was 15. The pit had been the site of an infamous disaster when Gallacher was seven, but Hughie was offered a route out, signing professional terms with Queen of the South.
His time at Queens was brief, returning to his birthplace of North Lanarkshire with a move to Airdrieonians. With Gallacher spearheading their side, the Diamonds had what remains as the most successful era in the clubs history, finishing second in the league thrice, winning a Scottish Cup and multiple Lanarkshire Cups. Still a young player and markedly short for a centre-forward at 5’5″, Gallacher’s small stature and exceptional ability put a target on his head. He had to bare the brunt of some shocking tackles, and his retaliation often saw him get on the wrong side of the authorities. A remarkably explosive footballer, Gallacher was celebrated for twinning a delicate first touch with a very fierce and accurate shot with either foot. He hit 100 goals in 129 games for Airdrie, and as English clubs stepped up interest in their star man, supporters threatened to burn a wooden stand down at the ground if he was sold.
Their threats did not do the trick. Gallacher joined Newcastle United for £6,500 in December 1925, equalling a British record transfer fee. He made his Magpies debut against Everton, who had an exciting forward of their own. The Merseyside outfit had brought in an 18-year-old striker called Dixie Dean from Tranmere Rovers, and the teenager would bag a hat-trick whilst Gallacher scored a brace in a 3-3 draw. In his first half-season in the North East, Gallacher was Newcastle’s top scorer, with 23 goals in 25 games, as the Magpies finished tenth.
In his first full season, the Scotsman scored 39 goals to help Newcastle win the First Division title for the first time in 18 years. It would take 67 years until Andy Cole broke that as a record for the most goals in a season by a Newcastle United player. Just as he had in Scotland, Gallacher faced some brutal targeting south of the border. Newcastle United had made him club captain in 1926, aged 23, meaning he had led the club to a league title in both his first full season and in his debut season as captain.
Gallacher continued to score at a similar rate over the next few seasons, and he was Newcastle United’s all time leading scorer by the time he left the club for Chelsea in 1930. In four-and-a-half seasons at St James’ Park, Gallacher was Newcastle United’s top scorer in every single one of them. His overall tally of 143 goals in 174 games still makes him the most prolific scorer in Newcastle United history.
Gallacher continued to score goals with relative ease during his time with Chelsea, Derby, Notts County, and his final club Gateshead which saw him return to the North East. He hung up his boots at the age of 36 when WWII broke out, and that was when things began to unwind for the great Scot, who retired as both Newcastle and Scotland’s all time leading scorer. Gallacher tried his hand at sports journalism, but like another Newcastle legend, he was banned from St James’ Park for his outspoken remarks.
Renowned for his heavy drinking and wild tempers, it’s little wonder that retirement wasn’t a smooth ride for Hughie. Problems intensified after the death of his wife in 1950, and Gallacher became increasingly lonely and suffered serious struggles with alcoholism. Despite his illustrious career, Gallacher’s erratic behaviour and constant run-ins with authority had left him with no savings to fall back on from his playing days. He had been declared bankrupt whilst playing in the First Division, and found it difficult to settle into any kind of normal working life as an ex-pro.
In May 1957, an intoxicated Gallacher returned home from the pub. When his 14-year-old son Mattie didn’t reply to him, an angered Gallacher threw what is believed to have been an ashtray at him. The heavy receptacle hit Mattie in the face and drew blood. The young boy went off to find his older brother, Hughie Junior. Incensed by what had happened, Hughie Junior phoned the police, who filed an assault charge and took Mattie from his father. In the weeks that followed, Gallacher’s behaviour became increasingly irrational. He was often seen walking the streets aimlessly, ignoring those who tried to interact with him. On June 11th 1957, the day before he was due to appear in court, Gallacher stepped out in front of an express train and killed himself, aged 54.