The era when a young footballer's funeral took place hours before an Old Firm game

IT WAS a different era, when different practices reigned. After a week defined not only by the mourning for Motherwell skipper Phil O'Donnell, but also the unedifying row about what games should and should not have been postponed in response to the sad events, it is revealing to learn how they grieved for a footballer taken too soon in the Fifties.

In 1952 John 'Jackie' Millsopp was a young Celtic left-half just establishing himself in the Parkhead team when he died from complications after a burst appendix. He was just 22. Two weekends previously he had played for Celtic against Falkirk at Parkhead, and set up the last goal in a 5-3 win for the home side.

Having been taken ill shortly afterwards, he died on 17 September and was buried three days later, on 20 September. The game he had been supposed to feature in that afternoon – Celtic v Rangers – went ahead as planned.

The entire Celtic team had been present at the funeral, as well as a representation from the Ibrox side. But less than five hours later they had pulled on black armbands and laced up their boots ahead of the first Old Firm derby of the season. A minute's silence preceded the game, won 2-1 by Celtic.

O'Donnell's death, so sudden and so public, halted everyone in their tracks, and will hold its charge for a long time yet. Perhaps this shock is why the Scottish Premier League proved so clumsy when ruling on those fixtures to be deferred, along with the obvious ones. These were unchartered waters – unchartered, at least, since the etiquette on mourning public figures was revised after Princess Diana's death in 1997.

Then, too, the Scottish Football Association, ambushed by the profound emotional fall-out, were forced to make a decision about whether to play a World Cup qualifier against Belarus, scheduled for the day of Princess Diana's funeral.

After initial dithering, the strength of public feeling and the fact some Scotland players threatened to pull-out of the squad, convinced the authorities to play the match the following day.

As Roddy Forsyth pointed out yesterday in an erudite column for the Daily Telegraph, just 12 years earlier Jock Stein, the then Scotland manager, passed away at the end of Scotland's World Cup qualifier against Wales. Stein died on a Tuesday night and his cortege passed though the streets of Glasgow on the Friday. The next day a full card of Scottish Football League fixtures went ahead as scheduled, including Celtic v Aberdeen. Stein was, and still is, Celtic's greatest ever manager, while Alex Ferguson, then in charge of Aberdeen, had been beside Stein when he collapsed on the trackside in Cardiff.

It proves how times have changed, with the most significant shift in public attitude occurring in the last few years. Everyone connected with football has found it difficult to absorb O'Donnell's death. Any review of the season will start and stop with the player, and rightly so. Next to the death of a footballer, even moments like James McFadden's winner against France have to shrink. But, again, as Forsyth points out, would we be as affected by a Third Division footballer who had died in the same manner. "Are we to operate a sliding scale of respect?" Forsyth asks.

Nobody can say the urge to respect one another did not exist in 1952. Indeed, it was perhaps more intensely felt. But back then it remained a very private business.

Millsopp did not feature in the Edinburgh Evening News or The Scotsman on the day after his death. Somewhat extraordinary is the fact the player was not even mentioned in the small preview of the Old Firm match in the Evening News the next again day. It recorded only the absence of broken-jaw victim John McPhail. To modern eyes regularly made wet by grief for people we often do not even know, this seems almost callous.

The following day's match report is brief too, but records details of what must have been a trying day for the players on both sides: "A few hours before they met at Parkhead, Glasgow, members of the Celtic and Rangers football clubs attended the funeral of John Millsopp, the Celtic player. The interment was preceded by a service at St Bride's, Cambuslang. Millsopp, who was 22 years of age, died on Wednesday."

Tom Campbell, the respected Celtic historian, was at the game, and cannot recall any gathering support to have it called off. "All the Celtic players had been at the funeral, and I think at least four Rangers players," he said. "I don't even think postponing the game was an issue.

"John was a young player with 26 games to his name, and had played about four or five in a row when he died," Campbell continued. "He was becoming established. He would have been picked for the Old Firm game, almost certainly. It is rather bizarre the idea of going to a funeral at 10am, and then playing football five hours later."

Bizarre, perhaps, even then. Unthinkable now.