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An Overlooked Legend - by Simon Ward

    If I looked up the term Liverpudlian in the English Dictionary, I would expect to see the name Philip Bernard Thompson. Kopite. Trainee. Player. Captain. Reserve team manager. Assistant Manager. Caretaker manager.  Phil Thompson lived my dream - and probably yours - to progress from the Kop boys pen to Melwood to Anfield. He was signed and given his debut, by his idol Bill Shankly, who apparently knew a thing or two about good players.  However, I think his place in Liverpools history is too often wrongly over looked, compared to others.

Thommo played 477 times for Liverpool, over 12 years. Dozens of players came and went during that time, naturally, yet the combination of ability and passion meant Liverpool would never let him go.  


In summary, Bill Shankly gave him his chance. Bob Paisley made him captain. What more recognition does a player need?


He won the occasional medal as well. 7 League titles – including 4 in 5 seasons. 2 League Cups. 1 FA Cup. 2 UEFA Cups. 2 European Cups.  In today’s Champions League format, of 25 man Champions League squads, he would have 4 winners medals. Thommo missed 1977 through injury and 1984 because he was now at the end of his career.  


In the two finals he played in, at centre back, we didn’t concede a goal. His goal line clearance against Bruges turned out to be a match-winner. In 1981, in Paris, against Real Madrid, he lifted the trophy as captain, cementing his place in Liverpool folklore.  Yet just a few months after captaining the team to win the European Cup, Thompson was stripped of the captaincy, in a dramatic move by Bob Paisley. His feeling was that Thommo was concentrating too much on being captain, and his own game was suffering. This would hurt any professional footballers pride, but the fact he went on to play his part in winning the League and League Cup the same season, shows that his reaction was the right one. He didn’t sulk, or throw in a transfer request. Liverpool means too much too him.  


He left in 1984 to continue his playing career at Sheffield United, but just two years later, Kenny Dalglish brought him back as Reserve Team manager, a position he would keep for six years. During this time, my Great Uncle was a caretaker for many years at Melwood, and my Dad was often allowed through the back gate on a Friday to watch training. He once overheard Thommo having a blazing row with Craig Johnston about his attitude. Johnston didn’t like it, but Thommo didn’t care he was upsetting an ex-team mate. If you didn’t try your best for Liverpool, he would let you know.


The images of him during the 1989 FA Cup final, hunched on the bench, praying, were probably mirrored by normal supporters in Wembley and around the country. He wasn’t playing. He wasn’t even involved in the first team. It didn’t matter, Liverpool winning mattered.


In 1991, he was a fancied favourite for the manager job when Kenny resigned, but the board felt he lacked enough experience. Graeme Souness infamously sacked him in 1992, after hearing that Thommo had criticised him to Archie Knox after a game against Man Utd. There is an unwritten rule in life – “Don’t slag off your boss” – and Thommo fell foul of it. However, looking at Souness record, I imagine it would have been hard to disagree with him. It was ill advised, but I have no doubt it was said from the heart.


In 1998, following the inevitable break-up of the Houllier and Evans arranged marriage, Gerard Houllier asked for an assistant. Tom Saunders, former Youth Development Officer, recruited by Bill Shankly, a trusted aide to Kenny and by now a highly respected director, recommended Phil Thompson. Enough said.  


Thommo would have swam the Mersey in an Everton shirt to get back to Anfield, and soon became a vital part of Gerard Houlliers new disciplined regime. Paul Ince disliked him, which is a pretty big tick in my book. We were renowned for being hard to break down, with Thommo as defensive coach. The tactics were not popular and often criticised, and although Thommo would have been used to seeing Liverpools teams over the years play a different way, he was loyal to the new manager, and winning was all that mattered.


I believe the greatest season Liverpool have had since winning the League in 1990 was in 2001, when we didn’t lose a cup tie, won The Treble, and finished in 3rd place in the League. He was used to playing with winners, now he was coaching them, and leading them to a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone in front of the supporters in Dortmund after beating Alaves 5-4.  Soon after, in October 2001, Gerard Houllier was taken seriously ill, and would not return to the manager role for 5 months. There were calls for outside managers to take over on a temporary basis, yet the board did not hesitate to turn to Thompson. Players from that team have said he regularly used the motive “Do it for the boss” during this time.  


We won 6 out of the first 7 league games, but then just 1 out of the next 9, followed by 7 out of the next 8. It was 49 points in 24 games. In some seasons since then, we have struggled to reach that amount all season. He also led us to the next stage of the Champions League before Gerard Houllier returned for the final group game against Roma.  After having a taste for management, and doing well, others would have looked elsewhere for an opportunity to become a manager. Not Thompson. If it wasn’t Liverpool, he wasn’t interested, and Gerard Houllier wasn’t interested in anyone else. Houlliers final two seasons were disappointing in comparison to the previous two, but still delivered another trophy, beating Utd with another disciplined defensive display, 2-0 in the final.


Today, Thommo is probably best known across the country for his forthright views and loud goal alerts on Sky Sports Soccer Saturday. His support and bias for Liverpool is obvious to all though, and its no surprise that he is rarely now given the role of commentating on a Liverpool game, and is pretty unpopular with opposition supporters. He was pretty unpopular with them as Assistant Manager to, due to his passionate antics on the touch line. Not Liverpool fans though. He is one of us. 


Remember the Sky Sports studio footage of Istanbul? Thommo going ape-shit and banging the studio window during the second half

in celebration, while surrounded by bell-ends Keys and Gray.  His auto-biography said this was because his sons were sat near the window. Even if they weren’t, you can bet he would have been out of his seat just the same. As a Kopite and ex player, celebrating a European Cup would be expected. However, as Gerard Houllier had been sacked the previous summer, this meant Thommo left Liverpool for a third time. Some would have been bitter so soon after. Thommo was ecstatic. This proved his love for Liverpool was unconditional.  As most of his life has been spent as part of Liverpool FC, as supporter, player, coach or manager, spanning 4 decades, I am not surprised. 


Phil Thompson is a true Liverpool legend.


Simon Ward

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