Former Red, Magpie and
Stag eyes physio future

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For a man who was always such a wholehearted competitor, giving it all up was never going to be easy.

Having played for all three Nottinghamshire clubs - Nottingham Forest Notts County and, of course, Mansfield Town, taking the decision to retire hit John Thompson hard.

The Irishman had started his career in English football as a raw teenager, coming over to Nottingham from Dublin not knowing what to expect.

A decade and a half later he is still here, having spent all but a year-long spell at Oldham Athletic plying his trade in the county, earning the admiration of fans wherever he has been.

Breaking into the first team frame under Paul Hart and the City Ground, Thompson was part of a golden generation that also produced top class, home grown talents such as Michael Dawson and Jermaine Jenas.

He also played alongside the likes of Red legend Des Walker, David Johnson and Ricky Scimeca as he made his senior debut at 19 against Sheffield United in January 2002.

Thompson, as we now know, never looked back, appearing almost 150 times for Forest at Championship and League One level.

After a spell at Boundary Park, his next port of call was just across the Trent to Meadow Lane, where he was equally influential.

In what remains one of the most remarkable seasons in the Magpies’ history, he captained the side to the League Two title - having remarkably played alongside former England ace Sol Campbell and under director of football and ex-Three Lions boss Sven-Goran Eriksson earlier in the campaign.

His next port of call was up the A60 where he joined Mansfield’s quest to regain their Football League status, signing a two-year deal at the One Call Stadium after being convinced by manager Paul Cox that he was the man to lead the club back to the promised land.

That, of course, was not destined to happen. Thompson was pole-axed in a pre-season friendly that seemed anything but by Ilkeston striker Gary Ricketts that resulted in him needing 60 stitches and extensive and prolonged surgery to remodel his face. He was forced to eat through a straw for a month.

While the defender remained popular in the dressing room at the Stags it was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end as far as his professional playing days were concerned.

Although he did attempt comebacks, it was clear to all that he lacked the confidence and authority that had previously been his strength.

With that in mind, Thompson called time on his playing days at the end of last season having just seen his team-mates complete the very task that he had yearned to be a cornerstone of.

At the age of 31, the future was suddenly looking very blank and a little bit scary.

Thankfully, though, it’s been a happier story for the phlegmatic, likeable former Home Farm youngster since then. With the help of the PFA, who have part paid for his course, Thompson has, in his own words, ‘got stuck in’ with a four-year physiotherapy degree at Salford University.

He’s also picked up some work in corporate hospitality and has done some co-commentary work on local radio, keeping him well in touch with the game he loves.

Granted, it’s no replacement for playing, but for the man still adjusting to life outside the dressing room it’s a significant start.

“It was something I’d always planned to get into after football – unfortunately you can’t carry on playing all your life and you have to find something else to do,” said Thompson.

“I think my interest is probably down to the fact I suffered so many injuries and spent so much time in the treatment room. With that being the case I thought I might have a bit of advanced knowledge.

“It’s a great way to stay in football. It’s just a pity it’s a four-year course, so it will take a while, but I’ll get there. Nothing beats playing – it’s in my blood and all I did form the age of 15 or 16 - but I see this as being one of the next best things.

“I’m enjoying it, together with the other bits of work I’m doing. I won’t lie, I do miss playing, but it was definitely the right decision to retire and I’m in a better, happier place as a person since I did.”

Thompson’s injury at Ilkeston is still the subject of legal proceedings, meaning he is still unable to comment fully on what happened on that night in July 2011, when Cox led his players off the pitch in protest after Ricketts had also injured Ritchie Sutton and Martin Riley.

And while he does not seem the kind of man to remain resentful, there is clearly a sense of frustration that what has followed could have been avoided.

That’s not least because he was excited by the challenge that Mansfield boss Paul Cox had lined up for him in north Nottinghamshire.

He said: “You don’t mind going into and game and getting injured from a genuine tackle, because that happens and is part of football, but what happened to me wasn’t that.

“I think the fans and players who were present on the night would all agree with that and say the same thing.

“My time at Mansfield was a bit of a disaster and I never really covered to play at the same level as I had before.

“The supporters and people at the club were brilliant and understanding, but there were physical scars and mental ones too. I was always an aggressive player, and yet I found myself having panic attacks.

“I also knew my face couldn’t take much more and after my last operation they told me if I took another blow they might not be able to do much for me. It meant I was always cautious and trying not to get injured.”

Thompson is proud to be one of a select few who have played for all three Football League clubs in the county, an honour he shares with the likes of Darren Ward, Trevor Christie, Wayne Fairclough, Mark Smalley, Jason Lee and Kieran Freeman.

Understandably his most memorable spell came during that eventful few months when Munto Finance were in charge of operations at Meadow Lane.

“What was going on off the field was amazing. There were so many ups and downs; people coming in and then leaving.

“What it did do was bring them team together. We had a very good side who should have gone up with the likes of Kasper Schmeichel and Lee Hughes, but there were times when it started to go wrong. That’s why it was so satisfying to come through and take the title.

“You don’t expect to see the likes of Sol Campbell and Sven-Goran Eriksson at that level and it was a bit bizarre really, but they were both very genuine people.

“So I quite fancied the challenge of leading Notts up through the divisions, but I think he quickly something was up and that his contract wasn’t right.

“Sven did a lot for us and was always there to chat to as captain, but it was inevitable he would move on when things came out as they did.

“It would make a really good film, but I don’t think I’d be much good in it - even playing myself.”

Thompson has yet to get down to the One Call Stadium, but is still in close contact with several of the players and intends to make the trip before the season is out.

“Forest, Notts and Stags are still the first three results I look for on a Saturday evening,” he added. “Getting back in the league is a big step for Mansfield and they’ve adapted well since coming back in.

“I know the goals have dried up a bit recently, but I think if they can sort that then there is no reason why they can’t push for the play-offs.”

Who knows, in time, Thompson could yet be back on the Mansfield books.

It’s just that second time around he’d be applying the magic sponge, rather than making crunching tackles.