IN the time long before notices of complaint and compliance officers, justice was a dish served cold by the SFA. Few found it harder to swallow than Bobby Thomson.
It is almost 30 years to the day since Thomson emerged, bewildered and angry, from the SFA offices in Park Gardens after receiving a six-month suspension. This was no fast-track punishment for the Hibs midfielder. His disciplinary hearing took place four months after he committed the offence which came to define his career.
“Aye, unbelievable really,” mused Thomson this week as he digested the fact that three decades have now passed since he paid such a heavy price for his notoriety as one of Scottish football’s most combustible individuals.
It was on 19 November 1983 that Thomson, then 28 and in his prime as a player of no little ability, was sent off for the 10th time in a career which had involved service at St Johnstone, Morton and Middlesbrough before he joined Hibs in 1982.
“I always remember it, because people never let me forget it,” he says. “So many come up to me and say ‘Oh, you’re the guy that punched that linesman’.”
The chronology of events that afternoon at Easter Road, however, have become a little misted in the minds of those involved down the years. Hibs defeated St Johnstone 4-1 in the Premier Division fixture and what is not in dispute is that Thomson, incensed by referee Louis Thow’s decision to award a goal to the visitors despite an initial offside flag being raised by linesman Tom Seggie, momentarily lost the plot. He raced over to remonstrate with Mr Seggie, who had lowered his flag, and raised a hand to the official who sprawled backwards as a result.
In recalling the incident now, many point to the futility of Thomson’s actions as Hibs were coasting to victory at the time. In fact, the goal scored by Saints striker John Brogan put the game back in the balance at 2-1 to Hibs, at least offering some mitigation for Thomson’s ire.
“I thought we were four up at the time, but I might be wrong after 30 years,” laughs Thomson, now happily settled in Blackpool where he moved when Hibs sold him to the Bloomfield Road club in 1985.
“But I can remember the incident clearly. The linesman put his flag up but the ref didn’t see it. John Brogan ran through and scored. I ran across to the linesman. At that time, there was a kind of six-inch step from the turf to the trackside at Easter Road.
“I was shouting at the linesman, asking him why he didn’t keep his flag up, then I pushed him with an open hand. Because of that wee step, he fell backwards and made a big issue of it, as if I’d really assaulted him. He made a meal of it, there was nothing malicious in it. Listen, you could have pushed a two-year-old kid the way I pushed that linesman and the kid wouldn’t have moved.
“It was a stupid thing for me to do, but the linesman made more of it than it was. It was a bit like what happened years later with Paolo Di Canio and the English ref [Paul Alcock] who stumbled back about 10 paces and then fell down.”
In his match report for The Scotsman, Ian Wood delivered a typically memorable description of Thomson’s reaction.
“He (Thomson) jostled the unfortunate official and struck the sort of belligerent attitude which, if exhibited by an adult male gorilla, would have had David Attenborough groping for the tranquilising darts,” wrote Wood.
Former Hibs captain Jackie McNamara, who watched the drama unfold from the stand that afternoon as he was injured, believes Thomson’s hair-trigger temper prevented him fulfilling his considerable potential as a player.
“I remember when we signed Bobby and he joined in the short-sided training routines the manager Pat Stanton did at the time,” recalls McNamara. “His first touch was brilliant and I was thinking ‘Wow, we’ve got some player here’. Bobby was a real talent but unfortunately he had a short fuse and it cost him dear.”
By Thomson’s own estimation at the time, the six-month ban saw him miss out on around £5,000 in appearance money and bonuses. But he was grateful to Hibs chairman Kenny Waugh for not cutting him adrift.
“Kenny actually arranged for me to go to Hong Kong to play, because they were not Fifa members at the time, and he thought my ban wouldn’t prevent me playing there,” he says.
“But that fell through. So I played in some behind-closed-doors games with Hibs, but that was all the football I had for six months.
“My disciplinary record was nothing to be proud of but I thought the length of the ban was ridiculous. I know you’re not supposed to touch an official and I remember Pat Stanton telling me the SFA were not going to treat me lightly. But we thought it would maybe be a six-game ban – not a six-month one.
“It was just my nature to mump and moan. Even in training, I was the same with different managers. It started off when I was at Morton. I had a double sending-off against Rangers and referees were always watching me after that. I was supposed to have head-butted Sandy Jardine, which I still deny to this day. I leaned forward with my head, but I never touched him. The photos in the papers at the time proved it.
“I didn’t know until I went into training on the Monday that I’d been sent off twice – the management team Benny Rooney and Mike Jackson had been told the second one was for arguing with the ref and refusing to leave the field.
“I wasn’t the most popular player with referees, that’s for sure, because of the reputation I had. I’d been sent off a few times and I was always arguing with referees.
“I won’t name names, but I went to smash open a charity bottle one night in Livingston and one of the top Scottish referees was sharing the duties with me. He told me, just between the two of us, that a lot of referees had my name in their book even before they went on the park.”
Thomson had a brief spell coaching non-league side Blackpool Mechanics, now AFC Blackpool, after his playing career ended. He is now a care worker in the town, helping sufferers of alcohol, drugs and mental health issues.
He retains an interest in football through the career of his daughter Hollie, a Scotland women’s international midfielder now playing for Rangers after a spell with Hibs.
“Hollie has done really well and I’m really proud of her,” says Thomson. “She moved to Rangers because she fell out with the manager at Hibs – so she’s a chip off the old block!”