Aidan Smith: Won over by Steven Thompson’s charm

Local lad Steven Thompson stands in front of the iconic Paisley Anchor Mills. Picture: John Devlin
Local lad Steven Thompson stands in front of the iconic Paisley Anchor Mills. Picture: John Devlin
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ST MIRREN’S training ground is a modest set-up, as you might expect, with the money being spent on the pitches and the portable cabins rather than an interview room for the star striker to kick back and reflect on the highlights and high crosses of a near 20-year career. So Steven Thompson must make do with a passageway where he is at the mercy of the merry banter of his team-mates and indeed his manager.

“Is this the life story you’re telling?” wonders Tommy Craig. “He must be on overtime,” quips someone else. He fights back as best he can: “Hey, big nose! … Eff off! … Wild-man, are you still wearing shorts? Unbelievable scenes…Right, a game of New Words with Friends tonight if you’re wantin’ pumped.”

Then the door edges open to reveal a naked torso save for a pair of black underpants and – I don’t know how else to put this – their wearer seems to be quite pleased to see Thommo. “How gorgeous am I?” declares the voice behind the plywood, demonstrating with some hip-thrusts. “Christ, have you looked in a mirror?” sighs our man. “You’re the ugliest guy here.”

This is what Thompson will miss when he finally hangs up his boots. The juvenile nonsense of being a footballer. Right now, as he recovers from surgery on his troublesome groin, he has been nipping into the changing room while the boys are outside and leaving little notes in their trouser pockets. “Oh, the usual derogatory stuff,” he explains. “Most of it’s probably unprintable. But the other day when I got home I found a note in my pocket. Me and my wife Joanne were in the kitchen, killing ourselves laughing. It said: ‘Just effing retire.’ I thought that was brilliant patter.”

The injury, which happened pre-season, wasn’t the worst of his career but it has been serious enough. “The tendon tore and so had to be removed. Basically, that was a piece of my anatomy gone. The physio to strengthen the groin has been repetitive and relentless.” He has not yet been able to help Saints battle it out in the league basement this season and will again be missing today when the team he has always supported play his first club, Dundee United.

Thompson knows the clock is ticking. He knows that this setback, coupled with the fact he turned 36 last month, will probably have some writing his football obit. But he is determined to prove them wrong. “I can hear the ageist lobby: ‘Ah well, this was always going to be his last season and now that he cannae effing run…’

“I try not to give these people any scope. During games I always make sure I work extremely hard. Obviously not playing is a problem. But I’m aiming to be back before Christmas and I want to do well enough to earn another year’s contract in the summer, which was the aim before I got injured.”

I must admit I didn’t used to like Steven Thompson. Him and Craig Beattie. Gallumping, ball-bursting galloots, I used to call them – a not entirely objective view. I wanted to see Derek Riordan in a Scotland shirt and these two seemed to be barring the way like burly nightclub bouncers, which is kind of ironic, considering how Deek would go on to be persona non grata at many hotspots and hops.

But Thompson has worn me down with his big, daft charm. His return to Scotland and St Mirren as a Renfrewshire prodigal has been a good story, not least when he scored a goal in the 2013 League Cup triumph, the Buddies’ first silverware for 26 years. At the same time he has become a personable pundit with a regular gig on Sportscene. In the flesh today, in between all the interruptions, he makes for entertaining company.

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He is a committed family man. “Mondays – gymnastics; Tuesdays – tennis; Wednesdays – Brownies; Thursdays – tennis and football; Fridays – Anchor Boys and choir practice; Saturdays – performing arts and more bloody tennis; Sundays – football.” This is the dizzying schedule of his children, eight-year-old Gracie and Struan, six. “I’m Taxi Dad,” he laughs. “I do all the pick-ups and I love it.” The fact he’s so prominent out and about in Renfrewshire has cranked up the challenge of what you might call his long farewell with St Mirren: “I didn’t want to be at the school-gates with folk going: ‘There’s that past-it footballer’. When I came back I was determined to make a success of it.”

Boy, can he play guitar. Actually I don’t know if he is any good; I just like using lines from David Bowie songs. In his teens, Thompson loved dance music and bought a set of turntables to DJ at under-age discos until Oasis and the Stone Roses converted him to indie. He swapped the decks for a guitar and his father Graham taught him the basics. “Dad has played in a lot of bands. The latest is called the Ten Bob Sliders so there’s your plug, old man. He performed in the Clutha Vaults many times and I used to go and hear him. It’s awful to think he could have been playing the night the helicopter crashed into it.” Thompson has penned cup final songs for Cardiff City and St Mirren. Any day now he expects a request from Gracie that he learns all the songs on Taylor Swift’s new album.

And here’s another thing you don’t often get with the post-match chit-chatterama: a 20-minute interlude on classic TV drama. “We loved House of Cards and Game of Thrones and Californication and Suits and Dexter and right now we’re into Homeland,” he says of his regular boxset nights with wife Joanne. His all-time favourite is Breaking Bad and he is deeply envious when I tell him I’ve still got five episodes of that one to watch. “The best final five episodes of any series ever. It’s mind-blowing.”

Steven Thompson, TV personality, is not a role he envisaged for himself. “I never put myself forward for the telly – they came to me.” Still, nice work if you can get it, especially in the autumn of the career. Would he eventually want to do it full-time? “Well, I’ve done all my coaching badges.” So: football management or Scotland’s Gary Lineker, the first ex-player to be the face of the sport on the box, with all due respect to Brian Marjoribanks, briefly of Hibernian, who presented in the monochrome 1960s? “Ha, I’m not sure I’d be offered that. I’m keen on being a manager and would probably regret never having tried it.”

He enjoys the punditry and while doing a fine job on the Sunday night highlights show he admits that still being a player colours what he says. “I have to be respectful to the game and the guys who play it. I don’t think I want to be slagging off bad defending if I’m going to be playing against the centre-half responsible the following week.” As luck would have it, he’s been on the show “about four times” when Jim Goodwin has been a subject for discussion because of a tasty tackle. “That’s been difficult because he’s a team-mate. But even if I felt free to say whatever I wanted I don’t think I would be hyper-critical. I don’t think I’m as naturally opinionated as Mikey bloody Stewart, that’s for sure! I remember when I was younger, not having the thick skin I do now, and being criticised by pundits or journalists. It was a horrendous feeling.”

Born in Houston – the Renfrewshire one, of course – Thompson grew up next door to Barry Lavety. “Our street was called The Meadows. We rang doorbells and ran away, lit fires, played garden Olympics and kerby where you try and bounce a ball off the opposite kerb and make it come back to you. But mostly it was football in the park across the way. The 10,000 hours you have to put in at something to become good were all spent with Basher and my big brother Paul.

“Basher is four years older than me; I was at his 40th birthday party in the local a few weeks ago. I’ll never forget the day he signed for St Mirren. ‘Are you coming out to play, Basher?’ ‘Nah, I’m not allowed now’. He was 16 and soon after that I was watching him in the first team. He could have been exceptional, you know. He had his problems but was unlucky with injuries, too. I was very proud to play against him when I got to Dundee United. Two No 9s in the Premier League from the same wee place, just 6000 folk.”

Because his father was a financial consultant and his mother Alison a deputy headteacher – and also because he stayed on at school until sixth year, securing three Highers – early profiles of Thompson painted him as being of an academic bent. “That’s a laugh. I got all the Highers in fifth year and then just mucked about. I only stayed on because Joanne was staying on. She’s from Bridge of Weir, the next village. Her gang of friends used to hang around with my gang and drink cider in the park – you know how it goes. We started going out with each other aged 15 so have been together longer than we’ve been apart in our lives.”

When Thompson signed for United, Joanne followed him to Dundee to study town planning at uni. He rattles off the coaches who helped knock the big, raw laddie into shape. They included fellow strikers Gordon Wallace and Paul Sturrock, the latter being obsessed with link-up play. “He used to take me out in the afternoons. I moaned about that but when I think back, these sessions were the foundations of my career. He kept a book and marked down all the touches strikers had… 65 per cent linkage and you won the game – that was his theory. Or was it 75 per cent? Anyway, I thank him!”

That link-uppery must have impressed Alex McLeish and Thompson joined Rangers on Hogmanay 2002. “Was I good enough for Ibrox? That’s what I was thinking. There were some serious footballers in that changing room: Claudio Caniggia, Ronald de Boer, Mikel Arteta, Shota Arveladze, Michael Mols, Arthur Numan. Surviving in training was going to be a challenge in itself. In some ways, the games would be easy. Great players can carry you through.”

He won titles in the light blue, two of the most last-day-dramatic in history. He won domestic cups and scored in the Champions League. “If you were box-ticking you’d say my time at Rangers was a success. My goal record was pretty good – 25 in 75. But mostly I came off the bench. Latterly my form dipped and, well, the Rangers fans can be hard to please. Maurice Ross, Bob Malcolm, even Alan Hutton – we took it in turns to make them groan.”

Thompson moved to England where, with Cardiff then Burnley, he had to “remodel” himself. In Scotland he had been able to out-muscle most central defenders apart from Celtic’s immovable object, Bobo Balde. Down south the physical challenge was greater and hardest of them all was John Terry. “You try to leave one on the centre-half but the first time we jumped for a ball he went right through me.”

In our enjoyable chat Thompson doesn’t come across as a football obsessive. He talks about the “snobbery” that surrounds what are viewed as superior tactical formations. He reveals he rarely watches games in the house. And he stresses that the England experience had been more than just about the game for him. “I don’t know if parochial is the right word to describe me but it was good for Joanne and I to try some place new. Both the kids were born down that gave a lot of strength to the family.” The Scotland caps stalled at 16 after that but he cherishes every appearance, even those in football outposts such as the Faroes and Hong Kong.

Thommo was always going to come back. To Houston Primary for the kids’ schooling and to St Mirren. He worries, though, about the modest crowds, all too apparent on Sportscene. Last season the cameras captured his last-minute overhead kick to beat Ross County 5-4, an artful goal he probably wouldn’t have scored earlier in his career. “There was no one in the stand behind that goal, just a wee ballboy going daft. If that had been England, packed crowd, I’d probably have gone straight into the Match of the Day titles. Ach well … ”

With no Rangers, Hearts or Hibs in the top flight, the game here has gone “a bit flat”. Wearing his pundit’s bunnet he reckons that what we need is for today’s League Cup draw to produce an Old Firm semi-final. But what Steven Thompson really wants is to be putting on his boots again – to confirm to his son that the old man really was a footballer, just before the boy outstrips him at all sports, but more pressingly to help St Mirren escape the danger zone. “It’s still my aim, even though I haven’t played a game yet, to finish the season as top scorer and unfortunately for us right now the top total is a piddly three. None of these idiots you’ve met today is exactly running away with it.”

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