Kevin Thomson isn’t the first former footballer to launch an academy. But he concedes there was plenty of scepticism when he announced he was starting one up.
After all, critics took a brief, three-game stint at Tranent Juniors, the team he surprisingly joined after a third spell with Hibs, as evidence of a feckless character unsure what to do following the end of a high-achieving, injury- disrupted senior career.
How wrong could you be?
Thomson has even turned down offers to manage, something that still remains an ambition, in order to push on with his plans. Two clubs, one from League 1, wanted him had he been prepared to give everything up, or at least split his time. But he wasn’t. Not yet.
This week sees the Kevin Thomson Academy celebrate its first birthday. He was thrilled to hear the news recently that one of his private clients, the former Hibs youngster Craig Henderson, has just signed professional terms with Livingston – the first of Thomson’s pupils to go pro.
“They are not coming to come to play for me, they are coming to improve themselves, which can only benefit their clubs,” Thomson says, in answer to those who query whether players already signed to clubs opting for extra coaching from Thomson could create conflict.
Celtic’s Liam Henderson is among those who have hired him for extras, as has Sam Stanton prior to joining Dundee United.
“I lost a Hearts player,” Thomson reveals. “They felt that he should not be working on a Saturday morning. He was a great kid, a great supporter of the academy, but they felt he should not be doing extra. I think everyone should be doing extra. When I was at Rangers, I still paid out of my own pocket to get extra massages for my legs, to try to be the best I can be.
“At Middlesbrough I hired an altitude tent to try to be as fit as I can be, it cost me £10 000. I slept in it for two days.
“I don’t know how you can tell a kid who is 14, and trying to make their way in the game, not to do extra. If he can be guaranteed to have a good career by being wrapped up in cotton wool then fine, but no kid can. They can be dropped like a stone at 16. An extra 45 minutes a week – if you cannot accommodate that then I don’t see how you can progress to accommodate full-time football.”
Few expected Thomson’s academy to get off the ground, never mind reach the stage where he is hiring other coaches. He has invested a five-figure sum. Thomson harboured doubts of his own as he fought battles concerning facilities, or more accurately the lack of available, affordable ones, in Edinburgh.
With Scotland’s World Cup oblivion now confirmed, more navel-gazing is underway. Too few adequate facilities is just one of the complaints, together with the standard of coaching and poor application. Thomson has already railed against the first of these contributing factors in a Scotsman column. Regards the other two, he can do little more.
An A-licence coaching badge holder, he is out there, rain or shine, helping pupils from the age of five upwards. A Uefa Cup finalist with Rangers, he’s as happy working with those who can barely kick a ball, but who want to learn basics, as helping established players improve by the fine margin that could make all the difference.
Thomson started the project “from the back of my car with a bag of balls and some cones – and it’s been seven days a week”.
He was originally planning on having help – from Scott Brown. There is an age difference of only eight months between the pair. But while Brown was tangling with some of the finest midfielders in world football for Celtic against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night, Thomson was taking a training session at Bo’ness United Community Football Club. The friends’ divergent paths are a consequence of Thomson’s horrific injury legacy, including three broken legs. He retired at 31, while Brown’s still going strong. But Thomson found satisfaction in another field, and Brown might one day too.
“The only way I could give the drive and time the academy needed was to be retired,” he says. “Scott will be retired one day but he might go on to become Celtic manager, so the academy will be a million miles away [from his thoughts]. But he might retire and decide he wants to enjoy life and that might create some spare time to be involved with the academy.”
Garry O’Connor, their former Hibs team-mate, is among those trying to establish something similar.
“It’s tough,” says Thomson. “You are putting yourself out there and you sometimes have to go to clubs who have coaches who have a perception of you and maybe did not like you as a player. Or you are taking a group of 7 or 8- year-olds, which is like taking kids in the playground, and is totally different to what I have been used to. You get into the car afterwards and think: that was all over the place!”
He sometimes wonders whether he is just a glorified babysitter. But then the positive feedback makes it all worthwhile, as does something as seemingly minor as watching a child learn how to kick a ball with his instep.
“It is a huge passion,” he says. “I’ve put myself out there to try and be the best coach I can be. When I look back on the year, one I am delighted I have done it, and two, I am very proud.”
On those approaches from two lower-tier clubs, he says: “I don’t want to sound too big for my boots, but it’s not been the right offer for me to give up all the hard work I have done.”
Thomson was also interviewed to be former Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha’s No 3, a close shave given the way things turned out. “I’m proud I’ve been noticed at senior level – that is where I want to get to eventually,” he says.