GIVEN the way fortunes have fluctuated, it seems like a lifetime since we occupied the same vestibule at the St Mirren training ground and Steven Thompson told me that “you have to dream”. That was shortly after he had returned to Scotland after his sojourns south of the Border. He had signed for his boyhood heroes and was desperate to win silverware with them before he hung up his boots.
“If you don’t have a picture of it in your head, a picture of yourself holding the cup… I don’t know, I think you can use that vision to help you get there and to inspire you,” he said back then and, for him, it worked.
When the Paisley side claimed their first piece of silverware since 1987, he played a key role, netting the winner over Celtic in the semi-final and then weighing in with a goal as they beat Hearts by that same margin in the 2013 League Cup final.
“That was the fairytale. This could be the complete opposite,” he says as he now contemplates the very real threat of relegation. Sitting bottom of the Premiership, four points adrift of Motherwell in the play-off place and seven behind Ross County and safety, the club return to action on Friday with a match against leaders Celtic. Before the next week is out they will then face both Motherwell and Jim McIntyre’s Staggies – who have surprised their rivals with a timely run of five wins from their past six games – in a three-match series which could all but decide St Mirren’s season before they even get to the split.
“The Motherwell game – that’s a huge game and it’s one I will admit I don’t think we can afford to lose,” he said. “Our main aim at the moment is probably not to finish bottom but we could still go on a run similar to what Ross County have done, but the lesser of the two evils would be the play-offs, that might be our lifeline.
“I suppose the fear for me is not just going down but, if we do, will I ever play in the SPL ever again? Will anyone want me, because I don’t have a contract beyond the summer and who is going to take me? I would hope someone would want me but would St Mirren want me in the Championship? I have so many unknowns and uncertainties.
“I certainly wouldn’t want being part of the squad that relegated the team I love from the SPL to mark the end of my playing career. That would be a nightmare and it’s not the story I want to bow out on. But the harsh reality is that unless we find some wins over the next month or so, and probably in the next three games, then, unfortunately, that might become the reality.”
But there’s a phrase he uses a few times throughout the chat. He insists that no one, especially not him, is waving the white flag just yet.
Despite being bludgeoned and bloodied from the outset this season, never escaping the dark shadows of the relegation battle, he says there is still some fight left at St Mirren Park.
In that struggle for salvation, the 36-year-old striker may be the club’s best hope. He knows that and the realisation has fuelled more dreams.
“I have had that pressure since I joined the club. In the three years I have been here I have thrived on that and I am just hoping that in these last eight games I can play a major part in securing our SPL status. I would love to be the one who keeps us up, I absolutely would, and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about that.”
The fact is, the campaign could have been different if he hadn’t spent most of it hampered by injury and pain. He got himself into great shape in the pre-season, keen to build on three consecutive 16-goal seasons, only to be sidelined with a groin tear.
He has had two operations and three comebacks. “It’s been horrendous,” he says.
Twice he returned to action too soon. Only now is he free of pain.
“That’s only been in the past six weeks. It feels excellent. I’m physically fit enough to get about the pitch and be of worth but I need that match sharpness. In terms of my whole career, the past 20 years, I would say it has been my toughest season, on and off the pitch – just watching the guys not doing so well and not being able to have any impact on that. I want to be able to be a bigger help and influence. In the last three years I quite often popped up when we were needing a wee result with an important goal so I’m hoping I can do that now. I’m hoping I’ve still got a few of them in me.”
With only one goal so far this season, he needs another to reach the landmark of 50 goals for the club – a figure he had initially planned to achieve and then pass by the time the first few games were done. It’s his way of taking responsibility and he is hoping others in the dressing room will follow his lead.
An apathetic display against St Johnstone prior to the international break riled him. A positive figure, who has had to cushion the blows very publicly in his role as Sportscene pundit more times than he cares to recall, he says there is no way even he can put a gloss on that, or on the way much of the season has gone, particularly at home, where the Buddies have served up just one league win.
Thompson adds that it is impossible for him to pick a player of the year as no one has fulfilled their potential. It’s a measured and honest appraisal of the mess St Mirren are in. But he still believes. Not like a zealot, like a dreamer, but as one who is willing to go out and try to make the dream a reality rather than wait for a fairy godmother to wave a wand.
“We can’t wait for someone else to make something happen. We have to all grab the bull by the horns and every one of us has take responsibility.
“Against St Johnstone I got the impression players were looking around hoping that someone would do something instead of grabbing control and being the one to make something happen.”
Thompson has suffered the ignominy of relegation before, at Burnley. There’s no fondness in the recollection but he says it wasn’t accompanied by the fears that stalk St Mirren now.
“I think there’s an embarrassment factor, there’s the self-pride factor, obviously disappointment.
“You learn more about yourself and about others through failure, though, I think. It drives you going forward. When I was relegated with Burnley it was from the Premiership to the Championship, which is a lot different from being relegated from the SPL to the Championship in Scotland.
“It was still quite rosy, it’s still a big league and they do get significant parachute payments, but I think the biggest worry is that if we go down to the division below, I look at that league and it is unbelievably competitive and there are no guarantees you are coming back up, not instantly, and that in itself should be a huge fear.”
Thompson’s six-year-old son Struan, a member of St Mirren’s youth set-up, has unintentionally rammed the club’s predicament home.
“He is football crazy and gives me more stick than anyone else. I came in after one match and my wee boy said: ‘You lost again! You’re rubbish!’ The good thing is he doesn’t quite understand the football hierarchy or the concept of promotion and relegation so I’m not sure how much he understands about the situation we are in. For him you win or lose a game, he doesn’t see the bigger picture. I have spoken to him about the big leagues and smaller leagues but he doesn’t understand why Hearts and Hibs and Rangers are in the smaller league. ‘But they’re good,’ he says.”
But the bigger you are the harder the fall. “My biggest fear would be for the club itself if we were to go down. Four years ago, when I came up from England, Dunfermline were in the SPL and they were getting similar size crowds to us and they were relegated and then relegated again and this season they won’t get automatic promotion [from League One] and are struggling to even get into the play-offs.
“It is a cautionary tale. It is possible something like that could happen. It’s extremely tough for everyone financially and I know that St Mirren have been making cuts this year and if we were to go down then an awful lot more would probably be needed.
“I don’t know if the young people realise the extent of the mess it would make if we were to go down. But I think they are starting to realise. But again I don’t want the focus to be on going down. We haven’t given up yet and it’s important to focus on staying up and the next three games will be pivotal in that. At the end of them we will know where we are.”
After managerial casualties and a season of disappointments, a rally now would equate to a Roy of the Rovers tale. It’s not something Thompson is adverse to.
After all, you have to dream.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS