HE SPOKE about Hibs, of course he did. Hibs and Celtic and his old mate Scott Brown and the excitement he feels ahead of today at Hampden.
He spoke about being at last year’s cup final with his father and getting a nudge from his old man just after half-time, a nudge that told him that it was time to go. That, as fans, they’d suffered enough for one day, one lifetime. And we’ll get to that. But first there’s Middlesbrough. Kevin Thomson wants to talk about what happened there, wants people to know what a head-wrecker it was and how well he did to survive it. It’s hard to know at what precise point my jaw dropped during our chat but, when it did, it pretty much stayed dropped the whole time.
We’re going back to the early weeks of some miserable years spent in England, initially as a Gordon Strachan player but then as part of Tony Mowbray’s new set-up once Strachan departed. It was Thomson’s second game for the club, against Leicester on 14 August, 2010. He was invalided out of the action in the 71st minute and wasn’t seen again for six weeks. The injury that had befallen him was a broken leg, not that anybody knew it. “It wasn’t diagnosed properly,” he says. “I came back in the October and played 17 games that season with a broken leg.”
More than that, he says that 18 months passed before somebody realised what had happened to him and some amount of angst occurred in the meantime. Eighteen months with a serious injury that went untreated? It seems impossible, but it’s true, he says. “People knocked me because I played only 56 games when I was down there. I was there for two-and-a-half years, played 56 games and probably three quarters of them were with a broken leg.
“That’s why I had problems. People knock you, knock you and knock you. I never got on well with the Middlesbrough fans and, in the end, I never got on well with the manager which was a frustration for himself and myself because we always had a great relationship [in their previous time together at Hibs]. He wanted me to be the Kevin Thomson that I felt I could be and everyone knows I can be, but the prolonged diagnosis stood in my way.”
Medics X-rayed it, specialists looked at it and, says Thomson, nobody understood. “I’m an honest lad. The frustration was that people were doubting what was wrong with me, the manager and the physio. They thought I was a bit soft and I knew I wasn’t. The biggest frustration for me was trying to tell them that. In the end, when they realised I had a broken leg, it was a relief.” Was there an apology? “No.” And the extent of the discomfort? He tells a story about taking the kids and the dogs for a walk and having to go across uneven ground en route. That would be him. Stuck. The bumpy terrain made the bone move and would trigger the pain. “The family see you when you’re at your lowest point. Thankfully, in the end I managed to get back up the road and the family are happy, that’s the main thing.”
Down at Middlesbrough Thomson could train, but only so long as nobody touched him. So no big tackles, no heavy treatment. But then the time came for him to play again, versus Portsmouth in October 2010, and now he had Michael Brown marking him instead of a sympathetic team-mate. “I had Brown breathing down my neck every time I touched the ball. I couldn’t tell him ‘By the way, I’ve got a broken leg, don’t tackle me today’.”
Thomson lasted eight minutes.
All of this is a world away from today but it still matters, it still hurts.
Time was when Mowbray was one of Thomson’s biggest fans. Time was when he couldn’t get Mowbray off the phone. When Mowbray was at West Brom, he tried to lure Thomson away from Hibs. When Thomson went to Rangers, Mowbray tried to poach him again. Twice. “I remember after one of the games at Middlesbrough he said to the media that maybe it was time for Kevin to pull up his sleeves and his socks and get on with it. It was a quote that gave me a kick in the teeth, to be honest. It was from a man that knows what I’m all about and knows me really well. I heard it on the radio going home from the game and that was the nail in the coffin. I phoned my dad and said I’ve had enough. No one could give me an answer about what was wrong with my leg and the only thing people were telling me was that I was fine.
“I just wanted to put my clothes in the car and drive up the road – then have them beg me to go back down. It was never a case of wanting an argument, I just wanted a bit of respect for what I was going through. The boy [surgeon Andrew Williams] who did my knee referred me to someone else. That’s how we got to the bottom of it.”
Thomson’s exit from Middlesbrough came in January of this year, Leicester the opposition just as they were when it all started to go wrong a few years before.
He says football doesn’t owe him anything but he wouldn’t mind some good fortune all the same, a run of games without the kind of injuries that have dogged him for too long. He is 28 and has already suffered two cruciate ligament injuries and four leg breaks. Sure, he had trophies and glory with Rangers but all of that seems a long time ago now.
The misery of his Middlesbrough years is not the only thing that endures, though. Thomson’s friendship with Scott Brown is as strong now as it ever was when they were a pair of midfield terriers at Hibs.
“He came down to see me when he had a broken foot and was in a moon boot. We’d have made a great centre-mid pair that weekend. He’s one of these lads you meet in football who’d do anything for you. Until the day we’re old and grey, I think we’ll always keep in touch.”
Brown, of course, has a League Cup winners’ medal with Hibs, unlike Thomson, who went to Rangers just before that trophy was won. Sunshine on Leith was rarely sung with more passion than it was that day at Hampden. Today would surpass it, no doubt. Even the thought of it sends a shiver up the collective Hibee spine.
“I was in with the Hibs fans at last season’s cup final. My dad is a big Hibs fans and he gave me a nudge on around 49 minutes. I said ‘Aye, if you want’. He had the radio on and I turned it off as soon as I got in the car. The phones were going anyway so we knew the score. It was the same situation as the semi-final this year. After the third [Falkirk] goal I could see on the far side that punters were going up the steps.
“But this team has a huge chance of becoming special people in the eyes of these supporters and, if we can grab that by the scruff of the neck and show everyone how good we can be, then I believe we can beat them. The pressure is on Celtic. They’re expected to win, they have the best players, but all you have to do is look at the FA Cup final [when Wigan beat Manchester City] to see that anything can happen. We need to believe we can win and the form of the boys in the past few weeks has picked up. The derby game was the best we’ve played since I’ve been here and, if we can show that tenacity and desire, then anything can happen.”
Nobody gives Hibs a chance, which is not a bad mindset to have. It’s certainly different to last season when the pressure was on and they buckled under the weight of it. No pressure this time. Only hope. And for Thomson, the possibility of a renaissance story ahead of an uncertain summer. He doesn’t know where he will be when next season kicks off.
“It’s a Catch 22. It’s great to come back and feel wanted again and it’s given me a platform to play, especially having the fairytale of playing in a cup final, if picked. But I also feel as though I could still play in the Championship and, if I had an opportunity to go back down the road and give it another crack, I’d have no sweeter satisfaction than going back to Middlesbrough with another team and doing really well against them.”
To go back as a cup winner would be all the sweeter.