Saturday Interview: Kevin Thomson - 'I would've loved to have come away from Hibs a hero'

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IT'S one of football's many rituals that when a player is engaged in the sometimes tricky business of stringing sentences together, his team-mates cannot wander by without pulling a stupid face or passing ribald comment.

"Whit, again?" says Kris Boyd, on seeing that his Middlesbrough team-mate Kevin Thomson is the interview subject. Then a short while later when Steven McManus approaches, Thomson nudges me: "Guess what Mick's going to say." Unsurprisingly it's "Whit, again?"

The wind-ups are almost identical. "Five-page spread? Bo-ring," says Boyd. "Yawn, yawn, yawn," says McManus. As are the retorts. "Not like you talking to the Daily Ranger, eh Boydy?" says Thomson. "Or you Mick with the Celtic Sun."

This is unsurprising and yet Boyd and McManus perhaps deserve some acknowledgement for their intuitiveness. They're always at least ten minutes apart with their interruptions and yet their understanding is almost telepathic. "Whit you doing after this big exclusive?" says McManus en route to the car park. "Fancy getting some food?" Thomson: "I'm viewing a flat then the Puma man's coming round to the hotel - maybe later?" Then it's Boyd's turn and Thomson, who will apologise for "these bams", runs through the same reply: "Maybe after the Puma man … hey, are you and Mick joined at the hip? Are you two actually pumping each other right now?"

It's this shared philosophy, developed during the Old Firm's dinosaur stomp across the SPL hinterlands, into which Boro have invested big-style in the hope of returning to England's Premiership. Manager Gordon Strachan hopes he has assembled a team of winners - bored witless winners from relentlessly successful raids on Hamilton and Paisley, but winners all the same, desperate for a new challenge, to visit different breezeblock arenas and and be surprised by other tattoos. "How many times did Rangers play St Mirren last season?" says Thomson, allowed to speak for himself at last. Six including cup ties and replays, I say, and a seventh was only avoided by the league split. "Jeezo," he says. "Well, I won't miss the repetitiveness of the SPL. I won't miss the split.

And I won't miss that special welcome I used to get from Easter Road's East Stand whenever I went back to Hibs - all those chants of 'Kevin Thomson is gay.'"

Earlier at Boro's Rockcliffe Park training complex which is actually on the leafy outskirts of Darlington, Boyd, Scott McDonald, Willo Flood and Lee Miller had all scored the requisite number of times in a shooting-in session and they were waiting for Barry Robson. All the other pitches had cleared before finally Robson netted and first-team coach Gary McAllister was able to shout: "That's the fella there!" It was like watching a SPL touring select rehearsing an ancient routine dating from the Indian Rope trick era and you could imagine, somewhere along the Pennine Way, these players bumping into "Solid Silver 60s" revival tours at service stations. Just as well, perhaps, that Thomson wasn't part of this skit as, with just six goals all told, his scoring rate is modest. Still just 25, he's been bought (for 2 million) for other things.

Boro haven't had a Scot in midfield who could tackle this hard since the days of Ayresome Park, Jack Charlton in the regulation sheepskin and a white band across the strip, and Thomson is flattered by any comparison with Graeme Souness. "He was world-class and I'm honoured to be mentioned in the same breath," he says. But Thomson has never been an especially self-conscious footballer, and surely Souness would applaud that. "I'm my own man," he adds, "and I play my own game. I work hard and I like to put my foot in. Of course I'd like to be the complete package and score great goals every week - who wouldn't? - but I try to make the best of what I've got and I get just as big a buzz from tracking back 50 yards to win the ball."

Honest? "I really do. I think a crunching tackle in the first ten minutes can set the tempo for how my team plays for the rest of the match and I try to do that every time."

Today Boro begin their Championship campaign at home to Ipswich Town and Roy Keane in the Riverside's away dug-out is another who would appreciate the value of a pivotal clattering which can energise a team and seem to sap the collective strength of the opposition.

You might imagine this more applies to rugby but, increasingly, football teams are being set out like rugby ones and Craig Levein, who is trying to make Scotland difficult to beat again, has already turned to Thomson for his first game in charge and has booked him a seat on the plane to Sweden for next Wednesday's final Euro Championships warm-up. Recognition, surely, that he's a player in the national coach's own image: intelligent, hard.

So, that's enough flattery for now. I have issues with Kevin Thomson and most of them concern his highly controversial switch from Hibs to Rangers in January 2007.

You will remember how, as captain at 21 of his boyhood heroes, he leapt from the transfer window and, if one of our more excitable journals is to be believed, was prepared to "crawl along the M8 on broken glass" to get to Ibrox. "That was the headline but I never said that," he says. "I wasn't trying to get away from Hibs, from Hibs fans, from my mates in the East Stand - I only wanted out of John Collins' sight. We didn't get on, him and me - I don't know why. He loved me for a fortnight, but then . . . "Was that the moment when, so the story goes, Thomson and his best friend Scott Brown started agitating for more money or a quick exit? "Well, it must have been disturbing for him with our agent at the time touting us all over the place." This was the incorrigible Willie McKay but there's another story, probably mischievous but funny all the same, that Thomson simply got fed up being invited to admire Collins' still-rippling six-pack.

He laughs. "Well, it's true that he was big into sit-ups, press-ups, pull-ups and dips. He was a physical specimen and of course he was a terrific player in his day. And it's because he was so cultured that I think a few of the boys were surprised he put so much emphasis on the gym. He could hold his own there but when he tried to join in practice games, well, there was only going to be one winner between him and me. And by the way, when I'm 38 I'd expect to be pushed off the ball by some cocky little bugger, too."

In the sometimes small, small world of the SPL that Thomson has now left behind, he would get booed on his returns to Easter Road with Rangers while Brown as a Celtic player was greeted with warm applause. "We always laughed about that because Scotty grew up supporting Rangers and he was the one who put in a transfer request while me, the born Hibby, didn't. But, funny old game. I never went to Rangers because I was a Rangers fan; I went because it was right for my career and so it proved. The pickle fan might have wanted me to say a godforbidden 'No' to Rangers but the smart ones wouldn't claim Easter Road to Ibrox is a bad move."

Pickle? That's what he said. A combination of fickle and parochial, perhaps. But Thomson isn't criticising that reaction. "Football must always have its mad passions," he insists. So he pulled on the royal blue for Scottish football's favourite panto villains and the pickle fan might point out that he went from being one of Tony Mowbray's Haircut 100 Hibs, kids playing with (old meaning) gay abandon in gold boots, to the traditional Ibrox short-back-and-sides and an involvement in the Rangers performance dubbed "anti-football" by Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

Thomson smiles at the memory of that surreal Govan night of desperate hoofed clearances being cheered to the rafters. "I got a couple of kicks at Messi, Ronaldinho too. There were some games in Europe where I don't think I ever got near the ball.

But what a great experience, going all the way to a European final (2008's Uefa Cup]. Listen, I love pure passing football and I loved watching Spain in the World Cup. But I'm not Andres Iniesta and Scooty Broon's isn't Xavi so in Scotland we have to compromise a bit. At Hibs we played some lovely stuff but we could also be quite naive. Under Walter Smith at Rangers I learned to become really tough. He always says he doesn't mind a player of lesser ability if he's got a stronger mentality."

"Character" is an evocative word at Ibrox, having been Jock Wallace's mantra, but Thomson perhaps underplays how much of it he already had, by dint of coming back from a year out at Hibs with a cruciate ligament injury in one knee, only for the other to suffer the same damage, interrupting his best form for Rangers when - though he probably wouldn't admit this - Barry Ferguson's absence afforded him greater room for expression.

Thomson helped Rangers win back-to-back titles and three cups. "Rangers are a fantastic club and I'm sure the fans appreciated how committed I was to play for them," he says.

When he talks like this Thomson is every inch the steely professional and midfield combatant, almost hard-hearted in his attitude, and the kind every team needs and now Middlesboro have got. This training centre is modestly-adorned training centre: on one wall, just a photograph of a big Boro flag on an Old Trafford away-day, the plaque commemorating Tony Blair's official opening and a Health & Safety notice. "The fans here have been pretty starved for a few years. The manager's determined to bring back the good times and so are us lot from the SPL. I don't take for granted that folk down here will know who I am but it's not a problem for me to have to go out and prove myself all over again."

Move on, put a foot in, never look back? Well, not quite, because a few times during an entertaining hour in the company of this talented, ambitious, thoughtful footballer, who's always seemed wiser than his years and should still have his best ones ahead of him, Thomson gets nostalgic, even sentimental. For nights out til 5am in Edward's then Subway with Garry O'Connor and Derek Riordan; for nights in with flatmate Scotty Broon with Thommo playing mum; for those new challenges in new towns reacquainting him with Big Jonesy at Scunthorpe Utd, Dino at Doncaster Rovers and Sprouler at Bristol City.

Does he feel free to be a Hibby again? "Aye, I think so. Rangers fans don't want to hear the Hibby shout, justifiably so. But, you know, my fiancee Calley and I have just become parents and I'm the proudest of dads to wee Jackson. Football's great but family really is the best and yet for me the the moment that could have matched becoming a father would have been lifting that League Cup with Hibs back in 2007. I would have loved to have left Hibs a hero.

John Collins knew that, everybody knew that to have been captain of a winning Hibees team would have been the greatest moment, no matter what I can still go on and achieve."

Rangers ruthlessness and Hibs romanticism - it sounds like Boro might have a winning combination there. But that's enough sappy stuff. Kevin Thomson has a date with Roy Keane today, and after that, Iniesta and Xavi will require some "compromising".....