Thursday, 16 August 2012

Interview with Steve Thompson - Part 1 (Boyhood Dreams)

For the latest in my series of interviews with former Blades I spoke with a man who has lived the schoolboy dream and served the club in nearly every role possible. From watching on the terraces, he became a ball boy and apprentice at Bramall Lane, before the club sadly released him. He returned at the end of his playing career for a key role in a successful promotion season and was then to return 8 years later as coach before a brief spell as manager.
Steve Thompson could perhaps be viewed as unlucky, particularly with the timing of his appointment as manager at United - the club was undergoing a turbulent spell in the boardroom that did him few favours. But as we talk I realise that he doesn't see it that way. I also find out that he may have graced the Bramall Lane turf more frequently and earlier in his career, but for misjudgement of a scout, the club's lack of money and circumstance.
It was a lengthy chat and there are parts of his career that we barely touched upon, but I still think there is plenty to interest the wider football fan as much as fellow Unitedites.

As a local lad (Steve went to Acres Hill Junior School and Waltheof Comprehensive School) and he was a frequent visitor to Bramall Lane as a lad.
I was a decent player as a schoolboy and played for Sheffield Boys and Yorkshire Boys. I was a right back at the time and my role model was Len Badger. I used to go to Bramall Lane as a fan, every game I played for Sheffield Boys and Yorkshire Boys I wanted to be signed by Sheffield United. Then United offered me a place in their junior team, playing in the Hatchard League, and I ended up spending three years there.
Steve Faulkner was in the Sheffield Boys team around that time and, along with Steve, ended up at United as an apprentice.
At the time, if you were a junior you had a few jobs to do. I remember having to clean the big baths out in the changing room, clean the players cars and we also doubled as a ball boy on matchday, so I had the perfect pitch-side vantage point.
It was a great era and there were some great players for United at that time. It was a joy to watch Tony Currie, Alan Woodward, Eddie Colquhoun, Len Badger, Trevor Hockey.... I could just reel all off all the names. As time progressed you could see TC was just a world beater. I don’t think we will ever see a player as good as Tony Currie at United ever again. He had everything; strength, power, amazing technical ability on the ball, goals from midfield and a brilliant free kick. They talk about Beckham's ability with free kicks in the modern game; well TC was on a par with him.
I was a ball-boy the day United beat Arsenal 5-0 and Tony Currie sat on the ball to tease Alan Ball (Ball had done similar at Highbury when Arsenal had run United ragged by a similar scoreline). Another incident I remember was Currie on the ball and he beckoned Alan Ball towards him. Alan ran at him and TC nutmegged him.
I particularly remember a match against Hull City; I was on the cricket pavilion side, with all the other three sides of the ground packed and the number of people in front of the pavilion forced me back up into the pavilion building itself.
I have played cricket against Ted Hemsley since and we always had a laugh and I still see Badge. Genuine people and in those days they associated with the fans and the fans could associate with them. That is something that Dave Bassett did well with United, we went in that players’ bar after for a drink and Harry always made sure we attended supporters’ club dos. We were a genuinely 'United' club.
For any local lad who is an apprentice with the club he supports, the hardest part must be coming to terms with being released, yet Steve seems relatively sanguine about it looking back.
John Short was the Chief Scout at the time - assisting manager John Harris - and he said that I was too short to play right back. Up to the age of 17 I was about 5'3" and then I had a bit of a growth spurt and I was 6'1" and 13 stone. Too late to salvage my career at United though. In later years though John admitted to me he had made an error, telling me "I got that one wrong didn't I".
Steve started playing for Frecheville Community Association in the Yorkshire Football League whilst trying to forge a career away from football, however the lure of the Lane soon proved too much.
When I was released by United I was working for the Yorkshire Electricity Board and doing nights at Granville College. It was hard though and one night I was heading down Granville Road and could see the lights on at Bramall Lane for a night match. I never made it to the college. I ran off to the Lane and watched the match. I never went back to the YEB. When I stopped being a ball boy I was on the Kop and that was where I could be found every home game in and around playing.
Steve went on to play for Worksop Town and then, in 1976, he attracted the attention of Boston United's then manager Howard Wilkinson. Keen to impress, he managed to get himself sent-off for a clash with Jim Kabia during Worksop's 3–1 defeat at York Street on 24 March 1976. However, the incident did not dissuade Wilkinson and Steve soon became a Boston player.
Whilst at Boston United I was working at Sheffield Newspapers selling advertising space, amazingly I found myself working alongside my boyhood hero Len Badger. Whilst there Jimmy Sirrell (then United manager) approached me about signing for United, my boss at the paper was a Blade and allowed me to join up with United. I went to an Under 21 tournament in Holland on trial alongside fellow trialist Paul Stancliffe and United youth products Keith Edwards and Tony Kenworthy. Jimmy Sirrell wanted to sign me, but they couldn’t pay what I was earning combined at Sheffield Newspapers and Boston and we couldn’t agree terms.
Howard Wilkinson crops up a few times in Steve's story and I wondered if he had a big influence on Steve's career both as a player and manager.
A bit of everyone has rubbed off on me. I was only 18 when I went to Boston as a player and Howard was the manager for a couple of seasons. He kept in contact with me and when I broke my leg at Lincoln, I was still living in Sheffield, and Howard let me do my rehabilitation at Wednesday with Alan Smith. I was a year out, but Alan (Wednesday and one time England physio) was one of the best I ever worked with. Howard treated me like a Wednesday player; I spent a lot of time with Peter Shirtliff, Mark Shelton, Gary Megson and got to know them.
Colin Murphy brought me into league football at Lincoln City and taught me a lot. Lennie Lawrence was a huge influence in 5 years at Charlton. It’s funny, I’ve had 3 southerners, with Dave Bassett as well, and a Sheffielder in Howard and every one of them had an impact.
As Steve mentioned, Colin Murphy brought him into league football at Lincoln City and he was named "Player of the Season" in 1981/82. The Imps lost just nine times from his first 61 outings.
Whilst at Lincoln, we beat United 3-1 at Sincil Bank and won the return 1-0 at Bramall Lane. There were three Sheffield lads in that Lincoln team; me, Gordon Hobson and Phil Turner. It was only later when I met Ian Porterfield (United manager at the time of the game) in a Rotherham pub that he told me he tried to sign the three of us but couldn't have agreed a deal. That would have paired me with Paul Stancliffe and it was when I was in my prime as well, you know 24/25. That would have been fabulous, but you can't turn back the clock and I was fortunate to get the chance in my late 30's to go back and play a supporting role.
Steve's final game for Lincoln was at Bradford City on the day of the Valley Parade fire. He was The Imps' captain that day. We don't talk about the tragedy, but Steve mentions how in the days after he felt like an unlucky omen, a Jonah figure I suggest.
Post-match we flew out to Magaluf on the end of season break and I was in the apartment where the lift snapped whilst I was in it and then on the way back the plane crashed on landing at Leeds/Bradford Airport. It was one terrible event after another.
That summer Steve joined Charlton Athletic and his three seasons there saw him captain a side winning promotion to the First Division and reach the Simod Cup final. In July 1988 Steve moved to Leicester for a fee of £40,000, but had not made a first team appearance by the November. After just 5 months at Leicester, Steve was about to fulfil his boyhood dream at the age of 33. The Blades were looking to bounce back out of the Third Division at the first attempt under Dave Bassett and a fee of £20,000 secured the veteran's services.
Harry rung me up and said he was looking for an experienced centre back to supplement the squad as they were pushing for promotion. United had captain Paul Stancliffe, Brian Smith and Darren Carr and Harry asked me to come in and give it what I'd got. He said he would play me when and if, but I was 34/35 at the time and I snatched his hand off. I was never going to turn the chance down.

It clearly wasn't a difficult decision for Steve and I ask him what stood out about the team he joined. The answer he gave is similar to that of all the players I have spoken to, who played under Dave Bassett at that time.
I have the utmost respect for Harry, a tremendous manager, a fantastic motivator and he had brought together a great bunch of lads. There was a great togetherness and camaraderie about United. It was a tremendous set up and you were made to feel part of it straight away from the moment you walked in the dressing room. My first day at training up at Warminster Road had three fights and I was in one of them. I had a spat with Toddy (Mark Todd); I think Paul Williams was involved in one of the others.
Wally Downes and some of the old Wimbledon boys had brought a bit of the Crazy gang spirit with them, jumping out of trees at you and other pranks. Back then you had a row, then just sorted things out and got on with it. It was a tremendous team spirit and one I recognised from coming up against Wimbledon when I was at Lincoln.
Whether you were in the 1st team or reserves you were all as one, you played together and you drank beer together. An ethos of work hard and play hard, but if you didn't work hard you didn't get in the team. Harry allowed you the freedom of a night out and he would often come with us. In fact he used to drive some of the players and drop them off at Josie's (city centre nightclub and footballer hang-out Josephine's), but don't get me wrong he always knew everything about what time you got there, who was there and what time you left.
On the pitch, the side played better football than they were given credit for as well. It was easy to give them a long ball tag.
You only have to look at some of the players Harry had whilst he was there, take John Gannon, Glyn Hodges, players who were comfortable on the ball and great passers, he moulded Brian Deane at a young age and delivered a great partnership with Tony Agana. But he still appreciated his bread and butter players who won the tackles, stuck their head in. It was a good mix.
Yes we had a laugh and a joke in training, but I remember thinking that I had never done so much set play practice and 11 v 11 games in my life. With Harry, everything was planned and set out to the letter. You knew who you were marking and where you should be.
Steve made his debut against Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground in the Sherpa Van Trophy and followed it with a home league debut the following Saturday in a 4-2 victory over Gillingham.
I certainly remember the Wrexham game. I never enjoyed playing at the Racecourse Ground; it was tough with the partisan Welsh fans and their feelings towards English clubs. I played alongside Stan (Paul Stancliffe) in a 1-0 win.
The Gillingham game I remember little about. It was all a bit hazy as I was in dream world. I thought the boat had gone when the chance to play for United had passed in my mid-20's
I ask Steve what are his main memories of that promotion season.
On the Wednesday leading up to the game at home to Reading I had quite a serious car accident and I had written off my car. I had done a bit of damage to myself, but when Harry rang me up on the Thursday and asked, "Are you facking alright?" I told him I was fit to play. Despite the aches and pains I played well and got my only Man of the Match award whilst I was at United. Usually when you won the prize was a silver salver or a cut-glass crystal decanter, I won a car cleaning kit! I can't help feeling it was a set-up from the lads, knowing who the sponsor was that week!

We played some cracking football that season, with great wing play. If you remember Alan Roberts, Harry always used to take him off late in the game, with 7 or 8 minutes to go. In the last home game of the season, there was about ten minutes to go and Alan knew the time had come when Harry was going to make a substitution and as usual it was going to be Alan coming off. He called over to me on the pitch to what was going off on the side-line as Geoff Taylor (Dave Bassett's assistant) frantically flicked through the cards to find the number 7. Alan said; "Watch Harry. They won't find the number 7, it's in the boot of my car!" In the end they went to the away dugout to see if they had a spare. Alan still got substituted, but as he said; "At least I got another 4 minutes on the pitch out of it".
Steve scored his only goal for United at Northampton Town, but some of the shine was taken off it with horrific events elsewhere.
It was the same day as the Hillsborough disaster, so the delight in scoring was short lived as new filtered through of what was happening back in Sheffield. We were due at the PFA dinner, but that was understandably cancelled.
Despite establishing himself alongside Paul Stancliffe in the heart of the Blades defence, Steve disappointingly missed out on the final games of the season.
I had a cyst on my knee. It was a problem which eventually stopped me playing. Darren Carr came in and did very well. I guess I did the job Harry wanted me to do, in fact he told me I had.
Nine months after arriving at Bramall Lane, Steve was to move on again. Not that he was expecting a move and the way he found out about it was quite unconventional too. Perhaps he shouldn’t have expected any different from Dave Bassett.
I was realistic in that Harry had brought me in to do a job, but the way in which he broke the news to me that I was leaving was a little odd. I was up at Abbeydale Cricket Club in the close season with Harry watching the cricket from the pavilion. I had a year left on my contract and hadn't considered the possibility of leaving. Anyway, I was watching the match through a pair of binoculars and scanning around the ground I saw a face I recognised walking up the drive.
ST: "Mark Morris is there?!"
(Morris was one of Bassett's former Wimbledon players, a centre back, who at the time was still at Wimbledon and not a player you would expect to see at a cricket match in the Sheffield suburbs)
DB: "Yes, I meant to tell you Tommo, he's taking your place. I've got you a deal with Lincoln, you're going back to Colin Murphy who wants you to play for a year and be his assistant."
ST: "Oh….thanks a lot Harry"
In Part 2 we talk about Steve’s time at Lincoln and a return to Bramall Lane.

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