Liverpool FC: David Thompson on life at Anfield with Steven Gerrard and his new job in Gibraltar
The first question is short and sweet and David Thompson laughs at it, but it’s really the only place to start – how are we here, on a converted cruise ship, in Gibraltar Marina?
This is no ordinary setting, with the imposing rock of the country towering over us. But, as quickly becomes apparent, the job Thompson – the former Liverpool, Coventry and Blackburn midfielder – is now in is anything but ordinary.
Soon he’ll be roaring with laughter as he tells a story about Glen Johnson, some liquid refreshment and a bunch of angry taxi drivers, but first we need some background on how and why he’s in the southernmost tip of Europe.
David Thompson has caught up with Sportsmail in Gibraltar, where he now works for Europa FC
Thompson (right) played for Liverpool alongside Steven Gerrard (left) during his playing days
Thompson became sporting director of Europa FC, one of 11 teams in the Gibraltar National League, at the end of last summer. Football, in this small area of the Iberian Peninsula, is unique – and not without organizational and administrative headaches.
For starters, remember that Gibraltar has only one stadium – and every game on the calendar is played. Most clubs also train there. For a man who has spent most of his life in the Premier League, it was an eye opener, but it’s also exactly the kind of challenge he craved.
‘There is no money here,’ he explains with a laugh. ‘There is no sponsorship, they don’t sell tickets to the games. We all play on the same field…how it’s structured, I don’t know. It’s madness, really. It’s organized chaos, but it works for them.’
And business works for Europe. They are second in the standings, five points behind leaders Lincoln Red Imps. The ambition is to reach Champions League qualification next season and Thompson will try to make the right signings in January to achieve that goal.
“I watch matches in Spain and Portugal, I watch matches so I can bring in players,” he continues. “Even if I get someone to improve our team, it will make a big difference. It feels great. It feels like exactly where I should be.” His drive is unquestioned and his belief that he will succeed is unwavering. It is, as he sees it, his second chance to return to the highest level of football. His first chance, he will now explain vividly, was held back by his impetuosity and then destroyed by injury.
Thompson was an alumni of Liverpool’s Academy, graduating in the same era as Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher. He was a pocket dynamo of great abilities, but he left Anfield in 2000, aged 23, and seven years later, after stints at Wigan, Portsmouth and Bolton, a chronic knee problem forced him to retire.
There should have been medals – his appearance at Coventry removed him from Liverpool’s 2001 treble winners – and there was almost a cap for England when Sven Goran Eriksson selected him for squads against Slovakia and Macedonia in 2002. But in the end there was a lingering sense of unfulfillment.
“I was devastated when I retired,” he says. “I didn’t want anything to do with football.” He is aware of the magnitude of that statement, but Thompson, now 43, is ready to talk.
Thompson, who later went on to play for Blackburn (right), is a natural storyteller with his stories
‘Retiring before I had achieved all my hopes, aspirations and dreams; not knowing how far I could have gone,” he continues. “I was actually ***ed when I was 25, when I should have been at my peak. I knew in my mind how far I would go in my career, but when it was taken away it left me in pieces.
“It still fails me now, to be honest. I had six brilliant months, was included in the England squad. Then I got that knee injury… I never recovered, physically or mentally. If you still look back 10 years after it happened and have strong feelings about something, it’s PTSD.
“It’s not just sadness. It’s PTSD. From being wanted to having bang average players selected for me, my head fell off completely. Away. There must have been a knock-on effect in my personal life. My marriage broke down, I didn’t have the relationship with my kids that I should have…
‘I didn’t want to be home. It was like shaking the tree to see what was left at the end. It was depression, the impact on my mental health. You could never talk about it then like you can now. Then I wouldn’t dare say it. Looking back… dear God, I’ve made some bizarre decisions.’
If he’d had the time again, Thompson would have looked at the bigger picture and understood what Gerard Houllier was trying to do for him when he put him in the Liverpool squad. The pair got into an argument when he left for Coventry, but had made amends long before Houllier died last year.
Thompson (right) would have played things differently with Gerard Houllier before he left
“I was moody,” he says. “Gerard looked after the young boys and would take us off after 70 minutes. In my head I think the worst player would always come out first. I looked at it and thought “he’s doing it again!” I never got my head around the fact that he took care of me.
“I would have tackled my grandmother to play for Liverpool. Any of us would! I should have taken that on board. I apologized for swearing at him when I scored for Coventry for The Kop. I told him I was petulant and immature and he laughed. I’m glad I did, for sure.’ Thompson smiles again. There has been plenty of talk about the past and the mood changes when he tells how his job interview with the owners of Europe, brothers Peter and Patrick Cabezutto, culminated in an episode that almost all of Gibraltar was talking about.
“The day we left, we met the owner in Kazemattenplein,” says Thompson, a natural storyteller. ‘Outside the restaurant, this taxi rank is in a U shape. The next thing, this car stops and who gets out? Glen Johnson. I see him: “Johnno! Johnno!” He can’t believe it!
‘He tells me he’s coming to buy cigars! So I tell him to sit down and have a coffee because we haven’t seen each other in years. “Don’t mind the coffee,” he says. “Let’s have a beer!” The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day.
“The owner sees who I’m talking to and they’re quite happy when Johnno says, ‘I’ve come to play for you!’ He leaves, gets what he needs and comes back and has a pint. Then we have one for the road. And another! We laugh and dizzy and the next we hear this commotion.
Thompson (left), pictured celebrating with Michael Owen (right), after a goal in Liverpool
One of Thompson’s funniest stories is running into Glen Johnson in Gibraltar – with the former Liverpool and Chelsea fullback causing a traffic jam due to his choice of parking
“All those old guys are pushing each other, bickering and yelling, to the point that it interrupts our conversation. I ask the owner of the restaurant what is going on. He says, “Some asshole has parked his car at the taxi rank!” Johnno just caused a traffic jam in the city!’ ‘Johnno knows what happened: ‘Uh, that’s me!’
“He’s going to try to move his little Renault Clio, but he’s being attacked by all those taxi drivers! I ran to intervene: “Guys, guys! This is Glen Johnson – he used to play for Liverpool!” Then he takes selfies and signs autographs!’
It’s safe to say that the business meetings that followed were far less significant. Thompson has stayed on the periphery ever since, taking advantage of the knowledge of Michael Edwards, the outgoing Liverpool sports director, as he mastered the role.
“My goal is to do what I do in the Premier League,” he says firmly. “I’m not asking to get it in my name. I ask to be given that opportunity if I am good at my job. I have ambition and it burns. I wasted so much time. You have to chase your dreams.’