Thompson's Southend Stunner
Saturday, 4th Apr 2020 09:00
Southend United were meant to be the visitors to Portman Road on Saturday, which coincidentally is the 28th anniversary of the Blues’ 2-1 victory over the Shrimpers at Roots Hall in which Neil Thompson scored a brilliant and hugely important last-gasp winner as Town continued their pursuit of the Second Division title. TWTD spoke to the former left-back to hear how he remembers that day, that season and his time at Portman Road.
Thompson, now 56, joined the Blues from Scarborough under John Duncan’s management and was already a firm fans’ favourite prior to the 1991/92 season which saw John Lyall’s unfancied side win the division and reach the newly-formed Premier League.
As they travelled to Roots Hall, the Blues had eight games to play and were top, four points ahead of Blackburn Rovers - with Jack Walker’s millions behind them and Kenny Dalglish in charge - with a game in hand. Southend were ninth.
“We’d been on a good run but it was getting to the nitty-gritty and it was Grand National day,” Thompson recalled.
“Phil Whelan was making his league debut and we had a great following down there. I put the corner in and Phil scored on his league debut to make it 1-0. Then I think Warky missed a penalty in the second half and they equalised.
“And then for some bizarre reason in the 92nd minute, I think we cleared a corner or a freekick, and I found myself in acres of space on that left-hand side and just had to keep running with it.
“I just kept running, running, running and got to the edge of the box and dipped inside on to my right foot and obviously we know what happened then.
“That was just such a brilliant moment for the team and obviously for me as well personally. The adrenaline was pumping through you, to get a goal late on at such an important part of the season as well, that just really kicked us on towards that championship that we were after. It goes down as one of my best moments, without a shadow of a doubt.”
The Beverley-born full-back admits right-footed strikes were a rarity during his career: “That’s for standing on that one, it was a collectors’ item. It was really late on and it was just a case of taking the ball up that end of the pitch and seeing what happened.
“I looked up and you get fatigued towards that end of the game, so where I got the energy from I’ve no idea.
“I think there was only one person in the box, so I just dipped inside and just tried my luck and it went in that bottom corner, which was just brilliant and the celebrations, everyone was jumping on me and when I went back to the halfway line and I was absolutely out of breath, and shortly afterwards the whistle went.
“And then I got in and I’d backed the winner of the National as well, Party Politics if I remember rightly. So it was a good day all-round.
“When you get in a season where you’re going to get promotion or you’re up that end things seem to happen for you and that was one of those moments.
“I think we played Wolves in midweek and we didn’t play particularly well and Phil scored another goal from a corner, nearly a carbon copy.
“Things seemed to happen for us towards that end of the season and you just get a sense. We had a great team spirit, a great togetherness and that saw us over the line.”
It had been a campaign which had started with little expectation with the Blues having finished 14th the previous year. But Town quickly established themselves among the challengers at the top of the table before chasing down and then overtaking Blackburn at the end of March.
“Even when we weren’t playing particularly well we kept picking points up and sneaking a win here and there and when we had a bad defeat or a bad performance we seemed to bounce back with something good and then we just got that momentum,” Thompson continued.
“And it’s getting that consistency and I think we were consistent throughout the season. We had players who could score from all over the pitch really, I think that was one of the key elements of it.
“I’ve had a few promotions in my career, thankfully, and you just get a sense when you get a group together that things are going to happen and I did with that group that year with Warky, Linny [David Linighan], Micky [Stockwell], Jason [Dozzell], Chris [Kiwomya] and Milts [Simon Milton], just really good players and good people. We just gelled and obviously we went up and won the championship, which was great.”
Masterminding that team was manager Lyall: “What a man, sadly missed that’s for sure. He just said little things to you, little snippets, a really wise man not just of football but of life.
“He just knew how to switch people on at the right moments and he was a massive influence on everybody.”
Although Lyall was known for taking a passing approach to the game, and his Town side were generally no different, something which became a familiar facet of their play was Thompson playing a long diagonal ball from left-back to Steve Whitton on the right wing.
“Obviously I could hit that ball and Steve at 6ft 2in and technically really sound, he was a really great get-out ball for me,” Thompson said, laughing as he remembered. “He hugged that touchline and he was a really clever player, really good technically and he scored a goal.
“I used to get the ball at left-back and if there was nothing on I always knew that switch was on and Steve would either come in at the far post or take the ball down.
“It was a relationship on the pitch just happened. We spoke about it a little bit but nothing major, it was just one of those things that we knew was an option and we used it to good effect.”
The goal at Southend if unusual for being hit with his right foot was far from the only spectacular strike during Thompson’s time with the Blues with most of his 23 goals memorable efforts from distance.
“There were one or two,” he said modestly when asked about those strikes. “Just great memories, I had seven years there and it was the best time of my career, obviously we won the Second Division.
“The last couple of seasons I had one or two little injuries, which was unfortunate but I had a brilliant, brilliant time down there.
“And really came down there when I was getting to prime of my career at 25-ish and stayed there for seven years. The family loved it down there, the football was great and you miss that side of it.
“But you move on, I moved back up here, moved to Barnsley and luckily enough we got promotion with Barnsley the next season.
“I’m settled back up in East Yorkshire now but I certainly made a lot of good friends and have a lot of great memories from my time down in Suffolk. It’s a time that I look back at very fondly.”
The 1992 promotion gave Thompson his first experience of the Premier League with a second one-campaign stint following in his Tykes spell.
“It was the inaugural Premier League, so that was a really good feat and I had three seasons and then started getting little niggly injuries, which you do when you get into your 30s and unfortunately things didn’t turn out great for me,” he said.
“But Ipswich is one of the results I always look for and I speak to one or two people every now and again and keep in touch.
“But it’s quite a few hours for me, so unfortunately I don’t get down as much as I want to because obviously I’m still working in the game.”
Among the Premier League highlights was the second goal in the December 1992 2-0 derby win at Norwich City, another last-gasp strike to seal a victory.
“I think that was one of the first Monday night TV games, if I’m not mistaken,” he added. “That was when we were on that little roll in the first season in the Premiership.
“That was quite late on as well. It was just one of those moments when you do put it in the net, there’s nothing like it, the adrenaline floods through you and do some stupid celebration, as I did.
“Great memories and occasionally I’ll see that goal as well. That’s really good and obviously over our rivals as well, that was always a big game for us, playing Norwich. Good times.”
These days Thompson is on the coaching staff at Sheffield Wednesday: “Officially I’m the U23s coach but all this season I’ve been working with the first team. Garry Monk came in and I was helping out with the first team at the time and I’ve stayed up there ever since.
“So, obviously with the situation at the minute, we’ll see where that one goes but I’ve enjoyed working with the first team, but for the last three or four years prior to that I was coaching the U23s and as and when managers have changed I’ve been called into the breach to help with the caretaker-manager and that’s been good.
“We started off really well, we did well right up to Christmas and we’ve just a little bit of momentum for some reason, so we’re mid-table at the minute.
“But there are nine games left and hopefully we’ll get them finished and will finish in a reasonable position.
“But right up to Christmas we were right in the mix and then we just fell away a little bit for one reason or another, which is unfortunate. The last few months have been a bit disappointing but we’ve got to keep moving on.”
During football’s hiatus, Thompson says he’s doing a spot of DIY: “I’m painting at the minute, using my time doing a bit of decorating. It’s a strange time, a very strange time but obviously we’ve got to sit tight and everyone’s got to stay patient and not just in the football world but in the world in general, and hopefully we’ll get this thing beaten and move on.”
Photo: Action Images
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