By Jason McKeown
Not too many players released by Bradford City over the past decade got to leave with their head held high; but as Garry Thompson begins the search for a new club, he deserves to reflect on his two years at Valley Parade with great pride.
It’s not just about those headline-grabbing moments – the Arsenal goal and all that – Thompson played a key role in changing the culture of the club. He in many ways is the embodiment of what Phil Parkinson has attempted to do over the past few years in terms of the players he has brought in. A manager who lists the number one player requirement as being ‘character’ recruited one of the biggest in Thompson.
Consider his career prior to joining the Bantams in the summer of 2012, and there was little to us regular supporters that suggested Thompson would be any different to a number of other players brought in, over the years, who subsequently failed. He was, like many of these others, older than seemed ideal, and had endured a difficult couple of years that were blighted by injury. Scunthorpe United fans weren’t exactly complementary towards him either.
Superficial damaging, which left you fearing it would result in the same old story.
Perhaps, even now, Parkinson doesn’t get enough credit for his 2012 recruitment drive. There is no question that every single player he signed that summer played their part in the 64-game marathon; but behind the fact that many were clearly considered good ‘characters’, the majority brought with them a very specific type of experience that would ultimately stand the club in good stead.
Stephen Darby had been part of a play off semi final on loan at Swindon and even scored in a semi final shootout against Parkinson’s Charlton. James Meredith had been to Wembley twice in a season, promoted with York City in the second of those visits. Gary Jones and Rory McArdle had also played at the national stadium for Rochdale (beaten 3-2 by Stockport in 2008 play off final), and Jones remained at Spotland to lead them to automatic promotion two years later. Nathan Doyle had scored in a play off semi final for Hull as they climbed into the Premier League. Alan Connell had been Swindon’s top scorer in their 2011/12 League Two title victory.
That is a heck of a lot of experience of the big occasions; of players who had first-hand knowledge of just what it took to be successful. And that counted in bucket loads throughout the 64-marathon. The character came to the fore during that late and successful play off charge, and in turning around the Burton semi final tie that City appeared to have blown. Most of the 2012 summer signings had played in big promotion games before and delivered. For City, they would do so again in stunning fashion.
Thompson himself could draw on experience of past achievements. At Morecambe, he played and scored in the play off final victory that took the Shrimpers into the Football League. After first catching the eye of the Bantams, when he almost single-handedly destroyed Stuart McCall’s side in October 2007, Thompson rejected the chance to move to West Yorkshire in favour of playing higher up the league ladder with Scunthorpe. He again played a significant part in a promotion, featuring in the League One play off final victory at Wembley that took the Iron to the Championship. As Parkinson brought him to Valley Parade in 2012, all that was missing from his CV was the challenge of coping with playing for a large, demanding crowd.
Yet it was here, rather than any of his more celebrated Bantams contributions, where Thompson truly proved his mettle. He began life at City very slowly, and for the first few months was unloved by his new supporters. “Parkinson’s summer signings were good, apart from Thompson” was a familiar criticism around that time. He had muttered something about preferring to play as a striker rather than winger, but was hardly going to get such an opportunity ahead of James Hanson and Nahki Wells. His initial games on the right flank suggested a lack of commitment, or interest. Burton away, in late October, a low point, after his lazy clearance cost 10-men City a share of the points. You wondered how much patience Parkinson would afford him.
The turning point was Bristol Rovers in November. A rain-soaked afternoon saw City 2-1 down at half time, and Thompson in particular was woeful. As we dodged the rain drops on the uncovered Memorial Stadium terrace during the interval, we speculated that it might prove the beginning of the end to Thompson’s City career – he must surely be subbed. Instead of getting the hook, Thompson remained on the pitch for the second half, but had clearly had a rollicking from his manager. Thompson looked a different player, full of energy, determination and creativity. He set up one of the three City equalising goals and generally ran his heart out. From that afternoon onwards, Thompson progressed considerably.
To turn around such an unpromising start to the season – ending it with many arguing he was the club’s best player, post-Christmas – deserves a huge amount of credit. Over the years, we have seen so many players start badly and never recover. The Valley Parade crowd is notoriously quick to make up its mind and stubborn in changing it back. Thompson dug in, as the grumbles from the stands rained down on him, demonstrating true character to find his form and win people over.
Especially when, one cold December evening, he earned his place in Bradford City folklore.
Close your eyes and I bet you can still picture it. Jones’ free kick, Will Atkinson’s flick on and there at the backpost was Garry Thompson: a difficult shooting opportunity was taken with aplomb. After the ball hit the back of the net, Valley Parade went crazy. Thompson’s goal against Arsenal will be forever remembered, and firmly provided the player with the lift off to grow in stature and become one of the side’s key men.
It was the second of nine goals that Thompson netted in 2012/13. Five of the others came after the first trip to Wembley, amongst that successful late bid for promotion. They were important goal contributions too – the second clinching goal at York a week after the Swansea final; an early headed winner against Wycombe that began the late season rally of victories; and another header at Torquay, on Easter Monday, where City won and every other result went their way.
Thompson was truly flying during this period. He didn’t offer the direct pace of Kyel Reid on the opposite flank, but his skill on the ball and link up play with those around him led to numerous goalscoring opportunities. He and Stephen Darby combined with increasing effectiveness, whilst Hanson benefited from Thompson’s physical presence that meant opposition defenders couldn’t solely focus on stopping the supply to the former Guiseley man.
Most vital of all was Thompson’s play off semi final strike against Burton Albion, which turned around a tie that had fallen out of City’s grasp. 3-1 down at home in the first leg, Thompson cut inside, ran past a defender and struck a powerful shot that deflected off Jones and into the top corner. That goal – and Wells’ first at the Pirelli in the second leg – were arguably more vital than the three City scored at Wembley in the final. Had City trooped off Valley Parade defeated 3-1, it would have been almost impossible to come back in the second leg. That goal changed the mood in both camps, prompting fear in Burton and belief in City. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the 64-marathon.
Thompson is not the only 2012/13 promotion winner who failed to hit the same heights this season, but probably stood out more than others as being on borrowed time. His performances during the first half of the season were generally average, and as the team’s form dipped there was a growing sense that he needed competition on the right flank.
It was too simplistic to put his disappointing form down to age; for me it seemed as though he had experienced a dip in confidence. But even if he was producing 6 out of 10 performances, his commitment never waived. He might have looked a little scared of the ball, but he never hid away from receiving it. And every now and then, he would produce an exceptional cross or pass that would remind you of his quality.
That character, again. You could criticise Thompson’s performances – many people did – but no one could accuse him of ducking responsibility. And even when he faded into the background after January and became a regular substitute, he still contributed positively in the games he was introduced into. How nice it was that he got the happy ending of a winning goal on his final Valley Parade outing.
Thompson is a shining example, one that those who follow him in playing for Bradford City would do well to follow. It not as an easy club to play for, where expectations so often exceed reality; and there is no hiding place. Yet Thompson won the doubters over, following a difficult start, through his own determination.
If future Bradford City signings struggle to adapt to life at Valley Parade, Parkinson could do a lot worse than sitting them down and playing the video of Thompson’s goal against Arsenal, before telling them the story of how the veteran overcame his own early struggles by calling upon his strength of character.