Football: Baby boom time for Thompson

The patter of tiny feet has proved a calming influence on a Bolton bad boy with potential. Glenn Moore met him
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WHEN Bruce Rioch addressed the media in the first press conference of his brief spell as Arsenal manager he extolled the virtues of family life. Wedded players go out less and look after themselves better he averred. We thought of Paul Merson and a few other hitched Highbury wild men, and wondered if Rioch was living in the real world.

For some, however, his advice held true. Ray Parlour attributes his improved form to a change in attitude following marriage and parenthood and, at Rioch's previous club, Bolton Wanderers, Alan Thompson feels the same.

Rioch was always on at Thompson, an enthusiastic socialiser, to find himself a nice girl. It became something of a club joke until a team-mate, David Lee who is now at Wigan, introduced Thompson to his sister. Thompson is now approaching the second anniversary of his wedding to Joanne and enjoying the company of a five-month-old daughter. Although he has still been sent off once since her arrival, at the home of today's opponents, Blackburn, in December, his once-grim disciplinary record is gradually improving as is his dedication off the pitch.

"I'm getting older and wiser," he said when we met after training in Cheshire this week. "It does make a difference once you're married."

It probably helps, too, that his daughter sleeps "from seven at night to six in the morning" and that Thompson appreciates the luxury of a footballer's life for a new father. "It's brilliant," he said. "I can spend time in the morning with her before training and a few hours afterwards."

The timing might also be perfect for his career. Thompson, now 24, has been regarded as promising since the days he was England Schoolboys captain and he is reaching the stage where potential needs to be turned into performance. A goal against Liverpool in the Coca-Cola Cup final a few years ago reminded people of his talent as did another, against the same opponents, which could be named Goal of the Month on tonight's Match of the Day. In between, however, many believe he has underachieved. His international career has stalled after being sent off on his second Under-21 appearance and the days when he was being considered as a late contender for Euro 96 seem long ago.

"I've recommended him to Glenn Hoddle and I'm sure his time will come," said Colin Todd, the Bolton manager, who has moved Thompson from the wing into midfield. "He is beginning to blossom now. He was a bit immature and still is to a degree but he is learning all the time. He is a gifted player and one of those I would always have in my side. He has energy and endeavour, a will and desire to stay in the Premiership with Bolton Wanderers.

"He should be our top scorer [he has seven goals to Nathan Blake's 12]. He gets in position but he wants to burst the ball when there are times when you have to stroke it in. He does have great attacking ideas, he wants to get forward, but he always gets back as well."

In some ways it is a miracle Thompson is playing at all. In September 1990, when he was a 16-year-old apprentice with Newcastle United, he broke his neck in a car crash on the A1 while travelling back from a reserve match at Leeds.

"I was," he said, "in a bad way. I had two operations and was out for 22 months. I wore a neck brace for nine months - I had about six of them so I could wash them and so on. I'd just left school and it was a bit worrying.

"My family were a great help. A couple of surgeons said that my career was over, but I always thought I would come through. Now I only think about it when journalists ask me."

Of the four in the car, Thompson, though the most grievously injured, is the only one still playing professional football. He came back to play for Newcastle alongside schoolfriend Steve Watson but, after just 16 League games, Kevin Keegan let him go to Bolton for pounds 250,000 in the summer of 1993. Though a wrench to leave - he remains a Newcastle fan and sat with the Toon Army at the FA Cup semi-final - the move gave him first-team football.

"It's been eventful. We've been to the Coca-Cola Cup final, won promotion twice and been relegated once. I'm now the second longest-serving player after Keith Branagan and I'm only 24."

How much longer Thompson will remain is a matter of conjecture. Having stayed at the club last time they were relegated, he has shown loyalty, but his career is at a stage when it can do without another spell out of the Premiership. "At the moment I just look to stay in the Premier, if that happens I'll be delighted to stay. If anything else happens we'll see at the time. I've still got two years on my contract. Ideally, I want to play in the Premier, every player does. We'll see what happens.

"We are in with more of a shout of staying up than a few weeks ago. Previously, we always looked like conceding goals, but we've gone to five at the back and looked a lot tighter while still creating chances.

"We've also been a settled side recently and we have to maintain that. We are a better team than two years ago and have more depth, but the Premiership generally is better. The gap is getting bigger, we walked Division One last year and it's a hard division to get out."

Thompson's words are echoed by Todd. "We have good players, but we've lacked continuity - some of it our own fault with suspensions caused by stupid sendings-off. It's frustrating, because I felt we would hold our own and be in a better position."

The manager, however, has another grievance. The media is awash with features on plucky Barnsley yet Bolton, in many ways a similar club, are ignored. "I get annoyed by the lack of media attention, or bad media, focused on the football club," Todd said.

"We have played our part in trying to win games by playing football. Earlier this season Barnsley were getting thrashed right, left and centre, we were getting draws, holding our own, and were not getting the right attention. Even now we're still playing football, but I've been at this club in six years and we've never had the right kind of media. Last season we couldn't do anymore and we got nothing. We've had praise when we've lost games, but don't seem to get it when we've won. I know we're not Man United but we're still in the Premiership."

Will this lack of attention mean Thompson will have to move to get international recognition? Todd noted that he himself had been capped at Derby which was not seen as a "glamour" club, but they did win two championships. It is a matter of staying up and building. "If you're regularly in the top six you get noticed even if you're not fashionable," Todd said. The task is thus to emulate Blackburn, but first they must beat them today.