Bobby Thomson: Cultured and intelligent left-back for England and Wolverhampton
Saturday 29 August 2009
By common consent, Ray Wilson is England's most accomplished left-back of the last half-century. But there was a time, a couple of seasons before he cemented his lasting pre-eminence through his peerless displays for the 1966 World Cup-winning team, that Wilson looked to have a serious rival for his place in Alf Ramsey's yet-to-be-settled combination.
That man, younger by nearly a decade, was Bobby Thomson of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a poised and polished six-footer whose pace, athleticism and composure appeared to mark him out for a glittering international future. Certainly that was the initial view of Ramsey, who selected Thomson for his first full cap as a 19-year-old against Northern Ireland at Wembley in November 1963. Though the opposition, who succumbed 8-3, were not of the highest calibre, the rookie defender impressed with his self-possession and smooth all-round efficiency, and over the ensuing year he represented his country another seven times.
Not the least of the newcomer's assets was the ability to occupy either full-back slot, and he understudied effectively for both Wilson and the right-sided George Cohen during England's 1964 summer tour of North and South America. Further steady advancement appeared to be a formality for such an exciting prospect, yet Thomson's international career was over only four days after his 21st birthday, leaving perplexed observers to speculate on the reasons for such an unexpected loss of impetus at the highest level.
One major factor, perhaps, was that Wolves had ended their golden period of serial success under Stan Cullis and entered a phase of rapid decline, their relegation in 1965 depriving Thomson of top-flight competition at a crucial stage of his development. Another was the continued excellence of Wilson into his thirties, and the consistency of other competitors, the likes of Liverpool's Gerry Byrne – who was allotted England's reserve left-back berth in the 1966 World Cup finals squad – and Keith Newton of Blackburn Rovers. Still, international anti-climax did not prevent Thomson from completing a distinguished and fulfilling club career, notably with Wolves, for whom he played 300 league and cup games, then Birmingham City and Luton Town among others.
His first steps in the game were taken as a speedy winger but he was given the opportunity to play at full-back during a trial for England schoolboys and found himself ideally suited to the new role. Thereafter he became the target of several big clubs in his native Midlands and he opted for Wolves, signing as an amateur in 1959 and turning professional in summer 1961.
Perhaps it was to the teenager's advantage, at first, that by 1961-62 the hitherto powerful Molineux club was on the slide, lingering dangerously close to the foot of the old First Division, the equivalent of today's Premier League. Manager Cullis, the stern disciplinarian who had presided over two title triumphs and an FA Cup win in the space of the previous four campaigns, shuffled his pack vigorously in an attempt to reverse the ominous trend and in January he drafted Thomson into a left-back slot that had proved particularly problematical.
Performing creditably in a 2-1 debut defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup, he revealed craft, determination and a cool head, enough to retain his place virtually uninterrupted for the remainder of that term. For good measure he helped Wolves to the final of the FA Youth Cup, in which they were beaten 2-1 by Newcastle United, and his future beckoned invitingly.
In 1962-63, his first full senior campaign, Thomson made remarkable progress, not missing a match and attaining levels of maturity and reliability unusual in one so young, contributing hugely to Wolves' marked temporary improvement – they rose to fifth place in the table – and making his breakthrough at England under-23 level. Boldly rewarding these achievements, Ramsey duly promoted him to face the Irish and persisted with him even when, to the consternation of Cullis, the Black Countrymen plunged to 16th position in 1963-64.
Occasionally the manager, desperate at his team's slump, berated his left-back for not tackling more ferociously, but that was not Thomson's way; rather he was cultured, neat and intelligent, eschewing overt violence, preferring to win the ball by vigilance and shrewd anticipation. As Molineux matters slipped from dismal to disastrous (in sporting terms) in 1964-65 – unthinkably to most observers, Cullis was sacked in the autumn – Thomson dropped out of Ramsey's side after a mid-term friendly with Holland in Amsterdam, which at least enabled him to concentrate on Wolves' unavailing attempt to escape relegation to the second flight.
He remained a solid performer blessed with exceptional pace – fans reckoned he could back-pedal almost as fast as he could sprint forward – and Ramsey did not forget about him, continuing to honour him through the under-23s, for whom his 15 appearances constituted a record, and by including him in four Football League line-ups. Possibly, though, he was affected by the defensive strife around him at Molineux and no longer did he appear to be a credible challenger for Ray Wilson's England shirt.
Still in his early twenties, Thomson adapted ably to life in the second tier and was one of new manager Ronnie Allen's most influential players as Wolves gained promotion to the First Division in 1966-67 as runners-up to Coventry City. However, he did not remain long at the club after Allen was replaced by the strident Bill McGarry in November 1968, accepting a £40,000 transfer to second-tier Birmingham City in the following spring.
At St Andrew's, where he was reunited with his former mentor, Cullis, he put in a season of solid endeavour before losing his place. A brief loan stint with Third Division Walsall followed in 1971-72 before the 28-year-old returned to the Second with Luton Town in June 1972. He was ever-present as the Hatters earned a place among the elite by finishing second to Middlesbrough in 1973-74, but fell out of favour during a season of travail back in the First Division.
By now his best days were behind him and his Football League sojourn ended with brief service for Port Vale in the third flight. During the later stage of his career, Thomson spent summers in the United States, assisting Hartford Bicentennials (later re-branded Connecticut Bicentennials) and Memphis Rogues. Even then, he loved his football too dearly to bid it farewell, and he enjoyed spells with Worcester City, Stafford Rangers and several other non-League clubs while running a sports shop in Sedgley, in the heart of the Black Country.
Renowned for his extreme fitness into middle age and beyond, the amiable, self-deprecating Thomson continued to play for the Wolves All Stars, a side of former Molineux men which raises money for charity, in 2008 after his health had begun to fail, and he coached youngsters until shortly before his death.
Robert Anthony Thomson, footballer; born Smethwick 5 December 1943; played for Wolverhampton Wanderers 1961-69, Birmingham City 1969-72, Walsall (loan) 1971-72, Luton Town 1972-76, Port Vale 1976-77; capped eight times by England, 1963-64; married (three children); died Dudley 19 August 2009.
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