Then, within three days in the very week of the crucial knock-out tie the club were plunged into turmoil. The bright young manager, Nigel Spackman, resigned, to be followed by the chairman, Mike McDonald. Up stepped the 42-year-old Thompson, astonished by the turn of events but resolutely unfazed.
In a memorable phrase, which perhaps epitomised his approach both to the job and to life, he noted that this season key players had gone, the manager had gone, the chairman had gone but he was pleased to see that the kitman was still there. The players (those who were left) responded to Thompson's temporary stewardship by securing a draw with Coventry, ending the Premiership team's run of seven consecutive wins and securing a replay at Bramall Lane on Tuesday. Thompson is now a sort of permanent caretaker until the end of the season.
"It's got to be better than digging holes," he said last week as he adjusted to life as the frontman for the first time at a club who can squeeze into the category of big. "I think I'll be better at it than I was before. I'll have learned; knowing more about players and how to organise them. And while there are some lads here who have been to the very top, I think I'll be able to handle them. Their input will be not only welcomed but encouraged."
Thompson's most fervent wish - two triumphant Wembley appearances this season apart - is to raise the profile and possible career expectations of those managers who learn their trade in the lower divisions. "In recent years they tend to have been ignored completely when jobs up the League come along," he said. "There's the recent influx of foreign coaches but there has also been a tendency to give managers jobs at the top to players who have just finished in the Premiership. But they haven't learnt what it is about. The best thing that has happened for lower division managers this season is Dave Jones.
"When he was hired by Southampton there were raised eyebrows; everybody said it was just on the back of a good Cup run," Thompson said, making his remarks before Crystal Palace's astonishing appointment of Attilio Lombardo on Friday. "But Dave has done magnificently and showed it is possible to make the step up. Others could do it. I'm pleased because I was on my full FA coaching badge with him and I liked his style. In many respects I'd like to think we're similar."
Thompson's attitude to football and to life - and he is determinedly devoted to both - has been shaped by three events. The first and most traumatic and tragic was the Bradford stadium fire in May 1984, the final Saturday of that season when he was in the Lincoln City side playing at Valley Parade. Since then he has also been in a lift in Majorca which plummeted to the floor when the cable snapped and in an aeroplane which was meant to land at Leeds-Bradford Airport, overshot the runway and, in Thompson's once more eminently recollectable phrase, landed nearer to Bradford than it should have done.
He is still one for the bon mot and his dressing-room will not lack laughter. "Two things have changed in the game to a huge degree," he said. "First is the amount of power that now sits with the players and second are the supporters, who either keep you in a job or get you out of one. I know I am here to get results and that a good one which used to last a week now lasts for about two hours. But I also know that the job of a manager has to be all-embracing."
What followed could have been a gentle jibe at his predecessor, known to be displeased at the number of players United were being forced to sell. Thompson said: "You have to be prepared to do this job in good, bad and indifferent times, when there is no money to spend and when there is. As with managers, I believe there are players down there who can do it all at a higher level. Picking them is the art and I'd like to get two before transfer deadline day."
Thompson began his playing career with Boston United under Howard Wilkinson and went on to play for Lincoln, Charlton Athletic (in their Houdini First Division days), Sheffield United and Lincoln again. He became manager at Lincoln ("the manager asked me to go so I thought I'd better"). At Southend, where he turned down a three-year contract because his partner had a miscarriage ("the first time I didn't put football first"), and Notts County, where he got the sack two days before Christmas. Sheffield United is his club, the one he supported as a boy and where he was an apprentice. "It's a cliche in football to say that they are the club whose result you always look at first. But there you are: they are the club whose result I've always looked at first."Reuse content