Thompson takes advantage of second chance

Bristol Rovers' tactically alert manager is looking to stage another FA Cup upset in the fourth round at Gillingham on Saturday
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As conversation stoppers go, they don't come much better. "I was in the bath with Howard Wilkinson," Garry Thompson mused matter-of-factly, pausing while the image boggled the minds of the company assembled in the manager's office at Bristol Rovers before bursting into laughter.

Thompson had been explaining that none of the managers he served as a player (and they include Dave Sexton, Johnny Giles, Billy McNeill and Graham Taylor) would ever have imagined his graduating to gafferdom. Except one. Struck by his incessant questions about tactics, Wilkinson turned to him as they soaked in the training-ground tub at Sheffield Wednesday and said: "You could be a manager."

The young centre-forward suspected he was "taking the mick", but last December, a decade and a half later, the goal-poacher actually did turn gamekeeper. Thompson succeeded Gerry Francis in charge of a side toiling in the Third Division and soon led them to a stunning 3-1 success at Derby in the FA Cup, in which Nathan Ellington scored a hat-trick. Rovers' reward is Saturday's fourth-round trip to Gillingham.

The humiliation of the Premiership stragglers was the club's best FA Cup result since Manchester United's "Busby Babes" were thrashed 4-0 in 1956. It also brought Thompson some overdue good fortune in the competition.

In his season with Wednesday, for instance, Everton beat them 2-1 in the 1986 semi-finals at Aston Villa, the club Thompson has supported since he was growing up in Birmingham. "Howard had made us work on set-pieces all week, and me being like I was, I'd say: 'Surely we're not doing that again'. But he'd done his homework. We should have been three up in 15 minutes. To be so close, play well and lose was devastating."

Four years later, Thompson played for another of his 10 clubs, Watford, in a tie against Sheffield United knowing that he would be leaving shortly and anxious to avoid becoming cup-tied. Crystal Palace duly bought him and he was soon back at Villa Park with them as they overcame Liverpool 4-3 to reach Wembley – but as an ineligible onlooker, when Ian Wright's broken leg had left a tantalising vacancy.

There were occasions, too, when he was on the wrong end of a Cup upset, like when West Bromwich Albion, then a top-flight team, lost at home to Plymouth of the lower Third; or when he was with Cardiff and Enfield beat them.

The 42-year-old Thompson's route to Rovers also took in Coventry, Villa, Queen's Park Rangers and Northampton. Before he had officially signed for Rangers he was on the team bus after a game at Arsenal when he noticed "this little fella" pointing to a scrap of paper covered in arrows and numbers who was "telling Ray Wilkins how to play football".

It turned out to be the Bristolian midfielder Ian Holloway – "I soon realised Olly was the most infectious man in the world," recalled Thompson – who had started with Rovers and would later return as player-manager. Along with Gary Penrice, who also came back from the Premier League to wear the blue-and-white quarters and is now Thompson's No 2 at the Memorial Stadium, they formed a lasting bond.

When Thompson was at Northampton they beat Rovers for a place in the play-off final, but the friendship with "Olly 'n' Penny" endured and he joined them as a coach during the summer. Two years ago they were on course for automatic promotion to the First Division going into April but tailed away to seventh. When the decline continued last season, Holloway left and Thompson assumed the reins.

Rovers slipped into the fourth grade for the first time, though not for lack of effort on the acting manager's part. "Near the end, when we couldn't buy a goal for love nor money, Football Focus did this feature," said Thompson. "The presenter said: 'If you're a Bristol Rovers fan, look away now' and they ran together goals by Marcus Stewart, Jamie Cureton, Jason Roberts, Barry Hayles and Bobby Zamora, all ex-Rovers. We sold our strikers cheap and paid the price.

"But even though we got relegated, one supporter wrote to thank me for putting the pride back into the team. He reckoned we played with passion and went down fighting. I took a lot of pride from that."

Rovers' board were unconvinced, however, and told Thompson he was not their choice. He felt "unhappy and hard done by" until he learned that Francis was coming for his second stint at the club. "People told me to forget my pride and learn from Gerry, which I did."

His second, "permanent" chance came quicker than he expected after family problems forced the former England captain to resign. He endeared himself to the "Gasheads" (as Rovers' followers call themselves in memory of Eastville, their long-time home, which stood next to a gasometer) with a strong start which included the demolition of Derby.

"We hardly got mentioned as possible giant-killers, but everything worked out for us and nothing for them. Derby could play us another time and Fabrizio Ravanelli's header would go in rather than hitting the bar, and the clear chance they had after half-time would go in and not wide.

"But the Duke [Ellington, naturally] finished brilliantly, like he did again with another hat-trick when we beat Swansea on Tuesday. He's still learning but he could have a big future in thee game. Scott Howie made vital saves and David Hillier did a superb job on Benito Carbone. Above all, though, it was a terrific team effort."

Rovers need another at First Division Gillingham, an un-glamorous, scarcely lucrative draw that initially deflated Thompson but which he has come to view as a winnable tie. Strategy to be shaped, no doubt, amid the bath-time banter.