Thompson the reluctant Pirate dropped in the deep end

Rover relishing the Cup spotlight tells Nick Townsend youth has a chance
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The Independent Football

As one of football's nomads over nearly two decades, Garry Thompson has witnessed the grief and the glory of management. And in view of his long-held antipathy towards the job, it might be suggested that it included rather too great a proportion of the former.

"I could never, ever, have envisaged myself being a manager," declared the former England Under-21 striker, who has become precisely that at Bristol Rovers. "It was just a load of aggravation, the last thing you'd want in your life. But once I got involved, I quite enjoyed it."

Despite his misgivings, the latest incumbent of the manager's seat at the Memorial Stadium succeeded Gerry Francis on Boxing Day after the former Tottenham and QPR manager had resigned for personal reasons, two cases of illness in his family. Thompson had already been caretaker manager when Ian Holloway departed for QPR last season and adopted the same role when Francis was given compassionate leave.

Now it's the real thing, and he is relishing the oppor-tunity. For the latest League recruit to the managerial ranks the challenges don't come much swifter or more intimidating than an away FA Cup tie at a Premiership ground. The hosts may be lowly Derby, but the man who once formed a potent partnership with Cyrille Regis at West Bromwich Albion appreciates what a threat Fabrizio Ravanelli, Benito Carbone and Malcolm Christie present.

But rather than approach the tie with trepidation, Thompson, 42, prefers to regard it as an invitation for his young players to advertise their talents. There has been none of the traditional five-star hotel and health spa preparation that some clubs employ before such occasions. "I've deliberately tried to keep everything low key, make sure they're not overawed by the occasion," said the Pirates' manager. "I want them to enjoy the experience because one or two might actually aspire to playing at that level. "It's the chance to measure them-selves against the Ravanellis, the Carbonaris, the Carbones. They might not be close at the moment, but some, especially my young ones, might open their eyes and say 'Hang on a minute, if I work hard I might end up playing against the likes of Ravanelli every week'. As a young player that's got to be what you believe."

Those with such potential include Lewis Hogg, a Bristol-born 19-year-old midfielder, defender Mark Smith, midfielder Nathan Ellington and forward Dwayne Plummer, who once attracted the attention of the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Not that Thompson's team is all about youth. The former Arsenal man David Hillier and the ex-Liverpool winger Mark Walters redress the age balance. "Mark's 37, but he is a big occasion player."

It was when he was a young player himself that Thompson first encountered Francis. "I knew Gerry when we were both at Coventry under Dave Sexton. He was former captain of England and he did a bit of work for us as player-coach. But there were no airs or graces about him. Mind you, we didn't allow him to be. There was a young group of us – players like Mark Hateley, Danny Thomas, Les Sealey and Gary Bannister – and he was that much older than us. We were like kids at school, taking the piss and playing pranks, and he just mixed in with us. He was as good as gold."

At the end of his playing career he joined Francis at QPR. "That's where I started to learn about coaching from him. It was a pleasure to work with Gerry, he has shown me an awful lot." Francis has been just one of his mentors. "Dave Sexton for me was top man at Coventry and Howard Wilkinson at Sheffield Wednesday taught me a great deal," he recalled. "I also played under the Grahams, Turner and Taylor at Villa, then Steve Coppell at Crystal Palace. I was 30 when I went there and he rekindled my enthusiasm.

"People had Palace down then as a long-ball side but when you have Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Eddie McGoldrick and Andy Gray, you can't really say that. He used to say 'go and excite me'. After some of the negative people you have to deal with, it was like a breath of fresh air. The failure rate among managers is frightening, but that doesn't bother me. I just want to give it my best shot because I've got so much feeling for this club."

The closest Thompson got to an FA Cup final was the 1986 semi-final. He was playing for the Sheffield Wednesday team that were defeated by Everton. "We should have been two or three up in first 15 minutes, but it wasn't to be. Everton went on to lose to Liverpool in final. I was also on the receiving end of a giant-killing when I was with West Brom and Plymouth beat us at the Hawthorns."

That memory is sufficient to provide Thompson with optimism that the seemingly impossible does happen. Colin Todd and his men have been warned.