Thompson puts the seasons of pain behind him

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The Independent Online

The location allocated by the duty jobsworth for my chat with David Thompson, just off the opulent entrance hall of Ewood Park's Jack Walker Stand, was a stark, cell-like place of no windows containing a couple of folded-up stretchers, a hanging row of ambulancemen's green jackets and a sign pasted to a metal cupboard: "Stretcher Bearers Do It With Footballers." We were in the first-aid room.

The location allocated by the duty jobsworth for my chat with David Thompson, just off the opulent entrance hall of Ewood Park's Jack Walker Stand, was a stark, cell-like place of no windows containing a couple of folded-up stretchers, a hanging row of ambulancemen's green jackets and a sign pasted to a metal cupboard: "Stretcher Bearers Do It With Footballers." We were in the first-aid room.

"You've brought me to the right place," Thompson grinned.

The 27-year-old revered at Blackburn as "Tommo" has needed his Liverpudlian sense of humour these past two seasons as he battled through two operations on his left knee and saw his comeback last August again terminated for a couple of months by a broken foot. Now, as Blackburn Rovers gear up for next Saturday's FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal, Thompson feels that he is at last getting somewhere near the sort of form which could help make a difference, and perhaps even spring a surprise, at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

"The semi-final will be the biggest game I have played in up to now," he said, stubble-chinned and at ease after a morning's training on Friday. The local evening paper's back-page banner headline was a quote from the Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes: "This Is Our Cup Final."

It referred to yesterday's home League fixture with Southampton, an indication that Hughes's priority is to steer his club safely away from any relegation worry, but already the players are eyeing what they see as a chance of Cup glory. Not a big chance, bearing in mind the quality of the opposition, but the sort of opportunity afforded by the one-off nature of that great leveller, the Cup.

Thompson certainly thinks so. "One last push and we can be in the final. That would be so prestigious, there's so much history about the competition. Everyone expects us to get beaten, we are the underdogs. We know the situation, we are not stupid, we know it's going to be tough, but on a given day you never know. We are going to give it our best shot, and if that's not good enough, it's not good enough. If it is, we will be in the FA Cup final."

It may not be any prettier as a spectacle than the recent Premiership match between the two clubs, which was won 1-0 by Arsenal at Blackburn, since Hughes's formula for salvation has been to instil onfield discipline, but it is working. That loss to Arsenal was Blackburn's only defeat in nine games.

Thompson considered the change of style since Hughes replaced Graeme Souness: "When we attacked, we attacked with too many players and left ourselves a bit exposed at the back. That's probably why we weren't getting results.

"Now we have gone the other way. We attack when it's necessary, not just for the sake of it. I have had to sacrifice that part of my game, but sometimes as a footballer you have to change your natural game, you have to be flexible. I don't mind doing the job I am doing, even though I am not getting the goals and the assists I would like to be getting.

"We are the lowest-scoring team in the Premiership, so it's obvious we are not playing free-flowing football all the time. But it's a system that's getting us success, so we are going to have to stick with it, we have all accepted that.

"Arsenal are the opposite to us, they like to move forward and they are a great team, internationals all over the field. If we opened up, they are the type of team to exploit it, so we will sit back, let them come at us and try to break us down."

A native of Birkenhead and an Everton supporter, Thompson played for the other Mersey club, Liverpool, and won an England Under-21 cap before moving to Coventry City in 2000. Desperate for funds, Coventry sold him to Blackburn at the start of the 2002-03 season for £1.5m. Ten games into last season he suffered the knee injury, underwent surgery and, in his opinion, came back too soon.

"So I went over to America and got it sorted. The problem has gone away now and I'm really grateful for that."

Then, in just the fourth game of this season, home to Manchester United, Thompson lasted 10 minutes before a Kleberson tackle left him with a broken foot and a ruptured tendon. On his return in November he spent two months bench-warming, but forced his way back at the turn of the year and has been a vital ingredient for Hughes since.

"When you have been injured as long as I have, just to be playing football again is a bonus," he said. "I have seen a lot of players come back from serious injury and never be the same, but I am determined I am going to be a better player, however long it takes me. That's the type of lad I am. What you tell the mind, the body follows.

"It has been difficult for me, trying to find form again. But my fitness is coming along now, improving with every game. I'm gradually getting there, even though I can't say I'm back with a bang. But perhaps the bang will come in the semi-final next Sunday."

Thompson's only goals this season have been in the Cup, a couple against Cardiff in the third round. Another couple against Arsenal would constitute not so much a bang, more a shattering explosion. Hughes, being the pragmatic sort, would happily settle for one from his little dynamo.

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