Thompson the pride of Anfield old school

Houllier's Liverpool return coincides with a special European night orchestrated by last remnant of the Boot Room
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In the aftermath of one of Anfield's most nakedly emotional nights, the banner headline in the Liverpool Echo seemed somehow appropriate. Beneath a photograph of Gérard Houllier, returning to the touchline after five months to oversee the defeat of Roma, were the words "Our Hero".

The story, however, did not refer to Houllier but to a man who had rescued two children from a burning house in Everton and then rushed home to do his grandmother's shopping. Likewise, the real hero of Anfield was not Houllier, however good it was to see the Liverpool manager restored to health, but the man behind him, wearing a blue tracksuit.

Before Houllier collapsed with a life-threatening heart condition after giving his half-time team-talk against Leeds in October, Phil Thompson was best known for his impassioned, almost comical touchline rants. He had been a fine defender in the Liverpool sides which steamrollered through domestic and European football under Bob Paisley but there was nothing to suggest he had the coaching ability to take over a club competing for both the championship and the Champions' League.

Thompson has not given up on the touchline theatrics. On Tuesday night he whistled so hard to attract his players' attention that a false tooth flew out of his mouth. But now that Houllier is ready to resume most of his duties, the man referred to by supporters as "Pinocchio" – for the size of his nose not for his inability to tell the truth – deserves respect.

As you would expect from a man who has lifted the European Cup, respect is a big word in Thompson's vocabulary. He was livid at the criticisms aimed at the club by Barcelona's Dutch contingent, who claimed Liverpool had become a negative, counter-attacking side.

It surprised few that he opened his press conference in the Nou Camp after his team had fought the Catalans to a goalless stalemate that was to build a platform for Tuesday's astonishing victory over Roma with a mock apology to men "who will be spending the summer at Disneyland and not at the World Cup." If you press him about Liverpool's defensive tactics, he will invariably ask if his team scored "127 breakaway goals" last season.

When his credentials were questioned in October, Thompson made a convincing case for his own appointment. "It does annoy me that I get portrayed as someone who screams and shouts," he said. "When I was a player, my forté was reading the game, understanding and organising it. If I did not know what I was talking about, I would not stand up and embarrass myself."

Perhaps because he played in a side which did not consider the possibility of defeat, Thompson is positive to an almost alarming degree. As his team prepared to fly out to Barcelona, he spoke only about "when we qualify for the quarter-finals" and on Monday afternoon remarks like "when we beat Roma" came constantly from his lips.

He was not speaking to a televised press conference, occasions that encourage robotic statements of supreme confidence, but to the Merseyside press corps, whose members were known to him. The fact that Liverpool were bottom of Group B, had yet to win a game and had scored twice in five matches did not deflect him from the notion they would indeed overcome the champions of Italy by two clear goals.

After overseeing a night to rank with the destruction of St-Etienne in the 1977 European Cup semi-final, Thompson said: "I told people before the game it could be St-Etienne Mark II, and it was. It will go down in history and will be remembered for years to come.

"This team can go right to the final. There is that much confidence in the side that we believe we can win the European Cup. When it comes to the knock-out stages, they know they can beat anyone.

"With our fans behind us, anything is possible. I don't care about all the other teams in the Champions' League, nothing can compare with Anfield on a European night when something is needed. When the Kop gives that kind of backing, Liverpool are an irresistible force."

As Steven Gerrard remarked with a grin, Thompson does like to remind his charges of the past glories. Ever since he could kick a football around Kirkby, Thompson had supported the club and, partly because of this, Houllier, the first Liverpool manager since Bill Shankly with no previous links to Anfield, appointed him as his assistant on the recommendation of Tom Saunders, a headmaster turned club director.

Thompson was then working with the media on Merseyside, alongside Ian Rush, Tommy Smith and Ian St John, whose frank opinions on the game and references to a golden past were not always appreciated by a Frenchman struggling with the present.

Houllier, like Kenny Dalglish, who appointed Thompson as his reserve-team coach in 1986, was attracted by his passion. He is the last survivor of Shankly's old Boot Room still at the club, although, like the Boot Room, Thompson did not outlive the arrival of Graeme Souness, who considered him to be an unsophisticated ranter.

As the last of the Boot Room, the circumstances of Thompson's elevation followed a Liverpudlian pattern; promotion from within at a time of unexpected crisis. Bob Paisley did not seriously consider himself a candidate when Shankly resigned in July 1974 while the elevation of Dalglish to the position of manager in the wake of the Heysel disaster took most of the players, especially the club captain, Phil Neal, by surprise. The formula worked then and it has worked now.