John Thompson's presence for Mansfield today is a personal triumph, says Seán Ryan
IT'S often a case of horses for courses when it comes to giant-killing acts in the FA Cup, and Blue Square Premier outfit Mansfield Town have just the man in their ranks for today's third-round sell-out against Premier League hot-shots Liverpool.
Dubliner John Thompson has been on the right side of some extra special giant-killing acts in the cup, and he will bring all that experience into today's televised game at the One Call Stadium as the Stags attempt to spoil the season for Anfield's Reds.
In addition, Thompson's presence represents a great personal triumph, as his time at Mansfield has been blighted with injury to such an extent that he toyed with the idea of quitting the game that has been his livelihood for the past 16 years.
Signed by the Stags in July 2011, he suffered horrendous facial injuries in a pre-season friendly, which left him housebound and drinking through a straw for over a month, during which he feared for his career. The perpetrator of Thompson's injuries was later fined and banned by his club.
Because of the injury, he wasn't able to contribute much to Mansfield's run to the Conference play-offs last season, when they lost in the semi-final after extra-time to York City, the eventual winners.
Injury once again delayed his return to action this season, but he was back in time to see off the challenge of Lincoln City in the FA Cup second round, and he is ready now for the massive challenge posed by the in-form Liverpool attack, which has Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling proving a threat to most Premier League defences, never mind lowly Mansfield.
That's a challenge that may prove too much for Thompson and his colleagues, but today's experience should set them up for a sustained attack on their primary target – promotion to League Two. They enjoyed a 10-match unbeaten run before Christmas, and are only four points off the play-off places with games in hand on most of their rivals, so another extended unbeaten run could see them end their five-year exile from the League – and resume their place between Manchester United and Middlesbrough in football's yearbooks!
Of course, a shock could be on the cards if the Mansfield players buy into Thompson's philosophy. For him, "It's pointless to have any doubts when you cross the white line. If you think negatively you won't perform as well as you should." Let that be the lesson for today.
It's a philosophy which has served Thompson well when it came to big occasions. While still an apprentice at Nottingham Forest – and studying for his Leaving Cert in O'Connell's CBS in Dublin – Thompson was part of the Republic of Ireland team which won the European Under 16 Championship, defeating red-hot favourites Italy in the final. It was the first time an Irish team had won a European title.
Acquiring that winning habit so early in his career was a big help to Thompson, who plays at centre-back or right-back most of the time, although, being comfortable on the ball, he also played in Forest's midfield alongside Andy Reid on many occasions.
The Dublin duo kept in touch despite their wanderings after their early Forest and Ireland underage days, so it was ironic that one of Thompson's best days in the FA Cup should come at Reid's expense.
At the time, Thompson had been re-united with former Forest youth coach Ian McParland at Notts County after an injury-hit spell with Oldham Athletic, while Reid had moved to Premier League side Sunderland via Tottenham and Charlton.
January 8, 2011, is probably regarded as a black day in the history of the Black Cats as they succumbed to League One side County 2-1 in their own Stadium of Light. Thompson, operating at right-back that afternoon, shut out Reid, who was playing wide on the left, and probably hastened his friend's exit from the north-east.
Mind you, Sunderland should have been well warned as, 12 months earlier and while still a League Two side, County had despatched another Premier League side from the FA Cup. In a fourth-round tie with Wigan Athletic, they drew 2-2 at home, and then proceeded to shock the Latics 2-0 in the replay at the DW Stadium.
Thompson captained that side, which went on to win the League Two title, and his leadership from the back was a big factor in that triumph, as County managed 26 clean sheets in their 46 league games.
After his time at Notts County was up in 2011, he signed for Mansfield, becoming one of only five players to represent all three Nottinghamshire teams. Of course, he is proudest of all of representing Ireland at every level. He was only capped once, but was included by Brian Kerr in a number of other squads only for injury – what else? – to rule him out.
Mansfield Town v Liverpool,