Thursday 12 December 2019

Escaping gangster culture to live the dream

in Copenhagen

IT sounds like an ambitious script. A Jamaican leaves home to escape a life of violence, becomes the first member of his family to get a college education, and ends up in Ireland pursuing a career in football.

His ultimate aim is to raise the cash so that his mother will be able to come and visit one day, but he is forced to wait in the background for six months, confined to a role as second-choice goalkeeper behind a firm fans' favourite.

Then, a week before a huge European game, that obstacle moves on to pastures new. Suddenly, all the hopes and dreams are within reach.

A far-fetched tale? No, for Ryan Thompson, it is reality. When he takes his place between the sticks for Shamrock Rovers in Copenhagen tonight, he will become the first Jamaican international to line out in a Champions League tie. He knows it is a platform that could make his ambitions attainable.


The League of Ireland champions enter the Parken Stadium tonight as massive underdogs. As the cliche goes, they have nothing to lose. But Thompson is looking at the other side of the equation. Everything to gain.

"I've been preparing for years and months, biding my time," says the ebullient netminder. "Now I'm ready to go and express myself. The stage is set. It's about time I showed what Ryan Thompson is about."

The Rovers supporters who have travelled to Denmark in hope rather than expectation are still unsure what exactly he is about.

Thompson landed in Tallaght at the beginning of the season from American side Portland Phoenix, the club he moved to after completing a major in marketing and a minor in sports management at the University of Tampa.

His coach was familiar with Michael O'Neill and, attracted by the gateway into Europe, Thompson jetted in for a trial that led to a contract.

Patience was required with Alan Mannus in situ but, when the Northern Irishman confirmed his departure to St Johnstone after securing the second qualifying round win in Estonia last week, the spotlight turned to Thompson. "The opportunity couldn't have come at a better time," he enthuses.

Naturally, there is pressure on the 26-year-old's shoulders. He deals in perspective, though. Just making it here is a victory in itself.

Growing up in Kingston, he could have veered down a different path. Friends and family got sucked into an attritional gang culture, and paid a heavy penalty. His mother encouraged young Ryan to go a different way.

"Her name is Mary Alexander," he says, "A great woman, the best ever.

"When I was young, I would see things that a kid shouldn't be seeing coming from school. My parents were a blessing. I was given the opportunity to play football and take me out of that element.

"Some of those things are forced on you when you're living in that element, but I wasn't the type of person who wanted to become a gangster. I had seen friends and family members who chose that path and fell by the wayside, who are in prison or running for the rest of their lives. That is something I didn't want to become.

"I tried my very best every day, getting involved in every single sporting activity in school to give me that opportunity and help me to get to a different life.

"I try my best to put a smile on my mother's face. It is something for her to talk about, you know? 'My son graduated... my son is playing football.' That is something, a feeling," he smiles.

She doesn't have the money to be granted permission to visit Ireland.

"That's the problem with being a Jamaican," Thompson explains.

"You have to be financially stable to get a visa to travel in and out of the place. I'm trying at this moment to break that barrier to give my mum the opportunity to go to America, the UK and Ireland. Everything takes time."

He dearly hopes that his landmark appearance this evening will be recognised in his homeland.

Until he enrolled at Tampa in 2006, the affable character was on the escalator to a regular place in the senior international set-up. His understudies in the U-21 and U-23 side are now part of the national squad.

"I was the No 1 goalkeeper for the youth system, but when I went to the college, the media turned their back on me and the football federation as well," he sighs.

"A lot of people didn't want me to go to college. I was expected to go and play at a higher level. I chose school to have security, to be the first of my family to graduate. But they (the federation) wanted me to stay in Jamaica and then, when the door opened, move to Europe."

Perseverance has taken Thompson this far. The manner in which he responds to this stern test will go some way towards determining the road from here.

"I'm living a dream," he grins. "Pinch me, and I'll probably just wake up."

FC Copenhagen v Shamrock Rovers, Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.0

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