From the Hornets’ Nest to Fortress Gigg: An Interview with Adam Thompson

In the first of a new series chatting to players and staff at the club, ever-present and highly regarded centre back Adam Thompson kindly took the time out of a hectic run of matches over the Christmas and New Year period to talk to me about his playing career to date, answering openly and honestly about the lows, as well as the many highs he’s experienced thus far.

What was your experience like in Watford’s academy, having signed for them at the age of 11?

It was brilliant. I went there after getting released from Tottenham Hotspur at the age of 11, and with my family being massive Spurs fans, it hit us all hard. I wanted to give up football after that, so when Watford signed me, it was a big confidence boost, and they really helped me as a player over the years. My academy coach was Mark Warburton, and he stayed with my age group all the way up until under 18s. He is now a very respected manager, so he helped me massively and taught me a lot. Also the fact that when I was 17, I was playing first team football was amazing. The financial constraints of the club at that time meant that there were a lot of opportunities for academy lads to come through. That changed a bit when they got taken over, so that was when I had to move on.

Who were your biggest influences in football growing up, besides Warburton?

My mum and dad were massive. When I got released from Spurs, my dad helped me get fitter, quicker, and stronger. I was 11, and I was racing my dad at road running, doing fitness and skill sessions over the park, swimming 60 lengths every week, and he paid for a speed coach for me as well. Also, my mum  taking me to training an hour away four days a week with my little brother in the car doing his homework and having dinner! They both helped me massively and without that, I wouldn’t have signed for Watford.  Football wise, I think Warburton was the biggest up until 18. After that, Uwe Rösler at Brentford was good for me. Then Phil Brown at Southend with Graham Coughlan as assistant was when I really grew into a man and a real defender I’d say. I really learned a lot about men’s football there.

You were a key part of the Northern Ireland U19s’ run to the Milk Cup (as it was then known) final in 2010. How important was that experience for you?

Yeah, it was an unreal experience. I played there a couple of years earlier with Watford, and that was the first time I experienced real crowds and atmosphere in stadiums. But then to be playing for the home country in their own national tournament, it was a different level. We were paraded through the streets and treated as kings. It was one of the best experiences in my career. The fact we did well obviously helped, as well as me scoring in front of a lot of our own fans. The whole thing prepared me for playing in front of crowds, and playing with pressure. It was very important for my development in that sense.

Did you ever envisage in your wildest dreams earning your first senior cap just a year later?

Not at all. Just the fact that I got called up to the first team was an honour. I would never have thought that I would actually play a part though. It was the Carling Nations Cup tournament, which involved Scotland, Wales, Republic of Ireland, and us. For the first game, I was on the bench, and that was good enough for me. My family all came to watch, realistically knowing that the chances of me playing were slim, but they come to every match (home and away) that I play. The way the match went helped I think, we were losing 3-0 and the game was over, so he brought me on. To play against premiership players in a stadium like the Aviva was just unreal, and such a massive achievement for me and my family. The next game I actually started, but got sent off at 3-0 down, so I won’t go into too much detail about that one! At the time, I think most footballers will agree, when you’re that young, you don’t really grasp what’s happening, or how big of an achievement things like that are. That helps with not getting too nervous before games, but it also means that you don’t realise how good of a situation you’re in, and maybe don’t make the most of it all. But those two caps still remain my only ones for the senior setup, so it was massive for me and my family.

You made your senior club debut for the Hornets in August 2010, going on to play a further 10 times that season. Do you think if Malky Mackay had stayed in charge rather than depart for Cardiff City, you’d have been afforded more gametime than Sean Dyche was willing to give you, or were there other factors at play?

Yeah, I think I would have stayed and played some part in the season under Malky, but I was too young and naive as a defender to have played a major part, so going to Brentford on loan and getting 25 or so games in league One at that point in my career was another massive part of my career. If Malky had stayed and played me here and there, of course I would have been happy, but looking back now, for my development, it probably worked out better that way. Dyche took over and went for more experience across the back four, which, if you look at his managerial career, has worked really well for him and his teams, so there were no arguments with the decision, really.

In hindsight, how beneficial was your loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers, having accrued plenty of games under your belt in the tier above for Brentford in 2011/2012?

Wycombe wasn’t a good experience at all. I went there hoping to play lots of games and played two out of four, not playing well at all, and then the manager got sacked, so I got sent back to Watford. It was just one of those loans that didn’t work out, so I didn’t really gain a lot from it. At that stage though, I was just eager to play games, and I knew I wouldn’t play at Vicarage Road, so maybe I rushed a couple of loans that season, the Wycombe and Barnet ones, just because I was desperate to play. I ended up playing a single match for Barnet and then dislocating my shoulder as well, so it wasn’t a great season, all in all!

What were the key factors in you making your switch to Southend United permanent in 2014?

The whole feel about the club at the time. It was local to me so I could still live at home, and the team togetherness was unbelievable. We were all best mates, playing football together… and that makes it so much more enjoyable. Watford was starting to lose that feel, as there were a lot of players from overseas being signed, so there were language barriers there. As a consequence, when I went to Southend on loan, it was a breath of fresh air. I knew my time at Watford was up. The standard of player they were starting to bring in was way above what we’d seen before, and they were taking the Championship by storm.

I knew I didn’t stand a chance there any more, so I went on loan to Southend, and Phil Brown wanted to make it permanent in the January of that season. With no disrespect at all, the team had that lower league feel to it, which was so refreshing for me personally. Everybody was down to earth, nobody was above their station and was aware where they were, and we all worked hard for each other because we liked each other off the pitch.

Again, I was in and out of the team, but when you enjoy the environment you work in, I think it makes it a lot easier to handle. It was also a team on the up; we were looking like we were making play-offs that season, so I thought we would be in the league above any time soon (which then happened the season after).

As you mentioned, Southend got promoted in one of the most dramatic play-off finals in recent years against the Chairboys. Although you weren’t involved in the game itself, does it still rank as the best time you’ve had in your domestic career to date?

I think it has to be the best moment of my career. I dislocated my shoulder late in the season that year, so couldn’t play, but I was still there on the bench with the lads, and the emotions were the most I’ve ever felt in football. I still see it on Sky Sports every now and then and still get goosebumps. It’s the only time in football I’ve cried I think. It was just the way we did it on that day, the group of lads we achieved it with, how hard we’d worked and the challenges we’d faces that season. Everything about it really made it special. If I didn’t play much that season, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt part of it, but I played around 30 games, so it was a very proud moment for me and my family as well. We have a similar group here at Bury this season, so that’s my driving force for us trying to do well this year, because I know how special it is with a good group of lads.

What was it like playing alongside Anton Ferdinand when he joined the Shrimpers in the summer transfer window of 2016? You seemed to forge a very solid partnership with him during the following campaign.

It was great for me to learn off of someone in my position who has played in the Premier League for most of their career. He taught me a lot and helped me on and off the pitch. He was a real leader and demanded a lot from everyone, not just the players, but the staff, the cooks, the groundsmen, everybody involved. We had a close relationship off the pitch, which helped as well. I’ve been lucky with the fact that I’ve had some really good defenders to learn off in my time. Adam Barrett and Luke Prosser at Southend were massive for me as well. We had players that were willing to teach and help you progress, even though you were competition in the same position as them. In football, that is rare these days. Anton and I did really well together statistically, I think.

I recall that we were in the bottom four in November of that campaign, and we ended up missing out on play-offs because of a last-minute goal from Millwall against Bristol rovers, which meant we missed out by 1 point. We went 17 games unbeaten, so it was a great time for us as a team, and as a defence.

What made you decide to sign for Bury, having been exclusively at south-eastern clubs previously?

It was a big decision for me. I’ve always been down south close to home, and I’m very close with my family, so it was a tough decision. The way Bury were talking though, it was so nice to hear how much they rated me, and their long-term plan was hard to ignore, especially when I saw them make a new signing every day at the time. And they were good signings, in my opinion. I honestly thought that with the squad being assembled, we would have a real chance of getting promoted, and that is the only thing I wanted, to go up another level and play in the Championship. Southend were so close to the play-offs that season, but with a season such as that, it inevitably brings interest in players, and you hear things about some of the group possibly leaving. I just felt at the time, we wouldn’t be able to better that season that we just had, as much as I wanted us to.

They offered me a three-year deal, and Bury did as well. I know people talk about the money that was being thrown around (at Gigg Lane) last year, but the offers weren’t too dissimilar. It was literally a case of who I felt had a better chance of getting me to that next step in my career. Obviously the rest is history, and it goes down as a bad decision (as far as last season was concerned), but I learned so much about a lot of different things last year. It definitely made me stronger, as it did with most of the squad I think.

I don’t want to dwell too much on 2017/2018 in general, but are you able to shed any light on the experience of being signed and let go on loan to Bradford City in the same transfer window?

The transfer window had opened and Bradford had tried to sign me on a permanent that summer, so I knew they were still interested. I went into Lee Clark’s office on the Friday after the Rochdale lineup and matchday squad were announced, and asked him “do you want me to be here?”. He said he wanted me to stay and fight for my place, so I said to him that I was more than prepared to stay, work hard, and fight for my place. On the Saturday, we drew 0-0 at Spotland. On the Sunday, I got a call from my agent saying that the manager had just rung him and said that I could leave on a loan deal or on a permanent deal.

At any point whilst on loan at the Bantams, or even when the deal was cut short, did you a) expect to still be a Bury player this season and b) expect to be the only Shaker at the time of writing to have played in every single game during 2018/2019?

In short, no. As soon as I got out of Bury, it was such a good feeling to be out of the atmosphere around the training ground and away from everything going on. At that point, I was hoping that I’d do well enough at Bradford so that they would sign me permanently. Mentally, I was done at the Shakers. Obviously though, it didn’t work out like that. The two centre backs that were playing when I signed on loan at were both playing very well, and although I’d gone there to play, in everybody’s mind (at the club), there was no way that the manager could drop them. Bradford were in third or fourth for most of my time there, so it was a great dressing room to be in, and Stuart McCall was a fantastic manager to work under… but I wasn’t playing, and that added to the frustration that summed up that season for myself, really.

When Ryan Lowe got the job (as caretaker), he rang me straight away, and asked if I was interested in going back. I knew the dire situation the club was in on the field, and I had a choice whether to accept (and have a relegation on my CV that I had little to do with), or stay at Bradford, hope to play more and possibly get a promotion on it. Ultimately, I decided that I just wanted to play, so I came back. I would never have expected to have played in every single match this season if you would have asked me then, but as clichéd as it is, that’s football, and how much it all can change in so little time. I worked very hard in the off-season, and came back very fit and strong because I wanted to prove a point to everybody. The club, the staff, the players, the fans. Myself, maybe.

How have Ryan Lowe and the rest of the coaching staff lifted the very negative atmosphere that seemed to surround the club last season? I don’t think too many fans or pundits expected Bury to be in or around the top three at the turn of the year.

I definitely didn’t expect it as well if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, I knew we had the players, but we had the players last year as well! With how bad it was last year, I didn’t know how it was going to change, but the gaffer brought in players who epitomise him and the way he likes the game to be played. Hard working, honest professionals. We had a lot of quality last year, but maybe not so much of those characteristics. That sort of work ethic rubs off on people, and it became a given throughout the squad. I know every team works hard in pre-season, but we really did work very hard. There was a team togetherness that started brewing as well, which was alien to most of us that had been there the previous season.The gaffer, Rob Kelly and Steven Schumacher just brought a feel good factor back. Training was both high tempo and demanding, and we loved that. I think all of those things mixed together have held us in good stead until now. It means that even when things aren’t going well, we stick together and get through it together. That is absolutely priceless, especially lower down the leagues. That camaraderie and togetherness is what I put most of our promotion at Southend down to a few seasons back. We are all mates off the pitch, and we want to help each other. I think that is the main difference from last year for me. Obviously, we are playing a lot better as well, and that comes with the standard of training and confidence around the dressing room.

How did it feel being given the captain’s armband in the recent Boxing Day clash with Mansfield Town?

It was a very proud moment for me and my family. It was the first time I’ve been captain in a league game I think, so it was a great feeling and achievement for me personally. I appreciate the gaffer’s trust in me, and that he feels that I am a type of character that he can give the armband. We have a lot of leaders on the pitch anyway, so it doesn’t matter who is wearing the armband too much, but it was still nice.

In the last few years, many sides in the English leagues have reverted to a three/five-man defence, with the emphasis now firmly on playing out from the back in the vast majority of cases. What’s it been like for you adapting to that?

It’s been a good learning curve for me. I haven’t played that system a lot throughout my career, so I’ve had to learn (on the job) a lot, but it’s been enjoyable. I’ve played every one of the three slots across the back three this season, and they’re all slightly different, but most of the time I’ve been the central one, and I enjoy it. I like to organise from the back, and in that position you can see everything happening and do a bit more organising. With the way we play, it’s been enjoyable to get on the ball as much as I have been as well. I think the key factor is that all of our defenders are very mobile, so if they are called upon to be one of the wider ones of the trio, they can deal with one-on-one situations, and being in a right or left-back position sometimes. I think it can cause problems when maybe you have defenders that aren’t that mobile, and are getting pulled out of position a lot and struggling, but thanks to the recruitment, we don’t have that problem.

How important do you think it’s been to know week in, week out, that you’re going to be lining up alongside Chris Stokes and Will Aimson?

I think consistency is massive in any team, but especially with the defence. You get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your game with those in mind, and take up different positions for different scenarios, knowing what your defensive partners will do. They’ve both been brilliant this year, and I think a lot of the work they do goes unnoticed. With the system we play and the way we play it, there’s so much emphasis on those two for it to really work, in and out of possession. For me, they have been key and a pleasure to play with, not forgetting Eoghan O’Connell when he’s come in as well!

What would be your ultimate personal goal for the rest of your playing career?

My goal has always been to play as high as I possibly can. I’ve played in league One for the majority of my career, and felt comfortable there, so I’d love to play in the Championship one day. The immediate goal is obviously to get promotion and get back to the third tier. Just as long as I’m playing, and enjoying my football, I think that’s a big thing for me right now, especially after last year’s experience. I’m still fairly young for a centre back, so still have a hell of a lot to learn, but I work hard every day in training to try to be the best that I can be, and we will see where that takes me. I’d also like to try and break my way into the Northern Ireland squad again, but I think I need to be playing at a higher level to be considered for them.

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