Steve Evans and a scramble for shin pads: How Sheffield Wednesday caretaker boss Neil Thompson transformed the history of a provincial club
There were people on the pitch before the whistle had been blown. They thought it was all over and, indeed, it was.
Not at Wembley Stadium all those years ago and not in a World Cup final, but in more rather more modest surroundings, at Hayes FC’s Church Road on the final weekend of the 2001/02 Conference season.
Three toots on the referee’s whistle and little Boston United were promoted to the Football League after a 2-0 win.
As hundreds of supporters adorned in gold and black rushed towards the dugout, a fresh-faced Steve Evans – he who would go on to manage Rotherham and Leeds among others – turned to his bench to search for the embrace of one man; Neil Thompson.
The now-Sheffield Wednesday caretaker boss is approaching the anniversary of a decade at the Hillsborough club in his most high-profile posting to date, but it was in the gloriest of glory days at the provincial Lincolnshire club that he enjoyed his longest spell in league management.
Coming in as player-coach partway through that promotion season, he took over from Evans when the Scot was banned from football for his part in the financial irregularities that saw them deducted four points ahead of that maiden fourth tier effort. In perilous circumstances, Thompson kept them up. He’s an icon round those parts.
“We were expected to win the league under Evans but we were in a blip and struggling,” remembered Neil Tarrant, a one-time Aston Villa starlet that played as a striker in that Boston side, speaking to The Star.
“Thommo came in and the experience he had was massive, we all knew him and the experience at a Conference level team was enormous.
“He’s the sort of person you respect straight away off the bat. I remember thinking that at the time. All the lads listened to him right away and in my mind he was the big factor in us getting promoted.
“He came in not only to bolster us at the back, he came in and helped the gaffer out.”
Thompson had Premier League experience with Ipswich Town and remains a club legend at Scarborough for whom he played 242 times in the league, time he mentioned himself last week having beaten his old Seadogs boss Neil Warnock in his first match as Owls stand-in against Middlesbrough.
His arrival at Boston, with Evans having assembled a talented but inexperienced squad, changed the course of the club’s history, Tarrant believes. As a young striker, though, the benefit of his experience came at a cost.
“Steve was the gaffer, but Thommo took a lot of sessions,” he said. “We were always listening and learning from him. We had a very young squad at the time so he was perfect.
“I just remember him in training being absolutely solid. He was more aggressive with me in training than some hard men were in matches and he never, ever shirked a tackle.
“I was a centre-forward and I used to stay out of his way at training. He was a big, solid Yorkshireman and he was full-blooded. I ran away from him to be honest, or I was quick to jump on his team in five-a-side.
“The staff told us to start wearing shin pads at training if we feel it necessary because he was that full-blooded. He didn’t hold back.”
Among the alumni of Thompson’s time as Boston boss are former Luton Town manager Graeme Jones and next-big-thing Brighton manager Graham Potter. So too the former Leeds manager Neil Redfearn.
“Thommo was a mate. He just wanted me to coach and initially that’s all I was going to do,” Redfearn told the Yorkshire Post earlier this year. “But Steve Evans had been sacked and we were docked four points [for financial irregularities].
“The £100,000 fine came out of Thommo’s budget. We got beaten in the first couple of games and Thommo turned around to me and said, ‘You’re going to have to play.’ I played pretty much every game that season and scored quite a few goals.
“I loved it. I’d got my mate in charge and I trusted him. He had a good knowledge of the game and an empathy for players. We’d got a good group of players, good people around us, and we finished 15th.
“Then there was a change of ownership and the new people wanted Steve Evans back. I’d gone there to work with my mate so I moved to Rochdale.”
Having performed heroics in keeping them up in his only full season in the Boston dugout, Thompson was outed in favour of his predecessor within three days of the new owners moving in.
He moved out of the spotlight to join his former Scarborough teammate Kevin Blackwell at Leeds United as academy manager where among dozens of others he coached a young Tom Lees.
He stepped in to a similar role at Wednesday in 2011 and has been a central figure in the development of a whole raft of current Owls senior men.
A popular and highly respected coach at Middlewood Road, he made it two wins from two in the top seat with a win over Derby on Friday evening. The Wednesday players are performing with smiles on faces.
“He’s a great fella,” remembers Tarrant, who left Boston before Thompson’s ascension to management. “You could have a laugh with him. Even though he was a first team player, he was doing the coaching and he had that balance.
“You could tell he was always going to be a successful coach. Not only did he have the passion for it, but he always wanted to help the younger lads and he had this desire to help players.
“Thommo will have a lot of his own ideas, he’ll know a lot about the younger lads and a lot of those coming through. I know he’ll be relishing the opportunity.”