When the roars die down even old heroes need love

In a week which has seen the levels of anger, indignation and pure poison surrounding Blackburn Rovers rise to newly-ridiculous levels, a small article in the news pages of the town’s evening newspaper drew my gaze and in the space of a few seconds, completely altered my own all-too-often bilious perspective on footballing matters.

Most fans of my vintage or older were deeply saddened in the early days of the summer just gone to hear that former Rovers striker Chris Thompson, best remembered as a willing, workaholic, limited but loyal and battling partner of Simon Garner’s, had passed away at his home aged 52 in unspecified circumstances.

When a person so young dies, particularly one who has been at some point routinely honed in prime physical condition compared to most of us, you generally know something wasn’t right and so the inquest into “Thommo’s” death revealed this week in the mercifully brief but bleakest descriptions imaginable of his unfortunate demise.

Thompson died alone in his Midlands home, lying undiscovered for some time after spiralling into a depression so acute that he would often lock doors and then even bolt them to prevent even family members desperate to offer help from entering.

As someone who has myself suffered from depression, I recognise only too well the metaphorical significance of this simple physical act, being in such a dark place that you do not want anyone bodily there with you or more pointedly to allow them into the dark recesses of your psyche to see the mess, the hopelessness, the shame, the deep embarrassment at the plight you have allowed yourself to be dragged into…

I was lucky. Although I too lived alone then I had family around me who recognised danger signs and through sheer persistence, despite no great grace or gratitude on my part, they simply would not allow me to refuse their help. A lack of a phone call here or a knock on my door there or an encouraging word that somehow got through when all else failed and I too could have fallen to the point of no return.

Skin of the teeth job.

Chris Thompson obviously got to that point where no-one could save him. I’ve seen it happen to a couple of friends. You try to help but somehow know you just can’t anymore. Your efforts are doomed to failure. They’re just doomed.

There were many of the usual pointers at Chris’s inquest – failed relationships, unsuccessful business ventures, a dependence on drink- which often prove a dangerous combination. But unless they’re very lucky no-one can get to the place another person gets to when all hope is gone, salvation just isn’t an option.

Footballers and other sportsmen often find it hard after their time in the spotlight ends. Chris was never a world-beater – if he had been, he would never have been playing for us under Bob Saxton – but he was, well, allright, a good fit for Rovers at that time.

We were modest and sensible in our ambition then, a fair-to-middling Second Division side which often started seasons well but with no transfer money to invest and four-figure crowds the norm, the most prevalent conspiracy theory abound at a club now riddled with them was the simple single one that chairman Bill Fox, the market fruit bloke, and his board of directors, “couldn’t bloody well afford for us to go up.”

But most weeks we would be competitive. Chris had joined from Bolton where he had come through the ranks and came to Ewood for a modest fee to partner Simon Garner after Norman Bell had to pack up.

He scored on debut at home to Huddersfield and notched a modest eight league goals in his first season. Garns benefited enormously from his unselfishness and knock-downs though.

Expectation was pretty low back then. But even a side as modest as that – Gennoe, Maily, Keeley, Colin Randell., Noel Brotherston, Faz, John Lowey, Terry Gennoe, Baz and Branagan, Dave Hamilton , kids Simon Barker and Mark Patto – managed 6th place. We would shake hands now on that finish in May for today’s criminally-indulged and spoonfed millionaires!

I vividly remember standing on the Riverside one night that March of 1984, the same spot my pals and I stood for years, and just along were a similar posse of regulars.

There was a big comical looking lad, all ‘tache and wild hair, very tall, a bit like an unkempt ragamuffin version of old rovers keeper John Butcher, who used to make me laugh moaning and groaning about how poorly we were playing, how cold the pies were, how empty the terraces were..

This particular night we were three up at home to Carlisle and the youthful Barks and Patto instigated a flowing passing move, one touch here, a backheel there, a chest by Thommo, I distinctly remember a chest by Thommo, into Garner’s path and a fierce instant shot whistled just wide…

“I can’t believe it,” this funny bloke gasped out, “We’re playing well….we’re playing really bloddy well…it’s gone on for about ten minutes now….”

We all exploded in laughter, happy to concur.

That was the thing then. You didn’t expect fancy footwork and wizardry from lads on a few quid more a week than maybe your dad was on at Star Paper or Mullards or wherever.

Just to compete. We lost 6-0 at Maine Road that season. Beat the buggers 2-1 here though.

Young and without ties, a win, especially an away win, was cause for us young fans to hit the town in raucous and prolonged celebration of a Saturday night.

You might even see the players out. They were always a bit bigger, a bit better-dressed, groomed, better hair, better-looking than you.

Whereas you looked and smelled like you’d trawled round the Barbary Coast horsing pints down amid the smoke and stale, cheap perfume, the lads would be up the Cav, immaculate, like they’d just come out the shower, smelling of Paco Rabane.

But we adored them, worshipped the ground they walked on. These were the Rovers, our town, our team, our boys, doing what we only dreamed of doing.

Thommo’s second season was something of a triumph. Fifteen he bagged, more than Garns even. More than Jimmy Quinn who was bought to take his place but Thommo got nine in the first 10 games and Quinn never got a start till December.

He was a hell of a big handy lad, tough and tenacious, strong and good in the air, no twinkle-toes on the ground, no great pace but industrious to a fault.

Agents? You’re having a laugh. Chris drove a bright blue sponsored Lada from Shad Car Centre. With his name on it!

Another season, less productive, and he was off on his travels. His spell at Ewood was probably the most noteworthy and bountiful of his career.

And then it ends. The adulation, the cheers, the pats on the back in the 100 Club, the handshakes, the “Hey Chris – well done today, mate…”

All in the past.

Just the memories.

If you’re lucky, and willing to muck in, or some old manager or coach remembers you and what a grafter you were, maybe a job coaching the kids. Then the reserves. A bit of scouting. These days they go on the radio, “match day host,” that kind of thing… still in the game, still involved.

But not Chris. We all forgot him I guess. Maybe he got a call or two from the ex-Players club, an invite here or an invite there to a do, a reunion.

What else do old footballers, trading on the remnants of a career and a dimly-recalled name do?
A pub maybe. Customers maybe know you’re an ex-pro. Who for? Not sure. Some team up north. Blackburn or Bolton or someone?

Just the memories. That goal there, that roar that night. Just memories now. Sometimes not even anyone to share them with, talk about them with.

But I did it. That was me who scored those goals. Me with the Blackburn End singing my name.

We’d all have another to that, wouldn’t we, even if we were alone and lonely? You can’t take a winner at Birmingham or a beauty against Fulham at Ewood away from me.

No-one there to even toast the memory with him.

Then nothing. A dark room, a bolted door. Nothing.

I hope Chris Thompson is in a better place now. Part of me hopes he’s sat at a stool next to Noel Brotherston remembering the good times. Somewhere and someone to share his memories with.

He was all right, Thommo, and he deserved better than for it to end like that.

I don’t like today’s footballers much, some of them. Only last night I heard a tale of a current Rovers player being rude at a function to barstaff, rolling a bar-bill up and throwing it back, saying: “I’m a f***ing footballer, love, do you think I can’t pay a bill at the end of the night?” Loathsome on so many levels.

My club is in a horrible mess. I dislike the owners, the people who run it, I even get fed up of some of my fellow fans who think success is a birthright, an entitlement.

But what have I really got to complain about? I live in a house with people, children, love and laughter in it, happiness at the simplest pleasures. I was lucky. My door had no bolt, my heart hadn’t got to the place without hope where no-one could get me to listen. Something saved me from hitting the very, very bottom.

If you know someone who could do with a call, or a knock, or a word, particularly this time of year, let them know you’re bothered about them.

Even old heroes could still do to know how loved they are, it seems.

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