Matt Thompson after the Jets? grand final win in 2008. Photo: Jonathan CarrollWhen Matt Thompson ran out on to the pitch in Newcastle on a Friday night in late August 2005 to be part of an historic occasion – the first A-League match – it’s doubtful if he gave much thought to setting any sort of record.
Thompson, then 23, was part of a Newcastle Jets line-up that crashed 1-0 at home to Adelaide United, little imagining that 7½ years later he would be in Melbourne, playing for A-League expansion club Melbourne Heart and about to make some history of his own.
On Monday night, again against Adelaide United, Thompson will become the first A-League player to hit the 200-game mark, an achievement to reflect on in a career in which he has emerged as one of the most consistent performers in the first eight years of the competition.
Thompson has known the joy that great success can bring. He was part of the Jets side that captured the A-League championship in 2008 when it saw off great rival Central Coast in the grand final.
He also knows the frustration, exhilaration and hard work required to be ever-present in a brand new club seeking to establish itself on and off the field in a competitive marketplace dominated by another team.
It’s fair to say that Heart has probably been more successful in the former sphere than the latter, although it’s not for the want of trying by the wholehearted Thompson, who gives his all on the pitch and is more than ready to promote the club.
Looking back, Thompson smiles and says that while much has changed over the eight years of the A-League, the ride for him has been exciting, interesting and enjoyable.
”It’s not a bad milestone for me,” he says. ”I have been pretty lucky with injuries and I am sure there are plenty of players out there who have been unlucky with injuries and would have been up there if they had not been, so it’s a nice little milestone for me.”
The 200-game mark is nowhere near the end of the road for Thompson. ”I don’t feel old. I think I can go on for four or five more years. I look after myself, I am always available for selection, I have been injury-free, touch wood, for the past few years. I always put my hand up to play and I don’t see that changing over the next few years.”
Thompson’s versatility has ensured he always finds a role in any team he plays in. At Newcastle, he was one of the league’s best box-to-box midfielders, but he also had an eye for goal, emerging as a regular scorer for the Jets.
In Melbourne, he has occupied a range of positions: attacking midfielder, central midfielder, wide man, holding midfielder and, on numerous occasions, a ball-playing central defender, a role Heart’s initial coach John van ‘t Schip thought him well-suited to.
”That first year in Melbourne was a big jump for me with JVS being here. I took a lot out of that and, playing in a new position as well, I had to grow up a little bit quicker than normal, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was a great challenge. I have enjoyed my time here, but I intend to carry on for several seasons yet.
”I was asked to be a bit more of an older head on the pitch. I was captain in that last year at Newcastle, but I had older heads around me – Paul Okon, Ned Zelic, Nicky Carle – who took the reins in marshalling the team. With the likes of the players we did have here at Heart in that first year, that was a massive confidence booster to be asked to do that by JVS.”
Thompson says the biggest challenge he has faced was playing at the back.
”I had never played as a central defender, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Every game was a constant thought process.”
It’s not surprising that a player who has won a championship suggests that the grand final win was a career highlight, but Thompson says he has another one that equals the emotion of that day.
”The grand final win at Newcastle was pretty fantastic, but I have to be a bit selfish and say the 3-2 derby win over Melbourne Victory last year, when I scored a couple of goals, was great. The atmosphere there was fricking amazing … To get on the scoresheet in a game like that is a great bonus.”
Thompson has played with some of the best players Australia has produced – his current coach John Aloisi, Josip Skoko, Zelic and Okon, and he reserves a special affection for the latter.
”They are all completely different players. I only knew ‘Okes’ by name when he came to Newcastle, but he was an outstanding player and a top bloke, and he’s one of the best I have definitely played with.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.