Bomber Thompson… a man of history

Sports Wizard® worked with Mark Thompson during the Cat's most successful spell. Photo courtesy of Pat Scala and the Age
Sports Wizard® worked with Mark Thompson during the Cat’s most successful spell. Photo courtesy of Pat Scala and the Age

Sports Wizard® worked with Mark Thompson and Geelong from 2007-2011 for three AFL Premierships.

The man they call ‘Bomber’ is back in the coaching hot-sear for 2014, as interim Coach of Essendon.

Thompson was featured by the Age this week, looking at his positive start to the 2014 AFL season and back on some of his achievements.

[divider scroll_text=”SCROLL_TEXT”]

Bomber Thompson looks like he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep since he stopped playing. His Tolkienian face is seared with lines. He blinks, fidgets, talks in fits and spurts, goes off on tangents and is prone to the occasional mid-sentence whoop or whistle. Sometimes, he resembles a morose basset hound. Sometimes, he cuts a figure of the utmost self-assurance “Hmmm” or “Yeah” is how he punctuates his sentences.

Bomber didn’t really want this job. At times, he has seemingly teetered on the edge of a total breakdown. But he appears to be enjoying himself again. Against all odds, he and his tainted team are making footy fun again.

You wouldn’t have picked it late last season. On Footy Classified, he turned in one of the more extraordinary TV performances. Exasperated, dog tired, thinking aloud and at various stages looking as though he might throw a Molotov cocktail into the entire situation, he managed to check himself and save his career. “Should be good TV,” he said half under his breath, as they cut to a break.

It sure was. And so is he. As a footballer, Bomber was as unobtrusive as they come. As a coach, however, he has always been a different cat. Driving along the Geelong highway, he would get random club members on the speaker-phone. “How’ya going mate?” he would ask. “Howd’ya reckon we’re tracking?” He would scoff salad sandwiches in the coach’s box. He would sit twirling a pencil, his chin in his hand, pondering heaven knows what. Sometimes, he seemed on the verge of nodding off.

Before he’d really proven himself as a coach, the game was blighted by flooding and tanking. Clubs were drafting athletes and lurkers who had no idea what they were doing. Thompson preferred pure footballers. But they needed time and patience, two things that were at a premium in the modern game. He was bagged mercilessly. On radio, Sam Newman called for his head every week. By the end of 2006, he looked finished. “I would move him on,” said Garry Lyon on Triple M. “In the end, sometimes your time is up. The ability to get through to your players isn’t there any more.”

The following year, with his team still sending its supporters spare, he strolled around the Etihad Stadium boundary line sporting a knowing grin. The Geelong faithful looked on sourly. That day, he unleashed his players and in many ways helped change the game. His side vivisected Richmond in as close to a flawless performance as a football team can manage. At quarter-time, the Cats fans gave him a standing ovation. They barely lost a game for the next three years.

Thompson wasn’t the perfect coach. He didn’t always have a Plan B. But when he was playing with a full deck, he was hard to top. For Geelong or St Kilda fans, the 2009 grand final was impossible to watch in anything other than a fractious state. It was positively slimming. But Thompson’s head was the coolest on that freezing September day. He was flanked by a crack team of assistants but he coached out of his skin. “To be totally honest, today I found it really easy,” he said at the press conference. “I just felt we were going to win … there you go.”

David Parkin once said that coaching attracts “aggressive, dominant, autocratic pricks”. But AFL coaches are a different kettle of fish these days. The younger brigade are short-back-and-sided, meticulous and collaborative. They process information, present impressively in front of the camera and articulate well. They meditate, mediate and delegate. Many look fitter than their players.

Then there’s Bomber. If he turned up to the standard AFL job interview – with the PowerPoint presentations, personality profiles and 5-year plans – chances are he would be ushered out by men in white lab coats. He doesn’t bother much with euphemisms, doesn’t humiliate rookie reporters, doesn’t mix military metaphors, doesn’t deflect blame.

“I know the system. I know how to coach … hmmm,” he said at Essendon’s AGM last year. Whether you’re a fan or player, that’s all you really want to hear from your coach. His teams are predictable to one another and to the supporter base. When it comes to developing players and cultivating an aesthetically pleasing, free-wheeling style of play, there are few better. He makes football fun. And he wins.

In some ways, he reminds you of those geezers coaching EPL and Championship teams – a little bit batty, occasionally all over the shop, but shrewd as a restroom rodent. Of course, there’s a lot of Kevin Sheedy in him as well. There was always something a little bit unknowable about those great Essendon teams of the mid-1980s, as there would be with the Eagles a decade later. Their players rarely gave interviews. They came with a hint of menace. They were farmers from the bush and tradies from the suburbs. They were Sheedy men. And Thompson certainly fits the mould – titanium tough, mad as a cut snake and something of a walking contradiction.

These days, we analyse football, break it down, tear it asunder and do our best to drain it of all its colour. TV reporters interrupt normal programming with a solemnity usually afforded to Sub-Saharan famines. It takes a man like Thompson, lolling back in the coach’s box like the birthday boy at a Gold Class cinema, to realise how simple the caper can be.

With more and more people disenfranchised by the game, Thompson is the ideal tonic. He has seen and done it all. He has nothing to prove and nothing to lose. An increasingly intriguing individual, he is in serious danger of becoming a cult figure. He may end up becoming the football story of 2014. He has the smell of history about him.

This article first appeared in ‘the Age’ on 4 April, 2014, titled ‘Bomber Thompson and the mark of history‘.