While in his prime, captaining Hibs aged 21, playing in a major European final for Rangers just two years later, and then earning a lucrative move to Middlesbrough, Kevin Thomson didn’t anticipate his career as a footballer ending at just 31 years old.
He last kicked a senior ball as a late substitute for the Easter Road side in a 2-2 draw at home to Falkirk last April before officially retiring from playing in August after a brief stint at Tranent Juniors. Although he still feels he has the quality and the natural fitness to play at a good level, Thomson had grown tired of constantly battling with his beleaguered body. Three serious blows in his peak years – cruciate injuries at both Hibs and Rangers, allied to a leg break at Middlesbrough – had the cumulative effect of making his body more susceptible to frustrating strains in the later years of his career.
“It wasn’t part of the plan to finish at this stage,” he said in a reflective interview with the Evening News. “But when I started to get problems, I always said to myself that I would retire on my terms rather than being forced to retire. I could feel the time coming the past few years.
“You’re always thinking about what you’re going to do when you finish, and, with the injuries I had, I was probably thinking about it a bit longer than most players. I genuinely feel I could still play and help a lot of teams, but the frustration of being injured all the time was getting me down and affecting me as a person, which then affects my family. It just felt right in the summer to call it a day and try something new.”
Coaching has always been on Thomson’s radar. He initially hoped this would be in cahoots with Paul Hartley, his former Dundee manager, before a breakdown in relationship resulted in him leaving Dens Park for a third stint at Hibs a year ago. His return to his boyhood club in a temporary player/coach role offered a chance to help out in the academy at East Mains, although nothing permanent was forthcoming upon the expiry of his contract last summer. Following his brief dalliance with Tranent, it was time to get the Kevin Thomson Football Academy off the ground. The 32-year-old – predominantly on his own but with help from his brother-in-law and fellow former Hibs youngster Kevin McDonald – has been working six-day weeks to establish his new venture and is already fully booked, with lengthy waiting lists. As well as a passion, he views it as a way to develop himself as a coach equipped to eventually step back into the senior ranks.
“I was never scared of finishing playing – the thing that scared me was the possibility of doing nothing and being stuck in the house,” said Thomson. “But the fact I’m active and keeping busy with my academy, I enjoy the freedom it’s giving me. The academy has been a big passion of mine since I was really young. I still remember the day I signed a five-year contract for Hibs and I told [chairman] Rod Petrie I wanted to the be the manager of Hibs one day. I’ve had a strong passion for it, and I hope that’ll show in my academy. I’ve got some players who have never kicked a ball before and want to gain confidence, and at the other end I’ve got pro academy players who are borderline professionals and just want to get better. I want to help as many people as I can.
“I’ve got my A Licence, so I’m pretty much fully-qualified for what I would need. John Park [his former youth coach at Hibs] wanted me to go on the Pro Licence in January, but to commit two years to that would take me away from building the academy. If I’m doing something, it’s all or nothing for me – I want to do it properly. At 32, I don’t feel there’s any rush for me to jump into a senior job or tout myself around for a manager’s job, although that is one day something I’d love to do. If I can build my academy from scratch, I think that would look as good as anything else on my CV.
“Look at Ian Cathro. He came up with something similar when he was younger, and he’s now got a huge job across the road [at Hearts]. People have said you need to be conscious not to fall out of the senior game, but nobody can ever take away my career as a player from me. I’m only 32, so I’ve got time on my hands, and I want to learn as much as possible to become the best coach I can be before I jump into a job where I’ll be asked to sink or swim.”
Thomson is maintaining a public presence through his part-time media work. Punditry duties with Radio Scotland and BT Sport have this week been augmented by the publication of his first newspaper column in The Scotsman. “The media stuff just came along off the back of people wanting me on to speak,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoy it. The media have always been good with me. When you’ve been a public figure, and a lot of people have recognised you and supported you, it’s something you miss when you retire. I always enjoyed that side of it – talking to fans and stuff – so when it finishes it can be a wee bit of a dampener. You are quickly forgotten about, so the media stuff helps keep you in the public eye.”
Thomson insists he doesn’t miss the toil of preparing his body for matches, but does miss the day-to-day involvement in a dressing-room. Asked what the hardest part of post-footballer life has been, he laughed: “Not getting paid! Nah, the hardest part for me has been the routine, missing the boys and missing the camaraderie. Wee silly things like being in the [WhatsApp] group chat and having a wee chat with the lads over breakfast. I miss that side of it more so than missing the games. If someone had a crystal ball and said I would play thirty games a season, then I’d love to still be playing, but it was becoming too big a hindrance for me to try and do that.”
Ten years ago this week, Thomson was the subject of scorn from Hibs fans after a controversial transfer-deadline day move to Rangers, just six months after being made captain by Tony Mowbray. Regardless of the acrimonious ending, Thomson’s first spell had seen him effectively cast as the leader of arguably the best Hibs team since the 1970s.
“The main negative for me is that I didn’t get to win silverware with that group,” he said, as he summarised his time among fellow homegrown products like Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Steven Fletcher, Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker. “The highlight, apart from making my debut, was being named captain. Out of everything I achieved in my career, I think my dad’s proudest moment was seeing me lead the team out for the first time in the peeing rain against [Latvian side] Dinaburg in the Intertoto Cup [in July 2006]. I was so excited. I was one of the youngest captains in the club’s history and it felt great to have that trust put in me after recovering from such a bad knee injury.”
Following six years away from Hibs with Rangers and then Middlesbrough, Thomson returned in February 2013 to build some broken bridges with jilted supporters. He initially played for Pat Fenlon’s side for free and then earned himself a permanent contract for the ill-fated relegation season. “I have positive memories from my second spell in the sense that I got to play for Hibs again,” he said. “Pat was a gentleman – he treated me with great respect. He had built an okay Hibs team. I know what some of my pals who are Hibs fans thought about him and the players he signed and the results the team had under him but when Pat moved on and Terry Butcher came in, it was like an iceberg. We just seemed to keep crashing and crashing. It was heartbreaking.”
Thomson had been cast as persona non grata under Butcher, but was sent on as a sub at a critical stage of the second leg of the play-off final against Hamilton Accies. His last act of his second stint at Easter Road was to miss a penalty in the shoot-out as Butcher’s dysfunctional team plummeted into the Championship, where they have remained ever since.
“I’d never taken a penalty in my whole senior career – I was never a goalscorer,” he said. “But when Terry asked boys to take penalties, there weren’t that many takers. I just felt as probably the most experienced player in the whole squad, I should take responsibility to step up. Although Terry didn’t make me a leader in that changing room, I still felt like I behaved like a leader and was someone the boys looked to for a wee bit inspiration when we were down in the gutter. There are far, far better players than me who have missed big penalties. It was just sad that I missed on such a bad day in the club’s history. I was involved in the relegation and I take full responsibility.”
Less than two years later, after his time at Dundee had turned sour, Thomson was back for a third stint at Hibs. He made only nine appearances under Alan Stubbs, but takes heart from the fact three – two against Hearts and one at home to Inverness – were as part of the club’s famous run to Scottish Cup glory. “The third spell was short and sweet – I loved every minute of it,” he said. “Alan was great with me. I knew when I first met him that it was more about potentially opening the door to doing some coaching but I said I’d try and stay as fit and possible if he needed me to play. I was lucky enough to play in the League Cup final [2-1 defeat by Ross County], but that was another disappointment even though I felt we played well that day and should have won it.
“To then be involved in the dressing-room on the 21st of May was breathtaking. Even though I didn’t play in the final, I felt part of it. I feel I played a tiny part in the run because I played in three of the games. On the weekend of the final, I felt I played a part in terms of speaking to the players and helping the likes of Dylan McGeouch when he was having doubts about whether he’d be fit enough to play. I still speak to a lot of the lads to this day. Alan and the senior players at the club created a really good bond in that group. I enjoyed being an older figure in amongst those boys. I miss them.”