Altrincham FC

This season’s National League includes an Altrincham side acquitting themselves well in their first time back in the division since 2016, and you would expect nothing less of the Robins under Phil Parkinson. Alongside the club’s demonstrable ambition, Alty have been set on progressing with steady precision, and unlike many of their contemporaries, the squad don’t currently have the luxury of a full-time regime.

Goalkeeper Tony Thompson has been part of the hugely impressive climb back from the Northern Premier Division since Parkinson’s arrival. Having been full-time in the past, the 26-year-old ex-Rotherham United and Morecambe youngster can say without hesitation that he has been going the extra mile in pursuit of a return to the professional game. In this interview, the Liverpudlian livewire was somewhere between a building site in the North West and a league game 200+ miles away. All in a day’s work, but as the man himself says, he’s desperate to hang those spanners up at least…

 

What does a midweek match day like this look like for you? Are you at work in the morning, then travelling on the team coach, playing the match, then travelling back, or do you ever get to stay over for the night?

It’s always in the one day on a Tuesday because obviously lads have got to get back to work the next day. You’ve caught me on a good one here, it’s Woking away, so I left my house at 6 this morning, travelled to Manchester, where I’m working, scaffolding, and I’ve just finished now, 1 o’clock. I’m on my way to Stoke-on-Trent to meet the lads on the coach; you can either get on at the ground, and then there’s a couple of meet points. We’ll hopefully get there for half 6, if it’s a quarter to 8 kick-off. It looks like I’m gonna be getting home at about 3 o’clock in the morning.

Who is it wise to stay away from on a coach trip to an away game?!

I tend to stay away from the card table; it’s not a lot of money but an away trip can end up costing you £50! Then you’ve got your quiet tables, with your Jake Moults, Shaun Densmores, the experienced lads.

The team’s competed well (currently 11th, three points outside the play-offs), but speaking purely on a personal level, how happy have you been with your own season?

The season, I feel, has been my best at Altrincham. So far, I’ve just been able to showcase my abilities, basically. I think sometimes in the Evo-Stik and the Conference North, I wasn’t tested as much as I am this season. It’s showing what I can be. I’ve always been the same goalkeeper, but I haven’t had much to do sometimes. A lot of people talk about my kicking, and I think it’s been on point this season. I was looking at statistics in the Championship and keepers making errors, and it’s like one in every 20 games; it’s just comparing yourself to other keepers, at the level where they’re full-time. I’ve been in work and I’m going to play a full 90 against a team that are most probably full-time, and I put myself right up there with the keepers in this league.

Maybe goalkeepers aren’t always given the same consideration as outfield players with this, but what kind of approach do you need from a manager? What works best with you?

Over the past four seasons at Altrincham, the gaffer’s tried every technique with me, I think! So he’s given me the competition, which I feel has brought the best out of me. I’ve worked with some great keepers, with Steven Drench, Elliot Wynne, Tim Deasy, Matt Gould this year’s pushing me a lot. He gives me that competition, which keeps me on my toes, but this season, I’ve never felt more comfortable in my position. He’s made me vice-captain, so it says a lot of the manager and what he thinks of me this season. It’s nice to have that backing.

You’ve been with the club since that Northern Premier Division season. To now be two leagues higher, what are the changes you’ve noticed in the club itself and how things are done, in that relatively short space of time?

There’s been not a lot of changes, but good changes. I joined the club with Phil Parkinson the year he took charge properly, and he’s implemented this professionalism in a part-time game, which is hard to get a happy medium with, because you’ve got to put the hours in. You’re analysing other teams thoroughly, and for a part-time team, we put a lot of hours in, which is shown in the results. I think there was a bit of a laid-back approach before Phil Parkinson and Neil Sorvel and this era, this resurrection of the club. It comes from the players as well, but they’ve implemented professionalism massively. Even with the staff he’s brought in, you’ve got Bush (Mark Bushell) who’s the analyst, and before every game, he sends me my clips from the previous game; stuff where I’ll feel good about myself, and bits that I might need to work on. You’ve got your physios and your sports therapists. You’ve got four lads just in the sports therapy side, which is great.

You started in the Football League yourself and turned pro, so it’s not as if you’re a Sunday league keeper who’s suddenly started climbing the divisions! But as Alty have progressed, have you had to change anything personally in how you do things?

Yeah, massively. A lot of stuff in the part-time game has to be done in your own time. For instance, I’m a big lad, so if I start going to the gym, I really have to watch myself, or the other way round; if I don’t go to the gym enough, I’ll start putting weight on, it’s just my body type. In a full-time environment, you’d usually be in the gym every morning with an S&C (strength and conditioning coach). Here, you’ve got them on the phone, but you’ve got to take a lot of responsibility on your own shoulders.

When it came to clinching promotion last season, with all the restrictions that were in place by then, could you properly let loose and relish the moment, or was the edge taken off it at all?

I’ll be totally honest, I don’t think I can say much about the social distancing that went on that night! I’d go back to that night ten times over, it was unbelievable. There was a little drink at the club, then…other places! The lads had a great time, and the celebrations went on until Sunday as well. We went out in groups of six on the Sunday.

To eventually get into the EFL, obviously it’s everything you’re trying to do as a club, but what about you personally? Is that a real burning desire, because obviously with some in non-league, when it gets to the point of going full-time, it isn’t always viable for them to carry on?

It’s a massive, massive desire. The gaffer knows it, everyone around me knows it. I really wanna hang my spanners up, to be honest with you! Just to be able to concentrate solely on football. The lifestyle’s a lot better obviously, you’re getting paid to keep fit, and it’s so hard when you’re doing 12-hour shifts on a work site and trying to keep fit as well. I wanna prove to people that I can. A lot of people talk about my height, but I think if you’re good enough, you’re tall enough. It’s been a sigh of relief this season because I’m getting to showcase how good of a goalkeeper I am, and I do believe I can compete at the top levels. It’s just getting the chance to, and if that’s with Alty, it would be perfect.

I know you’re life and soul of the dressing room, but when you’re at work, at home, are you going over stuff in your head about the game, including when it’s not gone well? How do you find switching off?

To be honest, I’m an over-thinker; football’s always on my mind. I’m working now with a sports psychologist in my own time on a Friday, which is great, teaching me new methods and how to go about things. It’s always on my mind and it’s always at the forefront. I feel like scaffolding’s a stopgap and I just wanna play football. It’s what I love, that’s why I put the hours in.

You had a spell with Chester in a past life! In terms of the rivalry, the dislike perhaps between them and Alty we’ve seen in recent seasons, is that something you feel as players, or more for the fans?

No, it’s definitely there as players as well. They obviously took JJ (John Johnston), and the management team have got this rivalry going as well, which is great, and you do feel it. I haven’t enjoyed all of it *describes something a Chester fan did to his drinks bottle…*. The atmosphere at the games, though, when the crowds are back, is unbelievable. For some reason, we always play them in cups, so it’s even better as well.

Alty’s very obviously been the happiest time, what about the most difficult spell in your football up to now?

Yeah, taking the leap from full-time to part-time was a scary moment, and even just considering it was quite gutting. It was scary because I didn’t know what I was gonna do after football. It’s the same old thing, when you’re a YT and someone’s saying ‘make sure you’ve got a second choice, make sure you’re thinking about careers away from football’, that never crossed my mind at all when I was full-time. It was tough at Fylde as well, to be honest. I went in and played 15 games there and was unbeaten. The keeper at the time was good, Rhys Taylor, but I think politics sometimes play a part in football. I just didn’t feel justified at the time in getting dropped, but it’s football. Taking the leap from full-time to part-time, though, was probably one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with, but it’s paid off.

Is there a funniest or most surreal thing you’ve seen or heard at a game?

Just two words and one name: Jordan Hulme. He is the maddest person I’ve come across in non-league. He’s settled down a lot now, but he’s the maddest thing I’ve ever seen in football, I think.

So has it left a bit of a void in that sense since he left, or has anyone stepped up – as much as anyone could?!

Yeah there is a little bit, he’s sadly missed. Just for the nights out; it’s not even his goalscoring, I think it’s just his drinking! There’s a few lads who’ve stepped up: Willo (Sean Williams) is a bit of a mad one. Myself as well, I think! While we’re here, I think we should enjoy it. Sometimes it doesn’t work in my favour, because sometimes you’ve got to be serious, and lads won’t take you serious if you mess about too much. I’ll always try to make training or coming in as enjoyable as possible, because at the end of the day, we are doing what we love, so what’s the point in it if we don’t enjoy it? We’re not here for a long time, football doesn’t last forever. It’s gonna be hard sometimes but the camaraderie at Altrincham’s been unbelievable, from day one to now. We know each other inside out and credit to the gaffer and Sorvs for recruiting that type of changing room. A lot of lads come in and say it’s the best they’ve ever been in, and I think that’s why we do so well.

Are there any players you’ve played alongside, who on ability alone, you looked at and thought ‘you should be playing at a higher level’?

There’s a few; I think you get one every year! This year, there’s been the younger lads coming in, like Alistair Smith, Dan Mooney, Joel Senior. What a player Ryan Colclough is, by the way. It’s scary how good he is.

Going through your football up to now, do you think people have generally always had a fair impression, or has anyone ever misunderstood anything about you?

A couple of gaffers, I think! My banter’s very borderline, but I’ll never go too far with it. I love making people feel comfortable in the changing room. I’ll go and speak to lads, I’ll phone them, and I always want that connection with them. I think Phil Parkinson a few times took it the wrong way, though! Sometimes if he brings a player in and they do something wrong, I’ll say ‘have you still got the receipt?’ I don’t think he likes that…

Most importantly, are you still team DJ in the changing room?

Oh yeah, that’ll never change. Best DJ out there.

Did you have to wrestle that job away from anyone?

I like a bit of disco, I like a bit of everything, so I just put music on, not knowing if there was a DJ. Then I started dancing around with my Sloggis on and I think the lads thought ‘what’s going on here?’

Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a team, and if so, which song(s)?

When I joined Altrincham, I sang Van Morrison ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, because I think it’s the only song that I know all the words to. I think I did Toploader ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ as well, so I’m a bit of an old-school singer.

Finally, away from football and work, is there anything else you particularly enjoy, in terms of other interests, or even ambitions outside the game?

The lads laugh at me because I’m a proper family man; I’ve got no kids at the minute but I’m always with my sisters or my nephews and nieces. I love eating out as well; I reckon I could be a food critic. But I’m just more of a social man, I’d say.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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