Rugby League Heroes: Jimmy Thompson

Known as ‘The Tackler’, Jimmy Thompson was one of the best forward of the 1970s. He went on two Lions Tours and played in two World Cup Finals. He won two Challenge Cups and a league title in a glorious 11-years spell at Featherstone Rovers. He moved to Bradford Northern in 1977 and helped them land successive league championships in 1980 and 1981. His last club was Carlisle, whom he helped win promotion to Division One in their first season.

If you could relive one day from your Rugby League career, which would it be?
Wembley in 1967. I was just 18, and it was my first season of playing Rugby League. I probably didn’t realise how big it was, but being so young probably helped me. I was led by the senior players. It was like going away on holiday. We stayed at Crystal Palace for a week. I’d managed to get straight into the first team, having never played rugby before I joined Featherstone Rovers. We weren’t doing so well in the league, but we beat Bradford Northern, Wakefield Trinity, Castleford and Leeds to get to Wembley. They were four of the best teams in the country, yet we’d finished 20th out of 30. Barrow in the final were the easiest team we’d had. They’d still finished five places above us, and they had some good players, but we beat them 17-12.

How did you get into Rugby League?
I’d just left school and was doing an apprenticeship. I was 15. The first year of the apprenticeship was at college, and Roger Millward was in my class. He was more educated than me, and I used to copy his work! I knew he was a great rugby player, too. I had a mate, Ralph Spires, who had a motorbike. He was off to training one night at Featherstone and told me to come along for the ride. When we got there, I was asked to join in. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they offered me a game at the weekend. I was a bit of a headless chicken.
We had a good under-17s side and we won the Yorkshire Cup. They offered to sign me. The money felt like riches because we didn’t have much back then. Castleford had also been after me. I went into their committee room, having already signed for Featherstone. When I told them that, they kicked me out of the room!

When you were picked for Yorkshire Under-17s in 1966, is it true you walked 15 miles from your home in Knottingley to get the team bus in Leeds because you couldn’t afford public transport?
Yes, and we had no transport of our own either. I ran, walked, ran, walked all the way. I just took it lamppost by lamppost! I was totally lost and pretty much had to guess the way. I think we played in Cumberland. Luckily, I got a lift back!

What do you remember of your first-team debut in the autumn of 1966?
I played five A-team matches, and then I was picked as sub for the first team against Hull KR. I went to the ground, and no one recognised me, so I had to pay to get in! I came on for Steve Lyons. I didn’t even know who was playing for Hull KR. I just tackled and tackled. That was the first of October, and by the following May, I was playing at Wembley.

You won the Ashes in 1970 and remain part of the last Great Britain team ever to do so.
I was playing alright and was called up for the tour. Even getting on the plane at Manchester, I wondered who to sit with. There were four or five lads from Cas and loads from Lancs. I didn’t know anyone! But Phil Lowe and I hit it off as two young lads. It was a great bunch of blokes. Everyone seemed to get on with one another. There were no problems at all.
We had a game at Darwin the first day we landed. I wasn’t in the Test side at first, and those who weren’t called ourselves the ham’n’eggers. But the lads lost the first Test to Australia, then I was called up for the second and third. I remember Johnny Whiteley telling me I was in, and I just thought, “Brilliant!” We kept on winning throughout the tour and we won the Ashes. I’ve been lucky to have won a few things.

You played twice more at Wembley for Rovers, winning in 1973 and losing the next year.
I don’t remember much other than the results. Northern had a good side, but Steve Nash won the Lance Todd Trophy, and he was brilliant. We’d played together in the under-17s, the day I walked 15 miles for the bus. Warrington in 1974 was a hard game, and I had a few tussles that day. It was absolutely terrible to lose, absolutely horrible. I’d had a few injures by then, and I’d lost a bit of pace. I could have played better that day.

Did you move up to prop because of those ACL injuries?
Yes, I’d lost that pace, so I moved into the front row. I used to like the second-row position because of the freedom, but then I was in the front row alongside Keith Bridges and Vince Farrar. I’d always played with good hookers at Featherstone – Graham Harris wasn’t much older than me. He played at Wembley at 19 in 1967. He had a leg injury and he had to pack in early – I was lucky with my cruciates in that I could carry on. Graham died suddenly in his 40s, which was very sad. We also had Milan Kosanovic. Keith was a great hooker, but Vince could also play there. Winning the ball was a big asset to the side. If you had a good hooker and scrum-half, you were halfway there.

Peter Fox was coaching Rovers by now. He later signed you for Bradford. Tell us about him.
My first coach was Laurie Gant, and he took us to Wembley in 1967. Peter succeeded him. Coaches didn’t mean anything to me personally, but he was good. I knew who Don Fox was, but I’d never met him. When I signed in 1966, the players I looked up to were the fullback Gary Cooper and Don, but they soon sold them to Wakefield, and I didn’t get to play alongside them. Peter turned out to be brilliant. He said it how it was. His team talks were fantastic – never aggressive, but he advised you what to do in the right way. Tactically, he was on the ball, and he picked the right team to win the game. He wasn’t afraid to drop or sub the best players. He was before his time.

1976-77 was a momentous campaign for you as Rovers were crowned champions, it was your benefit year and your last season at the club.
We were all playing well. We had some good youngsters. Peter Smith was a brilliant lad. And we won the league by a few points. I went away to the World Cup in Australia at the end of the season, and a new coach [Keith Goulding] came in while I was away. The team was starting to break up, and players like John Newlove, Steve Evans, Graham Bray, Charlie Stone and Vince Farrar all ended up at Hull. Bridgie later came to Odsal with me. Peter [Fox] was at Bradford by now and came in for me. It was a no-brainer. Bradford weren’t doing so well, but I knew what Peter could do, and we came second in the league in my first season there and won the Yorkshire Cup a few months later.

Did you captain Bradford?
I captained them in a few games, but Nigel Stephenson was a born captain. We did it between us. They probably felt I could do it because I was knocking on a bit, and there were some young lads in the squad.

Two of the young players were Brian Noble and Ellery Hanley. What do you remember of them?
Brian could never beat Bridgie! He’ll kill me for saying that, but Bridgie wasn’t there long, so Nobby got his chance. He was a good hooker, and he captained Great Britain. He could talk could Brian, and he led players around the field. I remember Ellery well, and you could tell he was going to be a superstar. To me personally, he was a nice lad.

And what about the rest of the squad?
Peter bought some older players. Johnny Wolford was a great scrum-half. There were the Redfearns, Colin Forsyth who’d been at Featherstone and Graham Idle. Graham Joyce the second-rower was good, and so was Gary van Bellen. Keith Mumby was tremendous. You could always depend on Mumby! If anyone broke through, you knew he’d take them down. They all gelled together nicely. Team spirit is so important.

Your last club was new boys Carlisle in the 1981-82 season. Why did you go there?
I couldn’t run anymore and thought it was time to pack in. I had a young family. My knees were knackered. I still worked for the coal board. There were strikes. I had a house and money going out. Carlisle came along. I wasn’t getting in the Bradford first team anymore. Allan Agar and Mick Morgan had signed, and they came to my house and asked me to give them a season. I said yes, but if I got injured, I’d stop. I played 20-odd matches, but I did my shoulder and that was it for me. I knew I couldn’t carry on. Carlisle did well in that first season, and we got promoted. I started and finished my Rugby League career with Allan and Mick, as they’d also been in that Yorkshire Under-17s side.

Are you looking forward to the new season?
I still follow Rugby League, yes, but I don’t follow a specific team in the professional game. I have a couple of grandsons who are interested, and one plays for Featherstone Lions. He’s called Sonny Newlove. Paul’s brother Richard is married to our daughter. He’s their son. He’s a good centre. John Newlove and I are his grandads, and Charlie Stone, who passed away in 2018, was his great uncle.