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Phil Thompson opens up on Soccer Saturday sacking and missing his 'band of brothers'

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'We were a band of brothers... I miss it': Phil Thompson speaks out on his Soccer Saturday sacking, Liverpool's FA Cup showdown with Manchester United - and having a 100% win record over Sir Alex Ferguson!Phil Thompson opens up to Sportsmail on his shock Soccer Saturday sacking Thompson does not hold bitterness but admits he badly misses the show After stepping in for Gerard Houiller Thompson won Manager of the Month twiceWhen facing Sir Alex Ferguson in the dug-out, Thompson's team never lost 

Even now, after all these years, Phil Thompson can't quite believe that he was able, on multiple occasions, to remind George Best of how he got the better of him with his first touch of the football as a professional player for Liverpool.



It was Old Trafford, April 1972, and an 18-year-old Thompson only got ten minutes from Bill Shankly's bench - enough time, as he remembers it, to show Best that he has quite a head on his shoulders. 



'He was moving towards me with the ball and I offered him to nutmeg me on the halfway line,' Thompson relates. 

Phil Thompson admits he has been missing his 'band of brothers' on the Soccer Saturday team

'He tried to slip the ball through but I closed my legs, the ball ricocheted off my skinny shins. And off I went.' 

The encounter would have been consigned to the mists of time and the recesses of Thompson's memory had he not found himself working with the individual question for eight years on Sky Sports' Soccer Saturday and other shows as the dynamic, audacious new broadcaster ripped up preconceived notions about programming in the early 1990s.

'I never got tired of talking about the nutmeg,' he says. 'The number of times he would say "Not that one again, Thommo! Not that one!" I must have bored him silly about it.' 

'But he was just fascinating. A fascinating man. A wonderful guy. He just loved being with other football people.' 

Some of the Soccer Saturday footage of those formative days bears out Thompson's testimony. There's an extremely youthful Jeff Stelling, with Thompson, Clive Allen and Rodney Marsh - generally the controversialist of the group. 

Sky got rid of the majority of their panel of former footballers for Soccer Saturday in August, with Matt Le Tissier (2nd left), Thompson (2nd right) and Charlie Nicholas (far right) sacked

Thompson made a name for himself on the show with his endearing reactions to big goals

But Best is the captivating one; confusing who's scored and how, yet radiating a charm which makes for extraordinary television. 'It's my first day back Rodney, let me alone!' Best tells Marsh during one supremely entertaining piece of confusion as he describes a goal. 'Get me a drink and shut up!' 

It's no exaggeration to say that Thompson is still coming to terms with Sky's announcement that they would be replacing Matt Le Tissier, Charlie Nicholas and him on the Soccer Saturday team. 

'It became a way of life so taking that away...,' he says. 'I miss it. Yes, I miss it. We were a band of brothers. But you do know that change has to happen.' 

Thompson is insistent that this discussion must not be conveyed as a story of bitterness on his part. He'd been in discussions with Sky about being eased out of the programme for 18 months, he says. He is 66 now.

'They wanted to do it sensitively rather than one day you're gone,' he relates. 'They said until we find somebody who is better it might continue.' It did, until Sky's head of football, Gary Hughes, called Thompson one morning last September and asked for the meeting that lunchtime at which Thompson would learn he was being axed. 

It sounds brutal, though the removal of the others surprised him more. 'It was three parts of a midfield,' he says.. 'The others could have continued.' (Le Tissier was 51 and Merson 58.) 

The unconfirmed assumption was there were too many white men of a certain age on the programme. 'But I do think we bridged all the gaps, because people grew up with us,' Thompson reflects. 

'We did it for 14 years. Even though people didn't remember us as players, they knew us as Soccer Saturday. So it was part of their life. It even became a cult thing. There was a Jeff Stelling university drinking game! (A shot of spirit every time Stelling said 'doom and gloom' and another when Chris Kamara screamed: 'Unbelievable, Jeff.') 

'It took on its own life. I think people could relate to us,' Thompson continues. 'I'm not saying everybody loved every one of us. You only had to go on social media to see that. But we knew what we were and that was the biggest thing. 

'We didn't want to be like Super Sunday, where they would analyse things to death. That was the great thing about Sky. They mixed things up. They created new programmes. They pushed the boundaries.' 

None of what he describes could hold a candle to events which followed the phone call he received one day in 1998 from Peter Robinson, the chief executive who had worked with Shankly and Bob Paisley. 

Thompson was in a dressing room at the pitches in Everton Valley known as The Pits, trying to get back to fitness with the players who had formed to become Liverpool's Masters 5-a-side team. Within hours he was at the home of club chairman David Moores, being told that Liverpool wanted him back as Gerard Houllier's assistant coach.

Thompson fondly recalls receiving the call to be Gerard Houillier's assistant manager - many trophies would soon follow, including the formerly named UEFA Cup (pictured)

It was the old Ronnie Moran, drill sergeant role he was being asked to fill for Houllier. 'I wasn't daft enough to think it was just my wonderful coaching abilities,' Thompson says. 'It was to get stuck into the players because a lot of the time the players were ruling the club. It was coming to the back end of the Spice Boys period and they needed somebody to stand up to a lot of the players.' 

It meant he had a supporting role in one of the most challenging times Liverpool have ever known, as Houllier looked to change the entire way of life at Melwood - even bringing to an end the 40-minute five and six-a-side games which dated back to 1960s.

In the six months when he subsequently stood in for Houllier, from October 2001, as the Frenchman recovered from life-saving heart surgery, Thompson won two manager-of-the-month awards and Liverpool moved to second in the table. 

It was 'vindication', he feels, for the way his relationship with the club had ended when manager Graeme Souness sacked him as reserve team manager in 1993. That had devastated him.

Thompson's love of the manager he returned to work with is written through his reflections on those times. 'It was Gerard's warmth and the trust he had in people which were the biggest things. He taught me so much.' 

To have lost both him and Ray Clemence in the space of four weeks last autumn was particularly brutal because the goalkeeper and he had shared arguably Liverpool's greatest years together. 

Old pals together: Ray Clemence congratulates his team mate Thompson after a title victory

Take your pick of the stories about Clemence: his legendary reluctance to play in goal during the five-a-sides, his supreme competitiveness, the sugar throwing caper he started when Liverpool's train got stuck for hours behind a broken-down engine for hours on the way home from the devastating 1977 FA Cup final defeat to United. 

They all marked him out as the life and soul of that great team.

'He was clever, too,' Thompson reflects.'He was always one of the guys, when there was any contractual stuff he's always be helping people out. So he took care of everybody as well.

'When we won title against the Spurs team he was playing for, at Anfield in 1982, I remember running the length of the pitch and giving a hug because our team then were his team. He had been my help, eyes and ears for so many years. I wanted to say to him, "thank you very much for that."' 

The Manchester United fixture - the stand-out tie of this weekend's FA Cup Fourth Round - has always set Thompson's pulse racing as much as any. He wasn't surprised that last weekend's Premier League clash between the sides was so drab. 

'There was a two-week close season and two-week pre-season, which is no preparation,' he says. 'It's created an unprecedented situation when everything is impossible to predict, including who might win the league.' 

Much could hinge on whether Joel Matip is fit to return at central defence as the teams meet again in the FA Cup 4th Round this weekend. 'Defence has not been the problem of itself, despite Virgil van Dijk's absence,' Thompson insists. 

'It's more about decision-making 25 yards from goal, midfielders and forwards too.' United games have delivered up some of Thompson's most defining Liverpool moments - including the two wins over Sir Alex Ferguson's side while he was standing in for Houllier in 2001/02. 

During his stand-in as Liverpool manager, Thompson was never beaten by Sir Alex Ferguson

It was the season which Ferguson had initially decided would be his last and perhaps that was why, when they encountered each other in Anfield's rabbit warren of corridors in November 2001, the Scot proposed they have a glass of wine pre-match together.

'I had to decline,' Thompson relates, grinning at the memory. 'I had to be in with my players. There was something less intense about United that day. It felt different. It wasn't the usual: "We've come here to do you in."' 

Michael Owen and John Arne Riise had Liverpool two up in 40 minutes. They won 3-1.

A 100 per cent winning managerial record over Ferguson is certainly something to reminisce about, though nothing can remotely eclipse that sweet, sweet centre circle encounter with George Best, nearly 50 years ago, on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford.


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