BY CHRIS MCNULTY
CATHAL Corey first saw Anthony Thompson on a freezing, soaking February night in 2009, but even then the qualities that have starred under Jim McGuinness’s Donegal were on show.
At the time Thompson hadn’t played for Donegal in almost three years, having been on the squad during Brian McIver’s time as the county manager, but as Corey watched that night in Pearse Memorial Park, Ardara he knew he had a special weapon on his hands.
Thompson has become one of the most important pieces on McGuinness’s chessboard over the last four campaigns.
You won’t ever find the Glenties man in the public eye and social media is kept to a minimum. Uncomfortable under the glare of a spotlight, he prefers to let his performances do the talking.
To perhaps best illustrate what he brings to Donegal, go back to that golden moment from 2012 and Michael Murphy’s goal in the All-Ireland final against Mayo. The frame starts to roll with Thompson stationed 30 metres from his own goal as Rory Kavanagh gathers possession.
When Kavanagh off-loads to Karl Lacey, Thompson is adjacent to him and he breaks into a gallop as Lacey strides neatly into the Mayo half.
By the time Murphy is rising to make that perfect catch and lashing the ball past David Clarke, Thompson is the nearest Donegal man to him. In fact, when the Donegal captain spins away it is Thompson who is first to embrace him.
“He’ll make that run ten times in a game and, here’s the thing, he won’t get caught out,” says former Naomh Conaill manager Corey.
“He always gets back. If he has to do it twenty times then he’ll do it the twenty times. If a man is in a slightly better position he’ll off-load every time. He’s so unselfish.
“That happens all the time. It’s just what he does.
“Even if he only gets the ball three times, he’ll make that run twenty times. When Donegal break the ’45’ he goes and by God he doesn’t stop. Even on bad days he’ll keep making those runs.”
It has been evident in this year’s Championship too. Ten minutes into the Ulster opener against Derry, Thompson off-loaded to Patrick McBrearty just beyond the ’45. When McBrearty’s shot cannoned off the left upright, it was Thompson who collected to fashion a goal chance for the Kilcar forward.
In the Ulster final, his unselfishness perhaps cost him a goal. Neil McGee breached the Monaghan line and popped Thompson through on Rory Beggan, but he elected to fist across for Ryan McHugh to point rather than go for glory himself.
“Anytime Donegal turn the ball over and attack Thompson is the main main on that counter-attack,” says the Glenswilly manager, Gary McDaid.
“What he has is boundless energy. He’s never just standing back. He’s always at something: Be it covering at the back, picking up a break in the middle of the park or on the opposition’s 13 metre line in an attack.”
McDaid wasn’t the manager at the time but was one of the captivated 3,000 in attendance at O’Donnell Park for a 2010 Donegal SFC semi-final between Glenswilly and Naomh Conaill. Glenswilly looked home and hosed, destined to take their place in the final. Enter Thompson. He took a pass from quick-thinking Leo McLoone, sold a dummy and fired past Philip O’Donnell for a goal that turned the game on its head.
“He was huge for us that year,” says Corey, whose team beat Killybegs to win Dr Maguire before reaching the Ulster club final, a game they lost against Crossmaglen.
“That goal was probably the winning of the Championship for us that year. He nailed that finish against Glenswilly. He drove us on so many times during that Ulster campaign too. He was the difference because we had him and no-one else had a player like him.
“He leads by example. When we lost the county final in 2009, myself and Jim actually had to drag him up from the floor of the dressing room in Ballybofey. He was devastated. But he has such heart in it. He never hides and is always at the face of things. He’s a real soldier in the team. What I always liked was that he does the work and he does it smiling.”
Corey was joint manager with McGuinness in 2009 before taking the reigns himself in 2010. Thompson’s worth was evident early on.
“I only watched him for ten minutes and straight away said to myself: ‘There’s my number six right there’,” Corey says.
“The emphasis in Tyrone at that time – where I was coming from – was on the more negative type of a player; the man who’ll just sit in and mind the house.
“Some men will hide in two inches of grass, but not Anthony. For us he was brilliant when the going got tough. In a tight game where we needed something he’d always step in.”
Under McGuinness’s watch, Donegal have played 51 League and Championship matches and Thompson has been involved in 49 of them. He was injured for the League games against Cork and Kerry in 2013.
Only Paul Durcan, with 50 of those 51 (all bar McGuinness’s opening League game against Sligo), and Colm McFadden (48) have a better attendance record. Neil McGee has played in all bar four of the games, while Martin McElhinney has also got game time in 47 of them.
“You hardly ever see him taken off either,” McDaid says.
“That goes back to his energy. He has massive aerobic fitness. He’s always heavily involved in the play. He plays a lot of football at midfield for the club and is one of their main ball players.”
Only five times in the 48 games he’s started has he been taken off. In another, the 2013 League game away to Mayo, he was red carded sixteen minutes from the end. This year, he was substituted just once in League or Championship and that was in added time against Louth when he made way for a brief appearance by Luke Keaney.
Thompson first came to prominence as part of the youthful Naomh Conaill team that won the Donegal SFC in 2005.
“He was taken into the club senior team at a very young age, but it wasn’t a problem because he was good enough,” says Hughie Molloy, the manager of that Naomh Conaill side.
“The talent was never in question. He wasn’t overwhelmed by it and Jim put real belief into Anthony and those other young lads who came in.
“He looks like a fairly small player, but he’s well built and he can dish it out too. He can handle himself, that’s for sure.”
Around the same time as Naomh Conaill were looking like Championship hopefuls, McIver was appointed as the new Donegal manager. Thompson was one of those called into the county squad.
The following summer he was handed his Championship debut for a qualifier against Fermanagh.
“Myself and Anthony weren’t named in the team, but we found out on the way in on the bus that we’d be starting,” says Gaoth Dobhair’s James Gallagher, who also played that afternoon in Brewster Park as Donegal won to book a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“He was small enough, but McIver was looking for someone mobile around the middle. He’s just up and down the field all day. He never gives up. He will never hide and will never be caught trying to get a break. Cutting corners isn’t in his nature.
“Anthony trained like he played – it was always about giving 100 per cent.”
Gallagher has faced Thompson at club level and can sympathise with those who are given the task of minding his patch.
“I’ve played against him at club level and it’s just a torture,” Gallagher says.
“It becomes a case of you marking Anthony rather than the other way about. He works so hard. In every game he’s always a couple of times right in front of the goal. He just seems to drift in and pop up.”
Thompson, who was a replacement All-Star for the trip to New York in 2012, has scored 1-9 in League and Championship for McGuinness’s Donegal and McDaid believes he can really trouble Armagh in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
“You almost need the wing-forward to do a marking job on him at times, but I can’t see Armagh going out to ‘mark’ him,” he says.
“They’ll be in trouble if they invite Donegal on because that’s when Thompson will hurt them.
“Whoever Armagh have at wing-back on his side will not only have to worry about their own game but will need to keep a close eye on Thompson as well.”
A defender by trade, he’s turned in some landmark moments in his defensive duties, too. In the 2011 Ulster semi-final, at a time when Donegal were trailing by three points, Thompson gave away a ball on the Tyrone ’45. The Red Hands looked set for a goal when Stephen O’Neill let fly but it was Thompson – after sprinting 80 metres – who got in to make a redeeming block.
“He’s so solid as a defender,” says Corey.
“Even now when I’m in coaching teams I’d always reference him: ‘Anthony Thompson would do this’. I’m steady quoting like that. But there’s a reason for that. From the ball is thrown in until the final whistle he’s always there.”
Legend has it that at one stage late in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final, Thompson headed off on one of those marauding bursts. Paul Kerrigan had had enough and simply turned his back on him. His heart was broken by Thompson’s relentlessness.
It’s a tale so many could empathise with.
Corey says: “Donegal won’t know how important Anthony Thompson is until they go looking for another one – they won’t find another Anthony Thompson.”