Jets' matt finish in Asia
Wearing the colours of the Newcastle Jets, Matt Thompson is a no-nonsense kind of guy. But off the pitch, the fringe Socceroo's sense of fun bubbles to the surface.
Last season, one of the Jets' junior players raced out onto the city's streets in full playing kit, juggling a ball, because Thompson had told him there was a hidden camera shooting a special TV spot. But the only audience turned out to be the youngster's highly amused team-mates.
And if not playing pranks or practical jokes, Thompson has been known to mark his individuality through quirks like always rolling up his sleeves, eating a chicken sandwich every match day and displaying car license plates with his unmistakable nickname - 'Razzla'.
No question, Thompson - defender-cum-midfielder-cum-makeshift striker - is the joker in the pack. But now the lively 26-year-old can add captaincy to his repertoire as he tries to lead Newcastle through the group phase of the AFC Champions League (ACL).
From champions to wooden spooners, the Jets were largely rebuilt after their disappointing 2008-09 A-League campaign. And Thompson, with 92 appearances in four seasons since the club's inception under his belt, was promoted to skipper, partly as a reward for his loyalty during turbulent times.
And so far, Thompson and the Jets have exceeded ACL expectations to be in a solid position in Group-E midway through the preliminary stage. A courageous 1-1 draw away to Japanese heavyweights Nagoya Grampus Eight on April 7 was a mark of their steady improvement.
Thompson's development over the past 12 months has been one of the bright spots for a Jets' side that had regressed after winning the third season of the A-League. He earned his first Socceroo caps - against Indonesia and Kuwait - and scored a brilliant hat-trick as Newcastle shocked eventual premiers Melbourne Victory 4-2 on December 20. This was Matt, not Archie Thompson, who was dazzling the crowd at EnergyAustralia Stadium. He responded magnificently when given a more attacking role in the absence of Jets' favourite Joel Griffiths. His versatility has impressed club coach Gary Van Egmond and national manager Pim Verbeek, who also picked him in the full-strength Socceroo squad to face Uzbekistan in Sydney on April 1.
He grew up in the Macarthur district southwest of Sydney - and played 93 games for Parramatta Power in the old National Soccer League - before becoming an adopted son of The Squadron, Newcastle's passionate fan base. Thompson has missed just one competitive game in four seasons.
Novocastrians can be notoriously slow to accept transplants from down south, but 'Thomo' quickly became a fixture in the Hunter region. In his interview with ESPN Soccernet, he explains how the Jets have turned their fortunes around and discusses his international ambitions.
Q: Matt, how have Newcastle been able to switch from A-League wooden spooners into ACL contenders.
A: We've had five or six new signings and that's really helped, of course. On the mentality side of things, we didn't link the ACL with last season: we've really made a point of linking it with the upcoming A-League season, so mentally everyone has come into the competition fresh. Also, with all the new players that we now have, it just made sense to start afresh and see the ACL as a new start heading into next season.
Q: What does it mean to you to have the Newcastle captaincy?
A: It means a lot to me. Realistically nothing much changes in terms of my role on the pitch, but I've been here in Newcastle for a while now and it's a nice feeling to be rewarded with the armband because of that. At the end of the day though, it's about what's best for the team, and if I can help some of the younger guys with something and lead the way then I'm happy to do that.
Q: You are a very versatile player but what do you consider your best position?
A: It's hard to say really. Most players will tell you that they'd rather be more attacking than defensive and I guess I'm no different. Having said that though, the way that we play our football at the Jets means that the full-backs on both sides do still get a chance to get forward and join in the attack, so it's not too bad either way here.
Q: What impact has Ljubo Milicevic and the other major additions made on the Jets?
A: The new signings have been very good for us. What's been very important for us is that we've signed plenty of experienced players who can do a job for us.
It's similar to what Noel Spencer brought to our club when he first came here, just a level head in the middle of the field who can settle things down during the game. We've now got a few guys who can produce the goods in that role and it creates a good environment for us to play our brand of football. That's certainly no disrespect to our younger players, who have been great for us, but it's good to have that balance with the experienced boys too.
Q: How do you feel about the possibility of facing ex-Jets' favourite Joel Griffiths again in the ACL?
A: Well, we played against him away to Beijing in the first game of the ACL so if we come up against him (in Newcastle) it'll be the same again. To be honest, he's with a different team at the moment and while we wish him all the best over there, when it comes to the crunch we want to beat them on the day, no matter who's in their side.
Q: Why were the A-League Socceroos so poor in the 2-0 loss to Kuwait and how do you rate your performance in that game?
A: Honestly, I don't know that we were that poor as such, but we just didn't take our chances like we should have. Especially in the first half when we had a couple of good opportunities and were doing quite well but we just couldn't put them away. Who knows, if we'd have scored an early goal it could have been a different game. On my performance, I thought in the first half I was getting forward and getting involved and then unfortunately things didn't quite work out for us.
Q: What fallout from the Kuwait loss will there be in future selections and do you expect to get picked for the next game?
A: Well, I was fortunate enough to be called into the last camp when the Socceroos played against Uzbekistan, so that kind of experience is invaluable and really helps you as a player moving forward. Having said that, I know that I need to keep performing well for the Jets and maintain good form. If I can do that, then hopefully I'll stay in contention for future squads for the national team, which would be a real honour.
• Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.