We chat to Sky Sports' Phil Thompson about this weekend's League Cup Final, his favourite cup final memories, and the current state of English football...
This Sunday 28 February, Liverpool and Manchester City go head to head at Wembley. The prize? The first silverware of the season – the Capital One Cup – and for both teams, a chance to invigorate their seasons and head into the last couple of months with some much-needed confidence.
We sat down for an exclusive chat with Liverpool and England legend Phil Thompson ahead of the big game. A beloved member of the Soccer Saturday panel, ‘Thommo’ grew up watching Liverpool from The Kop and went on to captain the club, racking up 477 appearances for The Reds over 13 years and later returning as a coach.
As a man who’s lifted seven First Division trophies, three European Cups, two League Cups, an FA Cup and countless other honours, Phil knows a thing or two about silverware. So, he was the perfect guy to talk to about this Sunday’s big game.
“I think Liverpool will win…”
“I’m not going to say Man City am I!” Thommo laughs when we ask him for a score prediction. “I think Liverpool will win, but I have good reasoning for that. Liverpool have shown this season that they play better against the better teams. I think one of our failings this year has been that we haven’t been able to rise to the lesser games. In the bigger games – Man City away, Chelsea away, even Man United at home where we lost – Liverpool has looked like a much better team. With all that taken into account, I’m going to say a 2-1 victory for Liverpool.”
Among his countless awards and trophies, one of Thommo’s happiest memories actually involves the League Cup. Despite Liverpool’s dominance in the 70’s, the club didn’t lift the League Cup until the 1980-81 season, when Thompson captained The Reds to victory.
“Liverpool have shown this season that they play better against the better teams.”
“That was against West Ham,” he says of the day. “It was a replay at Villa Park and we beat them 2-1. That was a fantastic day – when you’re the club captain and you lead your team to a trophy, it’s a terrific feeling. The funny thing was, we hadn’t even made it to the final before that day, and we were unbeaten in the League Cup for the next four years. We won it four years in a row.”
“Also, I was part of Gérard Houllier’s staff at Liverpool when we won the League Cup against Birmingham in 2001,” he adds. “That win gave the squad and the club a tremendous amount of confidence that they could win trophies and win finals. Really, it was the catalyst to us winning the treble that season, as we went on to win the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup as well.”
So, what of Liverpool’s opponents come Sunday? Manchester City is a club in need of an injection of confidence. Having spent over £150 million in the summer, Manuel Pellegrini’s side sit fourth in the table – six points behind unlikely leaders Leicester City – as they chase another Premier League title. But of all the expensive players in that diamond-encrusted squad, who would Thommo put in a Liverpool shirt if he could?
“Sergio Aguero is the best striker in the Premier League.”
“I think you have to take Sergio Aguero,” he says. “He’s an absolutely sensational player. He guarantees you 20 league goals a season, minimum, and that takes some doing in this league. He’s the best striker in the Premier League, and if you’re the best at what you do in England, I think that says everything.”
This weekend has been highlighted in Liverpool’s calendar since the beginning of the season, long before the club booked a spot in the Capital One Cup Final. Originally, this weekend was the Anfield leg of the Merseyside Derby – a fixture Thommo knows all too well…
“It’s a shame that the derby game had to be postponed,” he admits, “but the silver lining is that now it’ll be a night game, and the atmosphere at night derbies is terrific. I loved playing in derbies, but having to watch them is a bit of an ordeal because there’s so much pride at stake.
“I think the best derby I ever played in was back in ‘82 when we beat Everton 5-0 at Goodison Park. Mark Lawrenson put us 1-0, [Everton defender] Glenn Keeley got sent off after 15 minutes, and we ran riot, with Ian Rush scoring four goals. To win any game like that is great, but a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park? That was an amazing feat.”
Much ink – both real and electronic – has been spilt over the struggles English clubs have had in Europe recently. The Premier League’s elite sides have all laboured against their continental counterparts, and this season, the trend has continued into the league itself:
“This has probably been the most surprising Premier League season ever,” says Phil. “Leicester City have already turned the record books upside down, but look at Chelsea languishing in the bottom half – look at United struggling. City spent millions and millions of pounds and they’re only in fourth. There’s been a changing of the order.”
So, will this season be a one off? Thommo certainly thinks so. The arrival of Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool has proven that the Premier League is still a destination for world class managers. “He was one of the most sought after coaches in world football,” says Thompson, “and for him to come to Liverpool was a fantastic coup.” With a number of new managerial appointments set to take place before next season, Phil thinks that English clubs could yet return to their elite status.
“I would think it’ll be a one off,” he says. “The very top managerial names in world football still seem to be congregating on this little island of ours.”
“The very top managerial names in world football still seem to be congregating on this little island of ours.”
“Chelsea won’t have another season like this, whoever is in charge there next season. United will get better and stronger, and if Mourinho comes in he’ll want to spend money and make them tough to beat. Liverpool will be stronger as Klopp settles in with more signings. Guardiola won’t come in unless there’s a big spend happening, and he’s a top class manager. Spurs have shown this season that they’re a good side with a terrific manager in Pochettino. The usual order will return.
“That said, I think any coach needs to be given at least two summer transfer windows to try and turn a club around,” says Thompson, “and get his own players in to play his system. You can’t really judge someone when they’re working with someone else’s tools.”
Soccer Saturday popularity is “very humbling.”
We couldn’t let Phil go without asking him about his time on Soccer Saturday. Thompson was one of the very first Soccer Saturday pundits, before leaving to take up a coaching position at Liverpool, and then returning in 2004.
“I used to do the show with George Best – God bless him – Rodney Marsh and Frank Mclintock. Working with George in those days was absolutely fantastic – what a legend he was. But ever since he joined in 1994, Jeff Stelling has been the driving force behind Soccer Saturday – the show would work without him. Seeing him work every week amazes all of us.
“I think the show has evolved now,” he continues. “There’s great banter between us every week, and I think people see a little bit of themselves in us when they’re watching. We’re all quite different but we have a very close bond. We bounce off each other and wind each other up – we don’t mind taking a bit of stick and we definitely enjoy handing it out! We’re just like any group of mates down the pub in many ways.
“I love it when people say to me, “you all look like you get on really well,” because we do, and it’s very humbling that people can sense that from the show.”
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