The Cambridge United family was saddened to hear of the death, on October 28 at the age of 77, of former full back Jimmy Thompson, whose career in black and amber straddled two eras of the club’s history.
Joining Bill Leivers’ Southern League side in 1969, as the U’s strove for the league and cup double and election to the Football League, Jimmy was one of the famous eleven who played in the club’s first ever League game in August 1970. Over five seasons he made nearly 250 appearances in all competitions.
A rapid, highly dependable right back, he mixed solid defensive attributes with the ability to start and continue attacks, and on one occasion supplied the finishing touch.
Jimmy arrived at the Abbey Stadium in January 1969, via an unusual route. Born in the former coal-mining community of Felling, Tyne and Wear in 1943, he had played as an amateur for Preston North End before signing a professional contract with Grimsby Town in 1961. He became a popular fixture at Blundell Park, playing more than 150 times before, in 1967, asking for a transfer. Leivers was keen to sign him at that point but the Mariners hoisted a £10,000 price tag – a hefty fee for a defender at the time. He was eventually released from his contract provided he didn’t sign for an English League club, and moved to Port Elizabeth.
Jimmy swapped South African sunshine for wintry Newmarket Road in January 1969. He made his debut (along with fellow new signing Mel Slack) in a Southern League Cup quarter-final against Chelmsford City at the Abbey, which ended in a 0-0 draw but provided a stepping stone for a triumphant end to the season in which United captured both the cup and the league title.
As at Grimsby, Jimmy became a well-liked regular in the U’s side over the following four seasons. In 1969/70 he racked up the remarkable total of 68 full appearances and two substitutions, and he was there on 15 August 1970 when Lincoln City visited the Abbey for United’s debut in the Football League.
A knee cartilage operation in 1973 brought his career to a halt and it was a sad blow when, later that year, he was advised to quit professional football. He had played 239 full games for United, made five substitute appearances and scored one goal – in the club’s last ever Eastern Professional Floodlit League, a 3-2 win at Romford in May 1971.
United paid up Jimmy’s contract, giving him £1,000, but his insurance company would only contribute a partial payment of £375 because his knee had degenerated before the injury that finished his career. A disgusted Leivers said: ‘There isn’t a footballer playing today who hasn’t got ankle, knee or groin troubles after a few years in the game.’ United kept Jimmy in employment as field manager in the commercial department.
The club also put on a testimonial match for the popular player, although he had to wait until May 1975. Supporters showed their admiration for Jimmy by turning out in large numbers – 7,257, to be precise – to see his All Stars XI, which included Ian Hutchinson, Geordie Armstrong, Willie Carr, Terry Mancini and Dave and Bob Worthington, lose 4-2 to a strong Norwich City team.
Legendary U’s goalkeeper Rodney Slack remembers his teammate as ‘a nice, quietly spoken lad who was great in the dressing room. He knew what he was talking about when it came to football, and he never tried to shift the blame for his mistakes. He always put his hand up.’
Rodney recalled fondly the night the Corona soft drinks depot next to the Abbey Stadium caught fire. ‘It was two o’clock in the morning and the houses nearby were being evacuated,’ he said. ‘Jimmy, who lived next door to the depot, came running across the road to our house with his pride and joy, his two Doberman Pinscher dogs. No sign of his wife or daughters.
‘We feared the worst. “Where are they?” we asked.
‘“I’m just going back for them now,” Jimmy said.’
Jimmy subsequently returned to the Grimsby area. He was afflicted by dementia in his later years but retained some memories of his Mariners and U’s careers.
He leaves a widow, Wendy, children and grandchildren. The funeral will be private.