Derry City’s Joe Thomson. Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Ex-Celtic youngster says moving to Ireland 'one of the best decisions in my footballing career'

Joe Thomson is hoping to help propel Derry City to new heights this season.

THERE HAVE BEEN big changes in the League of Ireland in recent times both on and off the pitch.

The average age in the Premier Division has dropped dramatically over the past few seasons. Brexit and players’ inability to move to Britain until the age of 18 means more youngsters are staying in Irish academies rather than availing of an early opportunity to move.

There has also been an influx of players abroad trying their luck in Irish football of late — St Pat’s loan recruitment of Alfie Lewis and Vítězslav Jaroš from West Ham and Liverpool respectively were two of the success stories of last season.

As Sligo boss Liam Buckley told reporters recently: “There are probably not enough players going around for both divisions here, so it does require you taking players in from the U23s in England.

“You have to make sure they are the right fit because inevitably anyone between 18 and 23 is just finding his feet.”

This trend is also evidence that the perception of the league is changing, with clubs from abroad more willing to send talented players on loan as the style of football is regarded as attractive, while given the increased prevalence of young footballers, the Premier Division is also perhaps not the intensely physical and unforgiving environment that it once was.

One footballer who certainly has no regrets about moving to Ireland is Derry City’s Joe Thomson.

The former Scottish underage international has experienced plenty of highs and lows during his time in football.

He spent 10 years at Celtic in the underage setup and made one first-team appearance for the Glasgow club, with current Arsenal star Kieran Tierney among the notable names he played with.

“I was lucky enough to make my professional debut at Celtic, even though it was only 15-20 minutes,” he tells The42. “It’s still something that nobody can ever take away from you, something I’ll cherish for my full career and probably the rest of my life.

“It was a good grounding and a good start to my career from the school setup [onwards]. I wasn’t full-time, but in essence, you kind of were. Training before school and going straight to training after school with all the other players in your age group made that transition when I was going full-time at 16 a bit easier.”

Between 2016 and 2018, Thomson had loan spells at Dumbarton, Queen of the South (twice) and Livingston, as he grew accustomed to playing men’s football on a regular basis.

“Every time I went on loan, I was lucky enough to make sure I was going to the right club where I had the platform to go and express myself. I played under some really good managers that helped me. Not only that, I was only a young lad going out on loan. Some of the players really helped me. There was one in particular, [former Crystal Palace and Swansea player] Stephen Dobbie, who has won the Championship play-offs [twice], he really helped me when I was on loan at Queen of the South.

“It’s all about learning because I was at the stage where I was going through a youth season with Celtic and we were winning the league and weren’t getting beaten in the games, so I went as far as I could at youth level.” 

soccer-ladbrokes-scottish-premiership-dundee-united-v-celtic-tannadice-park Thomson pictured during his spell at Celtic. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Thomson ended his long spell with Celtic permanently in 2018, signing with Scottish Championship outfit Dunfermline Athletic.

The club finished an unspectacular seventh in the league though his first season was encouraging from a personal viewpoint, as he was voted Player of the Year by the fans.

Yet the campaign ended in distressing fashion, as Thomson tore his cruciate, an injury that kept him out of action for several months.

“It was a shock,” he recalls. “I did it during a game, and I didn’t think I’d done it. I played on for 10-15 minutes and I think I tore it completely after another 15 minutes of playing. You’ve heard of the injury, but you still think: ‘It’s never going to happen to me.’ The operation went as straightforward as it could [as did] the rehab. As soon as I came back, I was starting to get into squads, on the bench, coming on and I had started a couple of games, but then Covid hit.

“It was the first serious injury I had. I was at a point where I was playing really well. It was really mentally [tough]. I had a newborn baby as well at the time. That took my focus off it a bit, that kind of got me through it, I suppose.

“There were days where you were in the gym yourself and everybody is out training. But the full focus was on getting back and being in the best physical condition I could be. Maybe [the challenge] was being in the gym for a few months where it’s solely gym work. As a professional footballer, you’re on the pitch and sometimes there are days where you can’t really do that. But it was a chance to focus on different muscle groups and different parts of my body where I didn’t have that chance with full training and matches.”

The financial impact of Covid hit Dunfermline especially hard, and Thomson, who still hadn’t fully recovered from his injury, was one of 17 players released at the end of his contract in May 2020. 

“The club went bust a few years ago, so I don’t think they wanted to put themselves back in the same position, which is fair enough. No player is bigger than any club. It was obviously a hard one to take. There were 17 of us in the same position where you don’t know how long this is going to go on for, and when you’re next going to get paid, because I had a family to think about as well, so it was a scary thing for everybody.

“I understand the club’s stand on it, they didn’t want to go through that [financial turmoil]. I was probably in the worst position because I hadn’t played [regularly] since doing my cruciate.

“I had a couple of options back home but at that stage, I had been at two or three teams in the [Scottish] Championship and I just wanted a change of scenery.

“The lads [at Derry] had gotten into Europe the season before so it was the first opportunity that I had to play in Europe as well, that was a big draw in coming.”

Consequently, in the summer of 2020, Thomson signed for the Candystripes. Initially, he felt somewhat uncertain amid his new surroundings. His knowledge of Irish football was limited and he had barely played in the year since damaging his cruciate.

“I spoke to one of my mates who had been on loan at Sligo before — he had gone there and loved it.

“It was the first time I’d ever been away from home for a prolonged period. I was a bit apprehensive about going into the unknown and it was tough being away from family.”

ruaidhri-higgins-before-the-game The appointment of Ruaidhri Higgins as manager has helped revitalise Derry. Ciaran Culligan / INPHO Ciaran Culligan / INPHO / INPHO

At first, the move was not an unqualified success. Thomson had “a bit of catching up to do” as he tried to regain match sharpness, and the team finished seventh in the 2020 campaign, just a point above a Shelbourne side that were ultimately relegated via the play-offs.

A disastrous start to the 2021 season — the team were winless after six games and bottom of the table — saw Declan Devine depart as manager.

However, the appointment of former chief Ireland scout Ruaidhri Higgins proved the shot in the arm that the club needed.

Derry managed to recover from their awful opening few games, as they finished fourth and secured a European spot in the process.

It was a good season for Thomson personally also, as the midfielder registered four goals from 21 appearances.

“Derry obviously gave me the chance and the platform to come over here and play, and it’s one I grasped,” he adds. “It’s probably been one of the best decisions in my footballing career. I’ve loved every minute of it so far.  

“We’ve got a group of players that are really happy. Everything’s done right. Everything’s professional. It’s got the feeling of a proper club now.

“Ruaidhri’s come in and you’ve seen the job he’s done. We were bottom of the league when he came in and to get us to finish fourth from where we were was remarkable, especially when he didn’t have some of the players that he would have liked to have had, but he definitely got the most out of those that he had. We knew we did have a good group, it was just obviously putting it together.”

There are high hopes that Derry can surpass last season’s achievements in 2022 as they prepare to host reigning champions Shamrock Rovers tonight, and that positivity is reflected in Thomson’s attitude.

The 25-year-old was recently rewarded for his performances with a new two-year contract. He is more content off the pitch as well — his partner and two children have moved over, having initially stayed in Scotland.

“It’s been brilliant. It’s probably the happiest I’ve been, to come home to them every day. You’ve got your own space as well. We’ve got our own house over here so I’m not sharing a house with a load of boys and stuff. So I can’t complain. Life’s good just now.”

Playing in the League of Ireland, Thomson adds, has been a positive experience and one he would recommend to others considering making the move from abroad.

“From speaking to people, I don’t think the league gets the recognition it deserves. It’s easy for people that are from here to put the league down and I feel like they do. But I honestly feel you’ve got some right good teams here, especially this season. I feel since I came, the league has really picked up. You look at Shamrock Rovers, they’re a great team. You’ve got Pat’s, who are really good. Bohs, Sligo, Dundalk seem to be coming back strong again this year.

“Last year, a few of the teams had a right good go in Europe as well, so it seems to be going the right way anyway, it’s good to be a part of it right now.

“There are another few boys not just from Scotland that have come over here and done really well so I do think the league is a good chance to play in front of good crowds. Look at the Brandywell, when we play at home, every game is bouncing. You’re playing in front of passionate supporters, you’re playing in front of good teams and if you’re playing for one of the top teams in the country, you have a chance of being in Europe as well.

“When I first came, we played in Europe and I scored in one of the qualifiers. That’s something that will stay with me forever, I’ve played in the Europa League qualifiers and scored. It’s something not a lot of people can go and say that they’ve done.”

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