Thompson heading into the record books

Matt Thompson is more than just durable, and it's more than fitting that he becomes the first A-League player to notch 200 games.

Matt Thompson has missed just four games in almost eight seasons, two of them through suspension. 'Thommo' is about to become the first player to play 200 Hyundai A-League games, and there's plenty left in the tank.

The statistics are impressive, but not as impressive as the man. Thompson is the sort of player every team needs, but very few have.

In this 'me' generation he's all about 'us'. A player who respects the authority of the coach, who is hyper-professional in his own preparation, who plays to win but never at any cost, who'll always pass to a teammate in a better position, and who loves his job as much at the age of 30 as he did when he made his professional debut as a teenager. Thompson has been living the dream for the last 13 years, and never takes it for granted. Every minute of every game, his heart is on his sleeve. Melbourne Heart are lucky to have him.

Way back, when he emerged from the Macarthur region in south-west Sydney and started breaking into the first team at Parramatta Power, there were plenty of admirers. David Mitchell, who gave him his debut as a substitute against Newcastle Breakers, led the posse. But like many others, Mitchell couldn't make up his mind about Thompson's best position. That versatility has been both a blessing and a curse ever since.

Being adaptable has enabled Thompson to collect four Socceroos caps, all under former coach Pim Verbeek. Not surprisingly, he cherishes every one. Versatility has also made him a favourite of all his club coaches. Certainly in the Hyundai A-League era - at both Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Heart - he's been one of the first names on the teamsheet.

But perhaps the inability to nail down one role has cost Thompson an overseas career, not that he's losing any sleep. Apart from spending five weeks as a 16-year-old at Nottingham Forest, and then a brief trial three years ago at Chinese side Changchun Yatai, he's barely concerned himself with joining the overseas exodus. Regrets? ''None,'' he says.

Thompson has never been motivated by money. He's always been more concerned with playing. As much, and as often, as possible. Two weeks into his off-season break, Thompson starts heading down to the gym. Give or take another week, and he's counting the days until pre-season training. Generally one of the fittest players in the squad, it goes without saying he's also the most durable. Melbourne Heart assistant coach Hayden Foxe can recall him missing just one training session this season. ''He's a machine,'' says Foxe.

Not quick, but certainly not slow, it would be patronising to simply describe Thompson as an athlete. He's tactically astute, and technically adept, with a wonderful passing range with both feet. ''It's impossible to tell which side he prefers,'' says Foxe. Thompson possesses another rare gift. Ice-cool composure in front of goal. A goal every eight games in the Hyundai A-League says more about the fact that he's often deployed in a deep position than his conversion rate. I'd wager his strike rate is up amongst the best finishers in the league.

What's not in doubt is that attitude goes a long way. ''Your upbringing gives you a certain mentality, and I got mine from my old man,'' says Thompson. Father Paul was a state league player in Sydney, and while he encouraged both his sons (younger brother Mitchell is on the books of Marconi Stallions) to excel, he didn't dote on them.

''Dad was old school, you didn't complain if you got hit, you just got on with it,'' says Thompson. ''Put it this way, we weren't put in cotton wool.''

It shows. I've lost count how many times Thompson has limped away from a tackle, but then ignored concerned looks from the bench. ''There's got to be a good reason to come off,'' he says.

The end result is that Thompson, at the age of 30, has built a foundation of fitness which he believes will carry him through another five or six years, at least.

Right now, it's about celebrating the milestone of his 200th Hyundai A-League game. The first came in the very first game, in Newcastle. When the last will be is anyone's guess. And I reckon when Thompson does stop playing for money, he'll start paying for the privilege for as long as his legs will carry him. Over 35s beware.

In the meantime, if you factor in his 93 NSL appearances for Parramatta Power, Thompson is steadily heading towards elite company. There's still an awfully long way to go to reach the upper echelons of Alex Tobin (522), Clint Bolton (478), Paul Trimboli (452), Damian Mori (447) and Sergio Melta (445). But if anyone can threaten the record books, it's 'Thommo'.

Respect.