'Honestly, I love football more than cricket'
Among the massive global TV audience for this weekend's UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona was a certain Australian legend: Jeff Thomson, who played semi-professional soccer in his hometown, Sydney, before becoming the fastest bowler in the world in the mid-1970s.While on a trip to Kuala Lumpur, Thomson talks about World Cups, winning teams and legendary players from football.
Growing up as a teenager in Sydney, how much were you into soccer?
I was into football basically since I could walk. We were on the outskirts of Sydney in those days, in Bankstown. It was a very strong football area. There were a lot of good sportsmen out there. A fair few of the players who went into the Australian side would come from those areas.
What kind of player were you?
I was a No. 6. I could kick with either foot. One thing I could do was throw in for miles, and I could run all day. I was a guy who tackled hard, and I could also play as a striker. I would hang back a little bit behind the centre forward as an attacking midfielder. I just liked chasing the ball around.
There's a story about you getting your hands on the jerseys of Manchester United when they toured Australia in 1968. How did that come about?
A bit of luck that was. I just came across them. The club I played for, the Melita Eagles, was in the Sydney league. It bought the jerseys from them. Somehow or other, they ended up at my place. The whole lot of them! It was just luck.
How did you end up choosing between cricket and football?
It was quite funny because honestly, I love football more than cricket. We used to train and play football every day of the week. We'd either be in the backyard or down at the park with all my mates. These were all good players. We'd play together all the time. I don't know why I chose cricket. I guess I was on the up-and-up and cricket started to kick in. It was quite funny: I was getting more money to play football than I was for cricket. Cricket I had to pay for! Even then, playing for Australia, I only got A$200. I was getting A$400 at Melita Eagles for wins in football.
You ended up getting a life ban from football in New South Wales.
It was a bit unlucky. This referee jumped at my hand. [Laughs]. He just hit my hand with his face.
Out of your Australian team-mates, who else was into soccer? How about your former fast-bowling partner, Dennis Lillee?
No, he was an unco [uncoordinated]. He never played anything like that. None of the guys, probably, in the team back then [liked soccer]. They were generally Australian Rules players, the guys from interstate. The guys I grew up with, like Rale Rasic [former Socceroos coach] and Ray Richards [ex-Socceroo], they are all mates of mine. They're a bit older than me.
Where were you when Australia qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, ending an absence of 32 years from the tournament?
I can't remember where I was. I was away from Australia at the time. But, yes, it was fantastic, really good. The thing that really annoyed me was how we got dudded against Italy. I reckon if we got through that game, we might have won the whole bloody Cup. And I think that they didn't want us to do that. The big boys didn't want Australia to win it.
You count some famous ex-footballers from the UK as your best friends. How did that happen?
I go to the UK a lot. I used to stay at this health farm called Champneys. These guys used to stay there as well. They're all mad golfers, so we hooked up together. People like [the late] Georgie Best and guys who played for England.
George Best was at a health farm?
He was! He was drying out. No one else was drinking, bar us. George Best, Vinnie Jones, Mick Harford, Andy King, there's a whole list of them that goes on and on. We all play golf together every year.
Which football teams around the world do you support?
Obviously at home in the A League, I support the Brisbane Roar and all the Queensland teams. In England I'm sort of general. I used to like Arsenal when blokes like Charlie George played. But I'm not so much a huge Arsenal fan now. They do have a lot of skilled players, but they need some tough men in there to make it a bit easier for their fancy players. Teams like Liverpool I've always enjoyed. I'm not a big Man United fan but you've got to take your hat off to them because every year, in and out, they're always up there, no matter what. Even if they lose good players, they're always there or thereabouts.
Comparing Jeff Thomson, the teenage soccer lover, to Jeff Thomson, the 60-year-old cricket legend - how have you changed?
I don't think I've changed. I just call a spade a spade. I'm always a bit outspoken. But I believe you should always stand up for what you think. Not enough people do that these days. I'm still the same. I'll have a beer with anybody, as you would know. I just enjoy life because it's not that long you're here. When you start getting older, you realise that you haven't got long left; I better get out there and enjoy myself.
Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster, corporate emcee and media trainer