Stephen Thompson spent three-and-a-half years in the youth ranks at Middlesbrough without making a senior appearance, but is now Darlington's talisman in non-league as they bid to win promotion for a second successive season. Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart spoke to Quakers' leading scorer, who admits he would like a second chance in the full-time game
Soon after joining Port Vale in 2008 as a raw 19-year-old, Stephen Thompson gave an interview to the Stoke Sentinel in which he compared himself with Wayne Rooney.
"I enjoy watching Manchester United and especially Wayne Rooney because I like to base my game on his style," said the then teenager from Peterlee, desperate to impress after being released by Middlesbrough having not made the breakthrough.
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The Rooney resemblance is clear: strength on the ball, close control, the ability to dribble past defenders and a knack of scoring spectacular, long-range goals.
They are qualities Darlington fans have enjoyed during the past 18 months in which the playmaker has been a driving force since being brought to the club from Durham City by manager Martin Gray.
Player of the year as Quakers won the Ebac Northern League title last season, this campaign has seen him score 21 goals, most from outside the penalty area.
Such form has led to speculation over his future, though he could still be in the Football League were it not for a personality clash with Micky Adams, his manager at Port Vale, which led to his exit 14 months into a two-year contract.
"He didn't like me and I didn't like him," says Thompson, who scored twice in 17 Vale games. "He used to get me in for training on my days off to make me run around the pitch on my own and actually told me he would try to force me to quit. I told him that he would quit before me.
"I couldn't stand the bloke and I've spoken to a few people who felt the same. I know I'm only small, but he's got short man syndrome!"
Thompson's premature exit from Vale Park in October 2009 represented his second such rejection having been released by Middlesbrough at the culmination of a three-year apprenticeship with a club renowned for giving youth a chance.
Although a regular in Boro's reserves, playing alongside Adam Johnson, Brad Jones, Jason Kennedy and Nathan Fisher, the Teessiders' accent on youth worked against Thompson, he says.
"I loved it there but I was fighting an uphill battle," he explained. "In the years before me, Adam Johnson, Tony McMahon and Stewart Downing had all come through, so there was already a lot of young lads in the squad. That made it harder for me to get in.
"In my year I had Ben Hutchinson, who went to Celtic, and Tom Craddock, a Darlo lad who's at Portsmouth now. Below there was Nathan Porritt and Jonathan Franks, who were supposed to be the next big thing because they were playing for England youth teams.
"I thought I deserved another year but I didn't get it and just had to get on with it. In the February, Dave Parnaby - I always got on well with Dave, he was brilliant with the young lads - told me I wasn't staying. Obviously I was upset. I was thinking that's it, everything is gone, what am I going to do now?
"Some people might've lost their head, but I thought 'I've got three months here to try to get something'. We played Man United's reserves at Northwich Victoria and Gerard Pique was playing. I did really well and that was the day the Port Vale scout saw me.
"Pique's won the World Cup and the Champions League since then! A few times he kicked the ball out of play. He was probably thinking 'what am I doing in the reserves here' playing against a bunch of kids."
The striker was invited to Vale for a trial and impressed enough to earn a contract, but life in Burslem began badly. He suffered a hamstring strain on his first day of pre-season training and did not make his debut until December.
"I was living on my own in an apartment and I remember wanting to sack it all off, ringing my mam and being very close to coming back home. I was homesick and hated every bit of it."
After Adams replaced Dean Glover, the man who'd signed Thompson, the beginning of 2009-10 saw a brief loan at Stafford Rangers before a permanent transfer to Telford in the Conference North.
Then came another dispute. "The manager, Andy Sinton, wanted me to take a 50 per cent pay cut because he wasn't happy about my travelling from Peterlee." That wrangle led to him heading for home and the reality of holding down a 'normal' job.
For a young man who'd hoped to make it in the Premier League with Middlesbrough only two years earlier, football had suddenly become a Saturday job.
His main source of income is now AKS Bearings Ltd in Peterlee, a Japanese firm that manufacture parts for ball bearings.
"It's alright. It's money, isn't it?" says Thompson, who attended St Bede's Catholic Comprehensive School. "I went from training every morning to working eight and ten-hour shifts. It was a bit of a reality check. It was welcome to the real world.
"I love playing football. I work Monday to Friday and look forward to games on a Saturday and I look forward to training as well. When you train every day as a footballer you enjoy it, but it becomes a bit of a chore as well.
"We train once a week, sometimes twice, and it's great. The Darlo lads, we're very good friends, we're not just team-mates."
Although a world away from the full-time game, being back in the North-East seems to suit Thompson, who joined Durham after leaving Telford.
"I trained at Spennymoor once, but then I trained with Durham and I enjoyed it because my mates were there. That's when I started to like my football again.
" Dickie Ord was the manager and I got on really well with him. I was there for the craic really."
After two years with Durham, Darlington dropped four divisions into the Ebac Northern League and soon after the start of the 2012-13 season Thompson followed several team-mates, including David Dowson, Gary Brown and Amar Purewal, to Quakers for an undisclosed fee.
"I'd spoken to Martin Gray so I went to watch the Dunston match at home on a Friday night with my dad. He said 'if you're going to be playing in non-league, this is the place to play'. There were 1,500 there and I'd been playing in front of three men and a dog."
Forty goals in 75 games and numerous assists later, Thompson has become Darlington's talisman. He'll be among the first names on the team sheet for today's crunch clash with Curzon Ashton, weather permitting, at Heritage Park.
It's the biggest game of Quakers' season so far against the title favourites.
Darlington are in top form, though, having won ten of their last 11 games, hitting the net 39 times in the process. Thompson has scored 12 of those goals and he rarely scores a tap-in. Spectators at Darlington matches have been treated to goals that would not be out of place in a highlights dvd of Rooney's best moments, and last Saturday, in a 5-1 win at Kendal, he added another long-range strike to his bulging portfolio.
By chance, the majority of his blockbusters have come away from Heritage Park and, therefore, have not been caught on camera, which is a shame for those not present, particularly those who missed out on the belter at Bamber Bridge or the volley at Burscough.
His best, however, came during his spell with Port Vale.
"My goal against Shrewsbury was probably the best I've ever scored," he said. "I cut inside and hit it from about 30 yards with my left foot into the top corner. I've got it saved on my tele from when it was on the Football League Show. It was a derby game as well. I'll never forget it."
He, as much as anyone, is driving Darlington back towards the Football League, which remains four promotions away, though he could make the leap on his own should a club come knocking in the summer.
"I'll be 25 in April so it's now or never," admits Thompson, who is saving for his first home and is still living with his parents in Peterlee.
"If anything happens at the end of the season I think that will be my last chance. If not, I'm happy where I'm at.
"People think being a footballer is the best lifestyle in the world. Well, it is if you're on £20,000 a week! In the lower leagues you might get offered £500 a week on a year's contract, maybe not even that, and you have to think is it worth it when you've already got a full-time job.
"I've got a steady job so you've got to take everything into consideration. It's security. What happens a year down the line at the end of the contract if you've got nothing again?
"There are always rumours, but if anybody made an offer I'm sure Martin would let me know."