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EXCLUSIVE Interview with Jamaica’s Ryan Thompson

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Ryan Thompson was the starting goalkeeper for the Jamaica National Team who defeated the United States 2-1 on July 22 in the Gold Cup semifinals.  Ryan was coached by Coach Paul Campbell, who leads the Goalkeeper Institute for Georgia Express.  Ryan took time after a workout Friday for an interview with Georgia Express Director Craig Cunningham to reflect on the experience and on his work with Coach Paul. 

Craig:  Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.  Let's start off at the beginning.  When did you start playing soccer?

Ryan:  Everybody in Jamaica plays soccer, and for me I started playing at age 5, 6, 7.  For me, I started goalkeeping at age 14.  That’s when I started goalkeeping.  That came about, I was in school playing pickup soccer.  They didn’t have a goalkeeper, and a friend came to me and said, “Hey Ryan, you play cricket and you are a wicket keeper.  You should go in the goal.”  I went in the goal, and after that, I didn’t get out of the goal.  I went and tried out for a club team, Harbour View.  They didn’t think I was anything special, but I managed to make a team then.  After that, I just started working hard. 

Did you play any certain positions before you started playing in goal?

I was a striker, and I was a winger.  I used to do track and field, and I used to run fast easily. 

When did you meet Paul Campbell? 

Everyone in Jamaica knew Paul Campbell.  I knew of him when I was probably 12, 13.  I finally met him age 15-16 when he came to my club.  Paul used to travel around, just scouting around the country just to find goalkeepers.  He’s probably the only goalkeeper coach who goes above and beyond to make sure we seek talent.  I met him at 16, he came and gave me a session.  He used to come and pick me up and bring me into the camps, just to give me a feel of what it means to be a National player.  For me, it was a special moment for me when Paul Campbell started coaching me. 

How has Paul Campbell worked with you as far as your development?

Everything I’ve learned as a goalkeeper, Paul Campbell is the one who gave it to be honest.  I started out a bit of a late age at 14, I didn’t know much.  Paul Campbell invited me into the U-20, U-17 camps.  He was just working on all these basic things.  He was sure we were working on whatever it is to get to the next level.  One of the most important things is that he worked on the mental aspect of the game.  A lot of people don’t understand that for goalkeepers.  Work us hard, but he also knows that you are human and you are going to make mistakes.  Made certain that we have a soft spot to come back to work on.  Even when the game seems hard or we hear, “Hey, you’re no good,” he’s always the one that would say, “You’re good, or you wouldn’t be here,” you understand.  The mental aspect is one of the most important things I learned from Coach Paul.  And then all my techniques, he’s the one that developed these things.

I know that he talks about when the Jamaica team is playing, going and visiting, talking to you and Donovan (Ricketts) and others.  You check in with him still, right?

Every chance that I get to speak with Coach Paul I speak with him.  To be honest, he changed my life, you understand.  He gave me an opportunity that no one else had could have given me.  He made certain that he seeked talent.  Some coaches look for developed talent, Paul goes and sees a diamond in the dirt, you understand; he finds the coal and turns it into a diamond. 

Let’s fast forward to this special time that you’re in the midst of.  You started the Gold Cup as the backup.  In our youth program, we have goalkeepers that are backups, who rarely play in goal or are backing up someone.  Tell me a little about physically, mentally, emotionally, how do you prepare yourself when you know you aren’t the starter?   

You know what?  It’s something I’ve learned from Coach Paul, none of us consider ourselves as backup.  We’re all #1, or else we wouldn’t be here.  On any given day, any one of us could go in and get the job done.  Even if we are on the bench, we keep telling ourselves, “Listen, I’m going to be ready because on any given day, anything can happen and then you’re thrown into the game.  That’s exactly what happened to me.  Of course, you’re frustrated that you’re on the bench, but at the same time you’re honored to be wearing the National colors.  There are millions who would love to be in that same position as you.  You’re chosen to be there, so you take that as a privilege and an honor.  So again, mentally, it’s difficult, but you know that it’s a privilege and you treat it that way and make certain that when the opportunity comes you’re ready for it. 

I’m sure that you have been on the bench before then gone into games, but this was at the highest level.  Tell me a little about when you realized you were going to be going into the game and stepping onto the pitch. What was that experience like? (Ryan entered the Jamaica v El Salvador game after starting goalkeeper Dwayne Miller came off with a head injury). 

When I saw Miller went down, I was like “Whoa, what happened now?.  Maybe this could be my opportunity.”  You always see goalkeepers go down in games, you never really fully think you’re going to go into the game.  The way it happened, I was hesitant.  I wasn’t sure if he was really hurt.  When the doctor said that he had to come out, my heart started racing.  I didn’t even get a chance to think, I didn’t get a chance to change or warm-up properly.  I just got thrown into the game, thankfully I was prepared and thankfully I was able to get the job done.

Jamaica faced Haiti in the quarterfinals, and Ryan held a clean sheet as Jamaica advanced with a 1-0 victory to face the United States in the semifinals.  No Caribbean team had beaten the US on their home field before, and Jamaica earned a hard-fought and historic 2-1 win to advance to the Gold Cup Finals for the first time.

And then this experience in Atlanta, we were there, I know Coach Paul was there and visited with you and the other boys.  Paul held the US team scoreless before in World Cup qualifying, but never anything like this especially in the environment of what soccer has become in the US.  Tell me a little about what the experience was like.

It was a difficult game to be honest.  I usually handle pressure very well, to this day I handle pressure very well.  It was just one of those games, you wanted to play so perfect that you didn’t which resulted in a couple of mistakes in my behalf.  Thankfully, when it mattered the most, I was able to come up with the saves that I needed to make and we won the game.  It was a historic moment, and we celebrated as a team, we win as a team, and we would have lost as a team if we had lost that night.  We made fewer mistakes, and we executed well, and we took our chances.  We will always remember our performance, but years down the road no one will remember the goalkeeper saved the ball or made this mistake.  They will remember that Jamaica beat USA on that night. 

Ryan, tell me a little about making mistakes.  I read your blog on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds website (Ryan’s club team).  You talk a little bit about that, what does it take for a goalkeeper to understand that there will be mistakes, and how do you approach it?  What would you say to young goalkeepers, because it is a lot of pressure.

It is a lot of pressure.  There is one thing that I know that a lot of people out there don’t know, and I know myself.  I know what I’ve been through in my life.  I know all the ups and downs that I’ve overcome.  I know every step of the journey.  I always tell myself, “One mistake, two mistakes, three mistakes, four mistakes.  It doesn’t matter the mistakes I make, that will never define me.  I know what I’m capable of doing, I know what I’ve been doing.  I know where I’ve been, and I know where I’m going.  I tell myself that all the time, I keep talking to myself during the game, “You got this.”  That’s why you always see me playing with a smile on my face every single time.  That would be a word of encouragement for any young goalkeeper.  You’re going to make mistakes, people are going to talk.  Let them talk, but you know what?  They’re talking about you.  If you’re at home sitting, no one is talking about you!  If you’re brave enough, and you’ve gone through the journey, then you’d be there.  But they’re not, that’s why they’re in the stands or at their computer screens.  They do not know what it takes to be out there on the field and putting your lives, your body, your family, your entire country on your back and making sacrifices.  They don’t know that. 

I talk to my teams sometimes in finals about treating the game like a celebration.  You and your teammates have accomplished great things; can you treat this finals as a celebration of everything great about your country, your people, and of this amazing tournament? 

It is a celebration, I must say, but the celebration will be better if we show everyone what we are capable of doing this Sunday.  Again, we have a great group of players there, our country has talent in abundance.  For the world to see that, to recognize and respect us.  Again, I emphasize this, we do not get the respect we deserve as a nation.  Too long people have taken Jamaican footballers for granted, and we are on a stage where we are showing them and saying, “Listen, just give us an opportunity.”  Win or lose come Sunday, we have done our nation proud.  But we aren’t going out to lose.

Lastly Ryan, for our young goalkeepers who have an opportunity to work with Coach Paul, I don’t think they fully understand what they have.  What would you say to our goalkeepers, our boys and girls who have a chance to work with Coach Paul?

Listen, take advantage of the situation.  It should be a privilege and an honor for them to work with him.  If you look at all the things that Paul has done, look at the Jamaica program right now.  Every single goalkeeper has gone through Coach Paul.  He has left the Jamaica National program maybe eight years now, and still Jamaica is reaping the fruit from his labor.  All three goalkeepers, you have me, Ryan Thompson, Dwayne Miller, and Andre Blake, the #1 draft pick in America, all went through Coach Paul.  Coach Paul coached all of us and made us who we are today.  And for that, we will forever be grateful.   And any kid who has a chance to work with Coach Paul should really, really, really, really be honored to do that, do you understand?  This guy is a legend.  He doesn’t really get the respect that he deserves, because he’s the kind of guy who is always chill.  But he’s a great human being.  At the end of this tournament, the world will know who Paul Campbell is.