Joe Thompson, who this week announced his retirement at the age of 29, made his first-team debut for Rochdale on the 2nd of May 2006 against Carlisle United. The following season saw him go onto make 13 appearances, collecting the League Two Apprentice award. This earned him his first professional contract which he signed on the 5th July 2007.
It was, however, the 08/09 season which proved to be his most successful to date featuring numerous times throughout the season, and scoring crucial goals against Aldershot and Chester scoring 5 in all which helped Rochdale make the playoff semifinals that season albeit in a losing effort to Gillingham. He only improved from there making 39 appearances and scoring 8 times the following season. He was described as “most improved member of the squad displaying great maturity in his performances, offering defensive cover and an outlet going forward.” See here.
He featured less during 10/11 and 11/12 season making only 33 appearances, scoring 3 times in the former and 20 appearances and 1 goal in the latter. His form caught others attention as despite being offered a new contract at the end of the season, he departed for Tranmere for an undisclosed fee, despite spending most of the preseason at Rochdale. He described his logic behind the move as “It was good for me to get out of it and learn a bit more about myself”.
He continued to play fairly regularly for Tranmere despite a brief loan spell back at Rochdale in 2013 making 7 appearances. Until the moment that was to change not only his career but his entire life when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He spent the entire 13/14 season battling bravely against the rare form of cancer. Tranmere subsequently didn’t offer him a new contract and he was released by the club, something Joe felt was handled badly See here.
Bury, under the management of David Flitcroft who worked with him at Rochdale previously, offered him a pay as you play deal and after spending most of his time on the bench or out on loan due to a lack of match fitness the deal was not extended at the end of the season and he was released. After an unsuccessful trial with St. Johnstone, Carlisle offered him a 6-month contract but once again he was released at the end of the season.
After his successful recovery from cancer and spending a couple of seasons making limited progress in 2016, Rochdale came calling for the third time. Originally signing a 6-month deal. However, in 2017 tragedy struck a second time as he was diagnosed with cancer for a second time. Rochdale stood by him and he successful beat it once again with Joe himself saying at the time “I came back from a goal down before, not only to equalise but to take the lead. This illness may have found an equaliser, but the quest for me to get the winner starts today and I can assure you I will get the most important win of all time.” He made his return in December of that year after nearly 9 months away. That season Rochdale were embroiled in a battle of their own to avoid relegation and, managed to take it all the way down to the wire with a final day showdown with Charlton on the 5th May.
Rochdale needed to better Oldham’s result to stay up ahead of them and at 0-0 in the 65th minute, they needed a hero. Cue Joe Thompson the man who had battled back from Cancer not only once, but twice. He was introduced into the game as a 67th-minute substitute knowing that realistically only a win would do.
The fairytale script you couldn’t have written was about to unfold. His impact was almost instantaneous as in the 69th minute he got on the ball just inside the box and fired in a low shot which beat all the Charlton players in the box including the goalkeeper, and nestled perfectly into the back of the net. Rochdale had a fighting chance, the same fighting chance Joe had had all along in his battles with Cancer. Rochdale held on and after a nervous wait to confirm Oldham had only managed to draw with Northampton, Joe had written himself into Rochdale folklore.
It was an incredible moment that everyone in Spotland that day will never forget. Joe reluctantly announced his retirement earlier this week after failing to recover from a hamstring tear. I, for one, thank him for the memories and wish him all the best for the future and most importantly good health.