Leading from the front: Neil Thompson’s journey






“This is where it comes from. HERE !… and HERE !”. Thommo points to his head and then thumps his heart as he roars. We’re behind at three quarter time and he is pleading for a response.


Sensing his side is cooked, he ploughs into our vice-captain Chadwick with a demonstrative tackle to stress his point as he barks even louder. He’s frothing. He really wants this one.


We’re playing in Bali on a converted kampung paddock. We probably shouldn’t be. The heat is borderline dangerous and the plethora of ice-buckets are running lower than our collective spirit. Yaks and perplexed school kids watch the madness from the shade of a banyan tree.


Thommo is Neil Thompson, the playing coach of the Jakarta footy club. We’re playing another bruising Indonesian derby against the surf-fit Bali Geckos. It’s a curiously bitter rivalry but no-one can remember why. The footy is more than decent but the niggle has ramped up in recent times.


It turns out that we are Thommo’s twentieth senior football club up to that point. The final tally was twenty four across seven states/territories and three countries. 650 senior games or thereabouts. A decorated military nomad, a natural leader, a beautiful kick.


The last quarter is a beauty. It’s lift or melt. Forward Matt Quin kicks five goals to get Jakarta over the line in a thriller.


Thommo has dragged the un-draggable out of us.




Jakarta Football Club 2001





We’re having a casual hit of golf in the hillside tea plantation course of Bukit Pelanggi. It’s the fasting month of Ramadhan and there’s a guilty pleasure in swinging a club without the usual crowds on a beautiful course. On a smog-free day it’s said that you can make out the vast expanse of the Jakarta megacity in the distance, a phenomenon we’ve yet to experience.


I’m grouped with Thommo who’s patchy at golf but adept at delivering a quiet sledge when it matters.


It’s been a momentous twelve months on all fronts. Indonesia has just won the Asian Championships in Singapore with Thommo at the helm as playing coach. The strength of our combined Jakarta-Bali national team motored through the tournament undefeated, with Thommo named player of the tournament at age 42.


He’s preparing to leave Indonesia after an exacting period that commenced with his leadership of the multinational Interfet special forces that supported the East Timor stabilisation efforts under General Cosgrove. Three years later, his tenure was bookended by an unexpected dash to crisis manage the Bali bombing aftermath.


He won’t say much about that as we meander across the course, describing it only as a successful operation. It’s still pretty raw for everyone. A year later, others will fill in some gaps.


Instead, we shoot the breeze about footy, life and Indonesia, where his family has lived since his appointment as Australia’s army attaché. He was corralled into coaching our club after clumsily wandering into a committee meeting as the vacancy was being discussed, his talented teenage son Kris packaged up into the deal.


I ask Thommo about places he has lived and the number of football clubs for which he has pulled on the boots. He starts to list them but soon gets lost.


We agree he should write it down one day.



East Timor 1999







Young Thommo first kicked the leather around the Riverina towns of Tocumwal and Griffith where his father Keith “Butch” Thompson, a local legend, worked at the railways and coached footy on the weekends.


A prominent junior talent, Thommo was called up to play for the Griffith Swans under 19s at age thirteen due to a player shortage. After converting seven majors from a forward pocket against Coolamon, he coolly slotted back into the under 14s the following week.



Tocumwal Primary School, Neil is front row second from left.



Representation for NSW in the 1974 U16s national carnival in Brisbane preceded a move to study in Sydney, clocking up a best and fairest for the Macquarie University side in the process.


Along the way Thommo would bag seven more best player awards to complement his two league best and fairests.


In ’77, a short stint in the Northern Territory with Waratah and another season back in Griffith preceded an entry into the armed forces. He was accepted into the prestigious Officer’s Cadet School Course commencing what turned out to be a 27 year decorated military career. The coastal Portsea course location was handy for Dromana who secured his services for a season in the tough Victorian Nepean league.



Griffith circa ’76



Reflections on the Bali bombing (Part A)


It’s 2003 and we’ve boarded Garuda again for a tournament in Bali programmed to coincide with the first anniversary of the October 2002 bombings.


Prime Minister Howard is in the grandstand, as are Barassi, Brereton and Jason McCartney, who somehow manages to pull on an ill-fitting guernsey to play for the local Bali Geckos. A high profile survivor of the tragedy, his scars remain prominent and his decision to play footy in the blistering heat evokes a heavy mix of pity and admiration.


It’s a reflective time for many of us, including Thommo who has flown back to Indonesia for the official ceremonies.


We had played on the island the Saturday before the bombs and many, including Thommo’s children Emma and Kris, had visited the Sari Club that weekend. There’s been twelve months to digest our scheduling godsend and contrast it to the brutal hand dealt to our footballing cousins from the Jakarta Komodos Rugby Club.


After a great day pursuing their sporting passion, the bombs were detonated as their taxis were arriving at the Sari Club. Six young men from our community were lost in an instant including Scott Lysaght, a proud product of Wollongong and even prouder new dad. Scottie had played some footy with us on his arrival to the capital before drifting across town to find his home within the global rugby fraternity.


Post tournament, in the welcome evening coolness, a small group congregate at the back of the reconstructed Paddy’s bar to have a quiet beer. It’s functioning, but unsurprisingly lacks customers. A couple of our Bali based opposition players join us, including Phil Philby Thomas, an amiable ruckman who was in the same bar twelve months earlier and had made it out. We respectfully avoid the elephant in the room but the talk flows freely.


The Bali players provide numbing personal accounts from the year prior, and they talk with reverence about the moment Thommo marched into the Sanglah hospital and turned things around.



LOBETHAL to JAKARTA (and the intervening two decades)


Upon graduation, Neil was posted to the Adelaide Hills, joining Lobethal soon after and kicking half of their score in the 1981 flag winning side against Onkaparinga. In the process he put a target on his back by carpeting ex-SANFL legend Max Pascoe with a dubious haymaker. “I wasn’t proud of this but that was the way back then and we won the grand final.”


The same year he captained a combined South Australian Services team to an ADF championships and also kept legendary Williamstown full forward Mark Fotheringham to a solitary goal in an ADF v VFA game.


Stints for Campbelltown in the Sydney Football league and Junee-Kapooka in Wagga were inter-dispersed with military mid-week competitions and only interrupted when a transfer to Melbourne beckoned in 1984. Recruited initially by VFA club Brunswick, the situation became unworkable alongside army training commitments, necessitating a move across to Aberfeldie the Essendon Districts League playing alongside former Bomber stalwarts Dean Hartigan, Steve Robins and Ian Marsh.


In ’86 a transfer north saw him playing for West Townsville in the summer, and Centrals Trinity Beach Cairns in the winter where the weekly charter plane experience was often as testing as the games themselves. Transferred west again, Thommo saddled up for the Army Swans and Swanbourne-Nedlands, a one team club nestled close to the barracks.


Back at Duntroon for ‘89/90, he won both the competition best and fairest and a flag playing for the Royal Military College in Canberra’s Monaro league.


A significant promotion saw him back in Perth, lacing up for the Whitford Warriors, only to be transferred back across the Nullarbor to saddle up for the Queenscliff Baracudas on the Bellarine. A footy free period in Honolulu was quickly rectified on his return in ‘95, playing for the Defence Warriors in the Canberra Premier division under Kevin Cowboy Neale.


Directly prior to making his way onto the world stage, he pulled on the boots for the 4RAR Commando army unit in Sydney.



Reflections on the Bali bombing (Part B)


The epicentre for the 2002 Bali bombing rescue effort was the Sanglah hospital and morgue, twenty minutes away from the tourist strips of Kuta.


This is where Thommo was first escorted to with his second in command, Bryson Keenan, after landing and establishing some essential operating protocols with his Denpasar based Indonesian military counterparties.


Eighteen years on, Thommo remembers the scene vividly. He describes Sanglah as a bona-fide war zone, a term he is qualified to use. With lives at stake and the need to begin making quick decisions, his first inclination was to survey the twenty or so selfless volunteer doctors, nurses and caregivers, many still in the shorts and thongs they were wearing when their night unexpectedly collapsed.


Amongst the volunteers he spotted a group of familiar faces, a determined group of Bali Geckos footballers and their partners, doing their best amongst the dead and injured. Peter Gunn Muir, Johnny Lincoln and Philby were prominent amongst others. One-time opponents and recent teammates, their local knowhow and Bahasa language skills became a critically important part of his patchwork emergency response team over the days ahead.


In Paddy’s bar a year later, the Bali players recalled in detail the moment Thommo arrived on the scene in full military regalia. With no end in sight to the chaotic disorder, a commanding presence with that familiar coaching voice had unexpectedly walked through the door and taken control.


As Peter Muir recollected recently, the situation was total bedlam and needed a focal point. Thommo’s personality and training were perfect for the moment at hand.


Firm. Calm. Organised.


Someone to follow.


Thommo set about implementing a three-tier triage system to manage the injured. He quickly assessed that the deployment of the RAAF Hercules C130 medivac aircraft would be necessary. With an initial request rejected, the urgency and brute force conveyed in his second call later saw a complaint lodged against him.


He also recalls receiving some flack for facilitating the airlift of some critically injured foreigners onto those flights to Australia. Humanity prevailing over nationalistic bureaucracy. It remains a source of pride looking back. His final grim task that week was to recommend and implement some recognised but unpopular identification protocols for those that had been lost. As that process was to be painstakingly slow for the victims’ families, a personal clearance from Prime Minister Howard was required to ensure its implementation.


The successful operation Thommo had described on the golf course in late 2002 saw him awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross. With the passage of time however has come the ability to further ponder the efforts of his volunteer force.


His enduring image is one of a Sanglah volunteer, scurrying around and helping the injured with scant recognition of his own precarious situation. Thommo had noticed the man’s burns and directed him to seek medical attention. He succumbed to his injuries 36 hours later.



Baghdad to Werribee


By 2004, Thommo had long moved on and our comms had become scarce.


A rare email exchange elicited a response from Bagdhad no less with a photo attachment portraying a confident looking soldier with that signature moustache under a striking blue beret.


In August 2003, the UN had exited the Iraqi theatre after their senior representative Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in a targeted blast at the Canal Hotel, along with 20 staff. The impact was devastating given de Mello was widely tipped to succeed Kofi Annan as the next UN Secretary General.


As an outcome, Thommo was recruited in 2004 as the UN’s senior military advisor to re-establish a UN presence in the country. He stayed for a year and successfully deployed his relationship skills to pave the way for the re-introduction of an incoming UN special representative team.


Post Iraq, a return to Canberra saw him graduate to Masters football where he and made the national representative teams for the over 40s and over 45s representing the ACT. A stint in Manila saw him line up for both the Dingoes and Eurekas in the fledgling local league before heading back to Melbourne in ’08  to round his career playing and coaching for the Werribee Masters.


“I wasn’t planning on playing again but ran into a fellow doing some carpentry work for my sister who played there. Great bunch of guys. I stayed seven years.”




We’re lucky enough to attend Thommo’s birthday bash in a lush penthouse somewhere in Melbourne’s Southbank precinct.


It’s a lively mix of family, military and ex-teammates, with his Jakarta 2002 premiership flock surprisingly well represented. Butch and Joy have made the trip as has Kris from Perth.


His brother Greg deftly nails the speeches and has the room captivated with some well executed gags and informative vignettes. When it comes to footy, he speaks of the twelve flag teams Thommo has played in.


He reckons it’s no coincidence that teams win premierships when his brother Neil shows up.



Asian Championships 2002 in Singapore. Neil coached Indonesia to the victory and was named player of the tournament



Alexandra NZ 2020


We speak after Thommo has returned from his weekly golf game in Alexandra on New Zealand’s South Island. He’s recently remarried and moved across the ditch where he’s picking fruit in the local community to help the Covid impacted farmers.


We shoot the breeze again about life, footy and Indonesia. He asks about the article and wants to make a slight change.


He’s inadvertently left out a club from sometime in the late 70s and the games tally should actually number 670.



Dedicated to Neil’s father Keith who passed away during the writing of this article.



To read more from Rob click HERE


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About Rob Spurr

Rob Spurr is a Melbourne based CFO. He started writing a few stories to avoid home schooling his kids during the COVID lockdown.


  1. We often hear about the notion of a life in football but Neil’s seems truly remarkable. His role in the aftermath of the Bali Bombings alone guarantees his status. This was a timely read and again places footy in its legitimate context. Thanks Rob.

  2. Robbie (and Thommo). Bloody beautiful

  3. A wonderful story about a life well led. Top read.

  4. I am so glad that I took the time to read this piece this morning.

    A brilliant story. Thanks for sharing. And well played, Thommo!!

  5. Powerful and timely. A life well played. Puts military service in proper context.

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Hear hear. And full points for the laceup Thommo

  7. Grant "Tom" Dooley says

    Awesome read Rob. Was fortunate to play with and against Thommo. The former being the easier option!

  8. Craig Harris says

    A great read Rob. Thomo’s life reminds me how much life is out there to live.

  9. Gay Murphy - Neil's sister says

    Wow! What an amazing article about Neil’s football life. I have learnt some new things about what he has have achieved. Congratulations Neil and to Rob for writing a magnificent piece.

  10. Ripping yarn. Great work from subject and scribe – thanks!

  11. Shane Reid says

    What a tale, what a great read. Thank you.

  12. So enjoyed reading this – what an adventurous life and so timely for us to be reflecting on the service of our often unsung heroes. Thanks Rob – keep the articles coming.

  13. Mark Karklins says

    A great story well written….. thanks Rob

  14. I knew he was a great bloke but didn’t know how good he was , what a great story. Thanks Rob

  15. Clinton Taylor says

    Always enjoy reading the words that you put together! Thommo sounds like an absolute ripper of a bloke.

  16. Well told.

  17. Melissa Lysaght says

    I can’t work out which I enjoyed more – the story telling, or the story itself! Really, an extraordinary life brilliantly told. M xx

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