BEN Thompson has admitted he “lost the love of football” towards the end of his Millwall career as he opened up on his difficult last two seasons with his boyhood club and his eventual exit.
Thompson, 26, initially spoke to Millwall boss Gary Rowett before the start of last season to tell him he wanted to leave.
The Sidcup-born midfielder was linked with a return to Portsmouth but remained with the Lions beyond the summer window.
But Thompson only played one minute in the Championship in 2021-22 and made just two starts, against Cambridge United and Leicester City in the EFL Cup.
Thompson knew in January he had to leave and both parties agreed a deal.
“I’d say it was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in football. I was at Millwall 10 years, my boyhood club,” Thompson tells NewsAtDen. “I enjoyed most of my time there, barring probably the last couple of seasons.
“Other than that I have some fantastic memories and met some fantastic people. It was hard to make the decision but it was probably best for both parties.
“I sort of knew at the start of last season I wasn’t going to be in the plans. I wasn’t thought of as a main starter for Gary. If I know I’m not going to play it’s my decision to go to the manager and say, ‘look, I’ve got to go’. Which I did at the start of last season because I knew I wasn’t going to be involved.
“Nothing happened, nothing materialised then but in January the club sort of wanted me out and I had to go and play football again. So we came to an agreement and that was that.
“As I say, tough decision and not the way I wanted my Millwall career to end but, hey-ho, that’s football and that’s how it works. It’s a ruthless industry.
“I just had the feeling from [the 2020-21] season and coming back for pre-season [last summer] that I probably knew I wasn’t going to be in the plans. I think the only reason I was playing in the season before was down to injuries and stuff like that. It was a general feeling that I got, I knew where I stood.
“That proved as well that I made the right decision.”
Thompson scored the first goal of Rowett’s reign, the opener in a 2-0 win over Stoke City at The Den in October 2019 when he played behind striker Tom Bradshaw in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
He was a regular in the side until that December, but then a hamstring injury and the first Covid-19 lockdown and suspension of football meant he didn’t play a competitive senior game for over six months.
Rowett switched to a 5-2-3 formation not long after taking over, meaning the position Thompson started in against Stoke was mostly discarded.
But Thompson points out he played as a conventional central midfielder plenty of times across 175 games for the Lions.
“I enjoyed playing behind the striker but I started off at Millwall as a defensive, all-action midfielder,” Thompson says. “I can do both sides of the game. Unfortunately I didn’t get that chance and it didn’t work out.
“When [Rowett] came in I thought I started off well in the first 10 games or so, I scored the first goal of his reign.
“I think an injury after that didn’t help, then Covid after that. It was just a mix of things and that was really where it ended after that first season.”
Despite Millwall suffering an injury and Covid-19 crisis over the winter, Thompson was still deemed surplus to requirements.
It meant he trained all week without the rewards in mid-week or at weekends.
“That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with other than injuries,” Thompson says. “It’s tough going in during the week knowing you’re not going to be involved on the Saturday.
“You have to do it right for yourself, you have to keep yourself fit and keep yourself in shape because you never know what’s around the corner.
“It was mentally tough and as I’ve said before in previous interviews I sort of lost the love of football for a while.
“When I went to Gillingham and played under Neil again that was what brought the love back. It brought the spark back.”
Thompson regularly played for Kevin Nugent’s under-23s last season to try to maintain his match sharpness.
“It was one of the things I had to do to keep myself sane, keep myself fit and actually play some football,” Thompson says. “I had to do that and I was pleased that the management and staff let me do that, and thanks to Nuge and [assistant manager] Paul Robinson for having me for the few months they did.
“I’d like to think I can help [the younger players] out and they can learn things from me, and me from them as well, you’re never too old to stop learning.
“Nuge and Robbo are great fellas and really looked after me and helped me stay fit and stay sane, sort of thing. I can’t thank them enough.
“No matter what I’ll always be a Millwall fan. I’ve been going since I was three, four years old and that won’t stop now.
“I’ve got to take my kids now and teach them the ways early.”
Thompson is asked if he feels “bitter” about how his time at Millwall ended.
He replies: “Not at all, not at all. That’s football, that’s the way of the business. I had a fantastic 10 years there. Or it was fantastic most of the time.
“I enjoyed some fantastic times, promotion, FA Cup runs, goals. Millwall fans were obviously a massive part of that and they supported me throughout.
“I loved every minute of it and I can’t thank them enough.”
Image: Millwall FC