British Columbia has a long, yet relatively untold, history between local firefighters and football. One of the most iconic representations of this connection is Firefighters FC, a BC team made up of local firefighters who dominated Canadian football in the 1960s. That team inspired many to become either a firefighter or football player; but in Niall Thompson’s case, Vancouver FC assistant coach & Burnaby Fire Hall No. 6 captain, it led him to become both.
Thompson was born in Birmingham, England in 1974 and, shortly after, his family immigrated to Canada, bringing with them the passion for football. Amidst Thompson’s own youth training and practices, Thompson Sr. would take the young footballer to watch local matches that sometimes featured Firefighters FC. “I used to go watch certain men’s league games with my dad and I do remember seeing the Firefighters,” recalls Thompson.
Thompson quickly became a hot prospect in the world of football and was recruited by the historic Dutch club, PSV Eindhoven, when he was 17. At the time, football was his main priority but another passion was starting to ignite, “I remember my dad suggesting that I write down some goals that I want to achieve in my life,” shared Thompson. “I wrote [my goals] on a piece of paper: one of them was to become a professional soccer player and the other one was to become a firefighter.”
Over the course of the next ten years, Thompson lived out his first goal in different countries across Europe and America playing for teams including Crystal Palace, Brentford, Wycombe, and the Seattle Sounders. Thompson also represented Canada on the National Team in two editions of the Gold Cup (1993 and 1996) and the 2002 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
Eventually, in 2002, Thompson returned to his hometown of Vancouver where he started to consider hanging up the football boots and moving on to a new career path. “I was getting married at the time. I wanted to be more stable because I was traveling around and playing a lot,” said Thompson.
It was at a recreational football tournament when Thompson was reintroduced to the childhood memory of Firefighters FC, that got him thinking about his second life goal. After the game, Thompson had a friendly chat with the Firefighters squad and it didn’t take much convincing for Thompson to figure out his next steps.
“At that point, I decided to focus all my energy on trying to become a firefighter within the last two years of my playing career.” After officially retiring in 2003, Thompson received his firefighter certification and became a full-time firefighter. “I get a very satisfying feeling when I finish a shift after we’ve helped people during the day or during the night,” says Thompson who recently became the captain at Burnaby Fire Hall No. 6.
While achieving his second goal, Thompson never lost sight of his first passion: football. During his free time, Thompson was working towards his coaching certificates and was able to obtain a United States Soccer Federation A coaching license as well as an UEFA A coaching license. In 2013, he became a part of John Herdman’s staff with the Women’s National Team during the Cyprus Women’s Cup.
Fast forward to 2022 when an opportunity to become a full-time coach knocked on Thompson’s door with international legend Afshin Ghotbi and Vancouver FC in its inaugural season. Thompson accepted the offer but continues his work as a firefighter. “I get to coach young men and try to teach them to become better professionals,” says Thompson about his new lifestyle. “Then I get to jump on a fire truck at night and go help people in need and go to certain situations that other people couldn’t handle.”
Thompson’s decision to follow his childhood dreams simultaneously requires a massive commitment, sometimes putting in 16-hour shifts between the two jobs and having nearly no free days. “I hope that my work ethic rubs off on the young players and it shows them that they can achieve things no matter what the obstacle,” explains Thompson. “I would like to think that I would bring happiness, team unity and directness which a lot of the players need at this stage [in their careers].”
Vancouver FC is history in the making and, maybe one day, will have its story displayed right beside the legendary 1961 Firefighters FC in the BC Sports Hall of Fame. But for Thompson, he only wants to be remembered as an empathic man who always tried to help the person in front of him, “If I die tomorrow, I’m a coach with Vancouver FC. I’m a Burnaby firefighter. I mean, you cannot get better than that in my eyes.”
Celebrate Firefighters’ Appreciation Night at our next home match this Sunday. Show your support for our local heroes and get your tickets here, with 10% of ALL ticket sales being donated to the BC Burn Fund.