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Dublin: 5°C Friday 25 September 2020

The Class of '92 Manchester United star who never graduated

Ben Thornley speaks to The42 about tracking down David Beckham, injury problems, the influence of Roy Keane and regrets about his treatment of some of the women in his life.

Ben Thornley pictured playing for Man United in April 1993.
Ben Thornley pictured playing for Man United in April 1993.
Image: EMPICS Sport

6 APRIL 1994 is the day Ben Thornley’s life changed irrevocably.

At the time, he was one of the brightest stars in Man United’s fabled ‘Class of 92′ youth side.

Other players to emerge from that era included Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

Thornley was considered on a par with these prodigious talents. It was widely expected he would go on to forge a career at the top level of the game. 

Sir Alex Ferguson believed the talented winger would become an England international. Giggs and Gary Neville have been among those to suggest he was good enough to thrive at Man United.

But everything changed during that fateful day when Thornley competed in a reserve match between United and Blackburn Rovers.

The youngster appeared destined for great things at the time. In 1992, he signed a professional contract at Old Trafford, having been an integral part of the Red Devils side that won the Youth Cup that year.

On 26 February, 1994, an 18-year-old Thornley made his first-team debut, holding his own after coming on as a substitute in Man United’s 2-2 draw with West Ham at Boleyn Ground.

The starlet looked set for an extended run at senior level and was reportedly set to figure in an upcoming FA Cup semi final against Oldham, but an awful tackle from Blackburn defender Nicky Marker changed everything.

Thornley suffered knee ligament damage and was out of action for more than a year. Upon returning, as hard as he tried, the right-footed left winger was never really the same player.

In the foreword for Thornley’s new book, ‘Tackled,’ Gary Neville expresses admiration for his ex-teammate and friend.

“He was one of — if not the — most talented members of that team. He had everything,” Neville writes.

But then one huge, earth-shattering moment completely changed the direction of his life and he never matched the heights of his game pre-injury. I actually considered that one of the greatest losses of my career because of what I thought of him, the time that we spent together and the great friendship that we have.”

Neville expresses admiration for the fact that Thornley recovered from this devastating setback to the extent that he was able to enjoy a career in professional football, albeit at a lower level than he might have hoped.

Thornley made just nine first-team appearances for Man United in total. In 1997, he sued Marker and Blackburn, claiming a loss of earnings as a result of the injury he suffered, and settled out of court for a six-figure fee.

Though his sunny disposition sometimes hid it, the period following the injury was a struggle mentally at times for Thornley.

As Neville puts it: “After his injury he was on a downer and floated towards things that he never normally would have done. In fact, he ended up becoming someone who, at times, he himself probably didn’t like.”

West Ham United v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League - London Stadium Gary Neville is a close friend and former team-mate of Thornley. Source: Steven Paston

However, almost 25 years after suffering the injury, Thornley says he has moved on. While angry at the time, he feels only apathy towards Marker now.

“I do hold him responsible because the tackle was over and above what the laws allow,” he tells The42. “Anybody that has seen the tackle will understand exactly what I’m saying. It was not a tackle that would be allowed or should be allowed in the game. 

“He was a seasoned professional and he knew that tackling me where he did on my body with a foot that he didn’t favour, which is highly unusual — he knew he was going to hurt me. I don’t think he could ever have envisaged how much damage he was going to inflict.

“But do I feel any malice towards him? No. That ship has sailed. It was a really long time ago. What’s done is done. There’s no going back. The only thing that would succeed in doing would be making me a very bitter, twisted person. Anybody that knows me knows that’s not in my makeup.

“The best thing for me to do was just feel absolutely nothing. Yes, I feel a little bit aggrieved that that tackle robbed me of my chance of being in Manchester United’s first team for a number of years.

From Sir Alex down to people that I worked with all said the same thing — I would have had a career at Manchester United. I don’t know for how long, but it certainly would have been longer than the one I got. That saddens me.

“But it was a long time ago. Now, I’m just enjoying life with my friends, my family and my job. I don’t even give what happened with Nicky Marker and my career a second thought.”

And did Marker ever apologise for this horrendous, career-altering challenge?

“I know Blackburn did apologise with a letter about what had happened to me.

“But in terms of did I ever get anything in writing or face to face with Nicky Marker, the answer is ‘no,’ and to be perfectly honest, it would be empty now anyway.”

And while it sadly turned out to be the definitive moment of Thornley’s career, his book is more than simply a long lament on what might have been.

The story is not told chronologically, with events from the ex-player’s later life interspersed with childhood memories of how he came to fall in love with football.

Source: Manchester Red/YouTube

There is plenty of archetypally dry Mancunian humour, as members of his family describe their memories of the aspiring footballer as a youngster, while countless ex-team-mates and associates, including several high-profile former Man United players, provide insights on Thornley.

“Logistically, it was difficult. These people are very busy and obviously, there are some people I haven’t spoken to in a long time — schoolteachers et cetera. So it did take time, not just to get to speak to them, but to actually locate them and see where they were in the world.”

When asked what the biggest challenge of the book was, Thornley laughs, saying: “Tracking Becks down.”

In the end, co-author Dan Poole got a hold of Man United legend Beckham, as he was in a car on his way to Heathrow Airport.

I was very fortunate. Last July, it was David’s dad Ted’s 70th birthday. He’s always been a United fan, even though he’s from London — a very big Spurs country. He wanted to have his 70th birthday at Hotel Football with the ground in the background. So I was invited and David was there and it was good to sit and chat and reminisce about old times and have a bit of a laugh. I asked him: ‘Would you allow Dan to interview you so it can go in the book?’ He said: ‘I’d be disappointed if you didn’t come to me.’”

Beckham is far from the only high-profile name involved. Alex Ferguson initially agreed to chat with Thornley, but fate intervened.

“I approached Sir Alex and it was the week after that when I was going to speak to him that he was rushed into hospital [after suffering a brain haemorrhage]. That took everyone by surprise and everybody was extremely worried. But he’s made a full recovery and is out and about now. 

“In the new year, he will be resuming normal service — giving inspirational speeches and things like that, which he’s not been able to do under doctors’ orders. At the back end of last month, he did put something on paper for me to use in the edition that’s out at the moment, which obviously when it first came out, I didn’t have. 

“So that was a really welcome surprise and everyone’s just so grateful that he’s okay. But the fact that he’s taken the trouble to help me, it shows the mark of the man.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda Star Ceremony Thornley describes "tracking Becks down" as the biggest challenge of the book. Source: UPI/PA Images

Ex-Ireland international Denis Irwin, who Thornley describes as a “quiet, unassuming character” as well as one of United’s best-value signings ever (joining the Red Devils from Oldham for £625,000 in 1990), also contributes to the book. Moreover, he winger’s time at the club intersected with another talented Corkonian and influential figure — Roy Keane.

“I loved him off the field and he was a terrific character on it as well. If there’s anyone that you want to drive your team forward, when you look around the dressing room, who was going to get you out of whatever pickle you may be in at that time, look no further than Roy Keane.

“Despite the acrimonious terms in which Roy left the club, he was Sir Alex’s best player by his own admission, the best player that he had ever managed.

“It wasn’t just in matches [that you didn't let your standards drop], it was also in training. He was a firm believer that if you trained as well as you possibly could, you would be able to deliver in matches. He would absolutely rollick you if you gave the ball away cheaply in training.

What I loved about Roy is that he didn’t care whether it was one of us young boys coming through or a Paul Ince, Brian McClair or Gary Pallister — he didn’t differentiate.

“If anyone on that training field or on the pitch let their standards drop, Roy would be the first to let you know about the decline in quality, because he demanded such high quality. Anytime it did drop, he would be onto you. And he was the first to hold his hands up if his own standards dropped.

“No, you didn’t want to cross him, but that just helped to focus you on making sure you didn’t make mistakes. You did everything correctly and I think somebody like him is what United have been missing basically since he left, that sort of commanding figure.

“We’ve had brilliant players — Scholesy was in there, Giggsy was in there, players that were as good as Roy Keane in my eyes, but just didn’t have that sort of inner mental strength that he transferred onto the pitch. He wasn’t afraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve and really letting people know what he thought of them. In punditry, he’s done exactly that too. And I’ve nothing but admiration for Roy Keane, both as a guy and as a footballer.”

Soccer - FA Premier Reserve League - Manchester United v Newcastle United Thornley's spell at Man United coincided with Roy Keane's time there. Source: EMPICS Sport

While Thornley may not have got the opportunity to share a dressing room with Keane for too long, as he left United on a free transfer in May 1998, he is still grateful at being able to forge a career in the game he loved since childhood.

Former United star Steve Bruce brought him to then-Division One side Huddersfield, with whom he made 127 appearances, before leaving for Aberdeen in 2001.

The spell in Scotland proved short-lived, and Thornley’s career ultimately petered out, amid short stints at Blackpool, Bury, Halifax Town and a series of semi-professional non-league teams.

His injury problems had hampered him seriously, while mistakes were made off the pitch. Near the end of his time at Huddersfield, himself and team-mates went on a drinking binge that ended with the ex-United player chucking olives and mushrooms at customers and verbally abusing staff in Pizza Hut. After being caught on CCTV, news of his indiscretions went public and he was forced to apologise for his behaviour.

To compound the out-of-sorts star’s woe, he was subsequently part of the side relegated to Division Two on the final day amid a 2-1 loss against Birmingham, with Thornley’s contract not renewed at the end of that miserable campaign.

“Once you’ve been at, in my eyes, the best club in the world, then things are going to be slightly different [once you leave],” he says.

“But the bottom line is, you are still a professional footballer, you still have a job to do. Every club I went to, even right the way through to when I played semi-professional, I went in with my eyes wide open, wanting to do my absolute best for that club. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Psychologically, I did go through battles, especially when I was coming back from the injury and you quickly know that you’re not going to be the same player because of the damage that was inflicted on my knee. But I was still capable, with all the hard work I put in and with the expert people that I had around me and the advice from friends, family and team-mates.

“I suddenly realised that you can’t wallow in what has gone on before. And this goes back to what I was saying about not being angry and bitter. It’s focusing and concentrating on the job at hand.

“Every club I went to, I really enjoyed it. You’ve got the best job in the world as far as I’m concerned and you need to make the absolute most of it. At times, I maybe didn’t do that. Subconsciously, I maybe thought it wasn’t for me anymore. But I had people around me that were going to rally round and say: ‘Listen, you’re still a good player. You can still play at a very good level.’

“I’m again grateful to everybody that I had around me at that time and in the latter years that kept me focused on the job at hand. Yes, it was hard at times, I’m not going to deny that, but I look back with fond memories everywhere I went and the fact that I did have a career as a professional footballer.” 

Huddersfield FC/Thornley Thornley pictured during his time at Huddersfield. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

One aspect of his life that Thornley does regret, however, relates to his behaviour towards ex-partners. Life as a footballer comes with certain vices to which the former Manchester United player succumbed, as he was at times unfaithful to those closest to him.

“You do get the female attention when you’re growing up. As I said in the book, for everybody that I upset, I am truly sorry.

“I’m not that type of person. I wouldn’t go out and deliberately intend to upset somebody. But when temptation is put in your way at times, it is very difficult to resist.

You have to be a certain character. And I’m certainly not on my own, but I’d always come across female attention going back to my final couple of years at school, when I was 14 or 15, and starting to become a young adult.

“It is quite flattering and without question, something that I would never have changed, but that’s not to say I shouldn’t be rueful about the treatment of some of the women that I’ve been with in my life. They didn’t deserve it and that’s why I’ve made a full and formal apology. It was just me being a young boy and taking advantage of an easy situation. I’m not proud of it, but dare I say that I enjoyed myself.”

After retiring from football, Thornley had stints as a restaurant manager, in addition to working in tiling. Nowadays, though, he is back at Man United, with a host of former players alongside him in similar roles. He combines working in hospitality along with appearing on Man United’s in-house radio and TV stations.

Manchester United Legends v Barcelona Legends - Old Trafford Thornley pictured during a Manchester United Legends match last year. Source: Dave Howarth

The former player also features on Man United Legends tours around the world, with David May and Keith Gillespie among those he enjoys these experiences with.

“I love being around David May. If you ever are somewhere, wherever you may be, you need somebody to break the ice. I’m quite an outgoing character, but I’m almost a hermit compared to David. He loves to be the clown, he has some cracking one-liners, he’s never ever quiet, he’s just brilliant fun to be around.

“On Masters trips, we mix with other ex-Premier League footballers, we have played quite a few games in recent years against Liverpool. I get on with a lot of the lads I go away with and I pride myself on that fact.

I’ve never been a footballer who played at the top level, but to mix with these guys, you’d think there’d be a little bit of: ‘What’s he doing here? He’s never won anything,’ which is absolutely true. But you do not ever come across anything like that.

“We’re all ex-players. The main thing is we go away, we have a bit of a laugh, we all put on a bit of a spectacle and we all get on. There’s absolutely no room for animosity at the stage in life that we’re at now. It’s just going away to have a bit of fun and to keep the football camaraderie going, which these trips inevitably will do.”

Thornley is now 43 and last played almost a decade ago. Despite the unfulfilled promise that his career will always be remember for, he currently appears content with life. When initially approached to do a book, he had doubts about whether anyone would be interested in his story “simply because of the fact that I didn’t make the grade at Old Trafford”. But given all he has been through and what he achieved in spite of the trauma suffered that terrible day in April ’94, Thornley is undoubtedly worth listening to.

“You need to work hard and don’t allow distractions to take priority,” he says. “Your life as a professional footballer, it’s a short window. In terms of how long you’re on this planet, it’s going to be 10-15 years as a professional footballer, dependent on the type of player you are and on injuries — I can vouch for that.

“It’s a small sacrifice to make for the amount of fulfilment life can give you even after being a professional footballer. So don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to go to somebody and say: ‘Can I have your help?’ It all will help you in the long run to be the best you can be.”

‘Tackled: The Class of ’92 Star Who Never Got to Graduate’ by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.

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