Ben Thornley might have once been on a one way ticket to superstardom, but he doesn’t let the fact that he didn’t get there bog him down. The one time Class of 92 starlet is grateful to be where he is in life, perhaps only a footnote to one of the most storied sides of all time, but an important part in its development. Thornley was a powerful winger with an explosive turn of pace on the verge of the Manchester United first team in 1994 when he was struck down by an embittered old pro, leaving the young Bury man with a cruciate knee ligament injury that threatened his career.
Thornley’s autobiography Tackled is full of 1990s nostalgia for fans of the era. Thornley recovered and was in the United side for the 6-3 defeat to Southampton at the Dell in 1996. The defeat – widely blamed upon the grey jerseys – was one of Thornley’s first games back in the United squad after a loan spell at Stockport. Thornley remembers his role in the side that day, helping warming up Peter Schmeichel before the game by lofting crosses to the Great Dane. Schmeichel was distracted by something from the crowd as Thornley flew in one cross which hit Schmeichel in the side of the face.
Aidan Boland: Were you the real cause of the 6-3 loss to Southampton?
Ben Thornley: Yes, smacking the ball straight into his face.
AB: Every book has a story about getting chased by Peter Schmeichel. Gary Neville had a story about David May getting chased down the corridor by a naked Peter Schmeichel.
BT: He wasn’t somebody who was difficult to upset but he was a tremendous goalkeeper and the thing was, he was quick. He was some size of a man but he could move and you would especially notice it in preseason and Brian Kidd would have us doing 200m sprints and him and Giggsy were leading the way. You didn’t notice it normally but he didn’t pull away, he was a really strong runner considering his size.
AB: What was he like?
BT: I didn’t play with him that much obviously but it’s very difficult obviously to choose between the goalkeeper that we have now and Peter Schmeichel. We’ve had some very good goalkeepers, along with Edwin Van Der Sar and it would be interesting to see how it was divided, who would go for De Gea or who would stick with Schmeichel.
In his book Forever Young, Oliver Kay describes a number of different outcomes to players experiencing cruciate knee ligament injuries at Manchester United. Adrian Doherty never recovered to play football professionally. Wes Brown had been a superb prospect who recovered to have a good career at a high level. Roy Keane was an excellent player who returned at the same level. Ben Thornley would have been somewhere between Doherty and Brown in that scale, recovering to play again, but not at the high level he seemed destined.
AB: I found it unusual in the book that you didn’t mention Adrian Doherty. He was highly regarded at The Cliff when you were there, and did the same injury as you…..
BT: I definitely knew him. Unfortunately I didn’t play with him. He spent so long being injured as far as I can remember. I would’ve liked to have played with him, he suffered a terrible injury and then he suffered mental health problems as well…
AB: Was that in your mind when you got injured? That you might end up like Doherty?
BT: No. I didn’t think about it. I tried to focus on the people around that time. Alan Shearer had had a cruciate. Gazza had had a cruciate. Niall Quinn had done his cruciate. They were all coming back and successfully resurrecting their careers, Alan Shearer especially. He’s still to this day the Premier League’s top goal scorer and I can’t see that being beaten.
AB: Not until Marcus Rashford does it.
BT: Let’s hope he gets somewhere close but it’ll take some doing.
AB: Do you think that the Manchester United medical team learned from you for Roy’s recovery in 1997?
BT: I’d like to think that that would be the case. I’d like to think that there were certain things they could take from my injury and spin it into a real positive; but again, it’s the type of injury that it was and these injuries are career threatening if they are not operated on properly and they’re not looked after correctly. But you need to concentrate on your own state of mind on the positives; and that’s taking nothing from Adrian. It was an absolute tragedy what happened to him and he was a lovely lad but I needed the successes rather than the failures in terms of injuries.
AB: It has been suggested that both Roy and Doherty found the recovery mentally gruelling. Roy and Doherty are both reported to have drank a lot. Did you indulge at the time?
BT: No. What was tough was my rehabilitation was taking place during the summer then you’re stuck in the Cliff…the gym there is very… its downstairs and the windows are very high and it is quite dark and even though the sun shining is outside, but you’re the only one, even though the lads are out there for preseason, you’re in there a lot on your own. Under normal circumstances if you get injured during the season, there are other people who are in there too. They mightn’t have the same thing, but if they have a hamstring injury, there are certain things that you both can do as well as them so you’re doing stuff together. I was just completely on my own. I obviously couldn’t have a physio with me there all the time, so I just had to rely on my own hard work and my own dedication to actually getting myself fit. Even on some days where I really just didn’t fucking feel like it.
Part of the hook of Thornley’s book is the era of football within which he grew up. He was feted just like a Scholes, Beckham or Giggs. He was a key element of the 1992 Youth Cup winning side and made his debut before Scholes or Beckham even. Those players – along with Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage and Bryan Robson all speak in Thornley’s book, adding colour to Thornley’s narrative.
BT: When I was first approached by Dan Poole, it wasn’t anything that was on my radar at all. For all intents and purposes, I never made it at Man United. It was all ifs, buts and maybes. I’m pretty sure that if I had stayed the player I had been before my injury, I would’ve been given the same chances as everyone else. And the angle that Dan came from was to get the opinions of the people who played with me before and the people who knew me after. With some of the guys who commented on what sort of a player you were. He said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that you didn’t make it at Man United. Football fans the world over will all know the Class of 92, and in particular Man United fans will remember do.’ And the fact that you’re doing it a little bit different to the normal autobiography – the book jumps around – Dan has written it really well and put in the appropriate quotes from the appropriate people at just the right time and I think he has done that really well and it has helped the reader to enjoy it.
AB: Where would you have seen yourself settling down as a player at United had you gone on? Giggsy was going to be tough to dislodge from the left wing.
BT: Well I probably wouldn’t have played as a central forward but as time moves on, when you get to a certain age, you do just notice that you’re lacking a certain pace that you once had. Before I came to Manchester United, I played in Greater Manchester and we played inter-county matches with Nicky Butt alongside me. I was the captain and played in central midfield with Nicky alongside me. Every game I played central midfield. It was only when Brian Kidd saw me at Manchester United, that he said, ‘you’re quick. Why don’t you try out wide? Everyone wants to be a central midfielder at 14. Everyone wants to be Bryan Robson. Why don’t you move out wide? That was where it started and that’s how I converted myself from a midfielder in the centre to a more attacking sort of winger. But I probably think that I would’ve become more effective at playing back in my old position as a central midfielder. I had a decent engine and I could get up and down and I was very vocal on the pitch. Sometimes too much!
Alex Ferguson is not one of the voices recorded in Thornley’s book. Despite having previously agreed, Ferguson’s health scare in May meant that he was unable to partake. He was clearly a central part of Thornley’s development, and somebody who fought very hard for Thornley throughout his career. Early on in the book, Thornley mentions overhearing Ferguson talking to Claire Robson – Bryan’s daughter – before the Arsenal game in April when he said that Thornley ‘was the boy that would have played for England, if not for his injury’.
BT: He actually turned to Claire Robson… Bryan’s daughter. It was her that had brought the manager down to do a presentation in front of the dugouts. He didn’t know that I had heard it but I saw him turn to Claire and say it which was nice.
AB: Does that type of comment sting a little bit? Is it tinged with regret for you?
BT: No. Not at all. In all fairness Aidan, even after my injury, I did play for England. Not the full squad but I managed to get into the U21s which was a fair achievement considering what had happened to me. I knew I wasn’t going to make it at the top level after what had happened to me so then I don’t think you deserve to play for the national team on a regular basis in a top league. I haven’t any regret, but it was a very humbling moment when he turned to Claire and say that. Without the injury, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gotten picked for the national team whether it was at 18 or when I was 24. I would’ve at least been given my chance to play. I don’t regret anything mate. There are things I could’ve done differently, and should’ve done differently, but I haven’t any regrets. It’s like, ‘how do you feel about Nicky Marker?’ I could’ve spent hours, days, months going over how horrible a tackle it was, but where does that get me? It’s just gonna eat me up from the inside and make me a bitter, twisted person, but what’s the point? It’s gone. Move on.
AB: It seemed like they were crying out for left wingers at England for a while.
BT: I think Scholesy said something in the book that if I hadn’t gotten injured he wouldn’t have had to have played there!
Part of Ben Thornley’s struggles following his return from injury was a weight gain, which he struggled to shift for a period of time. He details in the book Ferguson telling him in May 1995 that he needed to lose weight. Thornley said “I’m trying,” to which Ferguson responded, “Well you need to fucking try harder.”
AB: Do you like this level directness for which Sir Alex is known?
BT: I’m absolutely fine with it. Not a problem. I know with the seven years that I was there and you’ve seen the letter he sent me that was printed on the pages there that he sent at the end of my time there, I never gave him any sleepless nights. He wasn’t doing it to be mean but as a wakeup call to say I’ve still got a chance in football but I need to get myself in better shape, and I did. No question. I wouldn’t change Sir Alex. He is an incredible man.
AB: What about Ferguson and the weight comments? Is this one on one or in front of the whole team?
BT: He would never have done that in company. That would’ve been something he would’ve called me into his office for and given me a dressing down. He knew what sort of a lad I was… he knew it was affecting me, from the position I was in before the injury. He didn’t want to be too harsh, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. He was like, ‘I’m helping you here’ but he had his own way of doing things and you had to do it. He wasn’t going to do it in a nicey-nice way. He wanted me to see that he was serious but by the same token that he was trying to help me.
AB: He seemed to try to keep you there….. did it affect you with Jordi and Poborsky signing?
BT: Yeah well… I sort of got the feeling, even by then Aidan that my time and my future lay elsewhere. I did state in the book that I let my heart rule my head when the manager talked me into staying for another two years even though I think it would have benefitted my career to go elsewhere, having had a taste of league football. I had my time at Stockport and then soon after the New Year, I spent the year at Huddersfield under Brian Horton and I got my love back for the game again. People were excited to see me. That was the year I got picked for the U21s. I was disappointed when they couldn’t agree a fee for me to leave…. In 1996 I was only 21. [A Bosman free transfer] wouldn’t kick in until the year that I left in 1998. When I left then, everyone was happy. The manager was happy. He wanted me to stay in 1996 but by 1998 he realised that if I had stayed, he would be holding me back. He wanted me to do well but by then we knew that it wasn’t going to be at Manchester United.
Ben Thornley would leave Manchester United in 1998 and join Huddersfield. He would watch his former teammates lift the Champions League trophy less than a year later and while some would have looked at the squad, seen the name Jonathan Greening and rued that they would have been in the squad had they stuck around, Ben Thornley gives you the impression that he doesn’t regret leaving for one second. The man from Bury has lived an extraordinary life, and seems to have relished every bit of it.