It was not supposed to turn out the way it did for Ben Thornley – drifting down theleagues, increasingly lost and eventually falling into a tailspin of personal despair that, with typical candour, he best characterises as “boozing, womanising and annihilating myself”.
But, then, at just 18 and arguably the most talented member of the revered “Class of 92” at Manchester United that would go on to take English football by storm, Thornley had not expected to have his right knee shattered either and ultimately, with it, a career that was on the verge of lift off.
“He would have outdone us all – that’s the sad part,” said David Beckham. Gary Neville described him as “one of the most outstanding talents I ever played with”. Even Paul Scholes insisted he was a “step above all of us, he could do everything”.
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Football is littered with hard luck tales but, reading Thornley’s autobiography and talking to him this week, his story is tougher to stomach than most given his time and place in United’s history. Thornley was the shining light in the side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 and one of the players Sir Alex Ferguson was banking on making it big. But, by the time some of his team-mates and close friends had achieved immortality seven years later when a dramatic smash and grab against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final secured an unprecedented treble, Thornley had already left the club and was only a spectator in the stands on that heady night at the Nou Camp.
The moment it went wrong for Thornley can be traced back to an April night at Bury’s Gigg Lane in 1994 when, with 20 minutes remaining of a reserve match against Blackburn, Nicky Marker, a seasoned 28-year-old professional, careered through the fleet-footed United winger with catastrophic consequences. The noise was so loud that Chris Casper, a United team-mate who was sat in the stands, just assumed a shinguard had been snapped.
For the United players on the pitch at the time, however, they knew instantly that something dreadful had just happened. Thornley had ruptured the anterior and posterior cruciates, the medial collateral ligament and the medial capsule of his knee and detached his medial meniscus. Dr Jonathan Noble, the surgeon who would operate, likened the damage to resting a book on its spine and watching all the pages fall out.
Yet as Thornley reflects on the tackle that effectively demolished his dream, the mental toll it gradually took, and the success his Class of 92 colleagues would go on to achieve in his absence, there is no trace of bitterness, just a lingering sense of “what if”. What if, for example, five minutes before Marker jumped into his knee, he had accepted an invitation to come off from his coach, Jim Ryan, who was conscious Ferguson had earmarked Thornley to play in the FA Cup semi final against Oldham Athletic a few days later?
“I don’t know what might have happened if I’d come off, nobody does, but all I do know is that I was part of a tremendously talented group of players and Sir Alex would have given me the same treatment, the same opportunities as he did the rest,” Thornley says. “It would have been about how I’d grabbed them and my guess is that I’d have clung on tightly, never let go and enjoyed the ride. But I certainly don’t hold any bitterness, resentment or jealousy towards what my other team-mates went on to do. Regardless of what happened to me, they were always going to be fabulous players and when you’ve got a manager like Sir Alex, talent like they had, and a work ethic like they had, you’ve got one hell of a cocktail.”
Thornley would secure a pay-out against Marker and Blackburn after Ferguson’s insistence he pursue a civil case but was he never tempted to seek out the defender and clobber him? “I tell you what, I’m from Salford, and there were plenty of people as you can imagine who were offering to do that for me but no, absolutely not my style,” Thornley said. “I don’t hold any malice towards him but I do hold him responsible.”
In the circumstances, it was remarkable Thornley ever played again. He would go on to make a further 13 appearances for United but it became apparent to him very quickly that the injury had robbed him of that split second spark that made him so hard for defenders to read and, by November 2003, aged just 28, his professional career was over following spells at Huddersfield, Aberdeen, Blackpool and Bury.
There had been warning signs at Aberdeen that all was not well and his family had noticed changes to his personality post-injury. But it was when he ventured into non-league that his struggles deepened and, by 2006, he hit rock bottom, jumping from woman to woman and embarking on drinking rampages that would start on a Thursday and conclude on a Sunday. Was that because, deep down, he was consumed by a simmering sense of injustice? “I absolutely don’t doubt that for one second,” Thornley said. “I do, absolutely, wish things had been different but the hand I was dealt never allowed that to happen,” he said.
He is happier now than he has been for a long time and he has such a gregarious, affable personality that it is easy to understand why he was, and still is, so popular. Having previously worked as a mini-cab driver, tiler and restaurant manager, he can now be found commentating for United’s in-house television station, MUTV, or working in Old Trafford’s hospitality suites. The book, too, has helped exorcise a few demons. But he still can’t help wondering “what if” from time to time.
Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate (Pitch Publishing) by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole is out on Monday 15 October.
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