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Ben Thornley: Man United’s Next Next Big Thing

Ryan Baldi’s book Next Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind seeks to shine a light on why some of the game’s outstanding talents never quite live up to their potential, why talent and desire alone often aren’t enough to ‘make it’, and what happens when the stars don’t align for these young men. Fifteen such players – some long retired, some still playing – have shared their stories in Next Next Big Thing, each detailing their own unique path to unfulfillment, and exposing the many different factors – injuries, relationships with coaching staff, personal problems, timing and plain luck – that can affect a young footballer’s development. This is an extract from the chapter on Ben Thornley, a Manchester United ‘Class of ’92’ star whose career was forever changed by a serious knee injury at 19, detailing the tragic timing and circumstances of Thornley’s injury, the physical and psychological difficulties the recovery process entailed, and his realisation that the dream of playing for the club he supported was over before it ever got going. The publication of Next Next Big Thing relies on the support of those who believe in it. Please pledge your support by pre-ordering a special edition copy of the book here. ***** April 6, 1994. A date forever etched on Ben Thornley’s conscience. The day a budding football career, almost certainly set for England caps and multiple major honours at club level, was altered by a bad tackle from a frustrated veteran in a reserve match. Thornley was one of the stars (arguably the star) of Manchester United’s Youth Cup-winning side of 1992. Among the likes of David Beckham, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt, he was the one earmarked for the brightest future in the Old Trafford first team. A right-footed left winger – a stylistic trait now common, but one that made Thornley a rare breed in the early 1990s – with pace, skill, creativity with either foot and a scoring touch. A lifelong United fan, born in Bury but raised in Salford, he was a young man living his dream. Having progressed through the Red Devils’ youth ranks to make his senior debut against West Ham United in February 1994, an injury to Ryan Giggs meant he was set to play a part in an FA Cup semi-final encounter with Oldham at Wembley Stadium, just a week before his 19th birthday. I met Thornley for lunch in Essex, where he now lives with his partner, dividing his time between there and trips to Manchester for his work as an analyst on United’s in-house TV channel MUTV, as well as occasional appearances as a match-day hospitality guest at Old Trafford. He is a warm and engaging character, affable and open, making it easy to picture him as the kind of player who could bring levity and bonding to a tense dressing room, as I was later told he was by a former team-mate. But when the subject of his career-threatening injury is broached, he recalls the day the trajectory of his life was changed with almost harrowing vividness, his eyes changing as he prefaces his account of that unfortunate spring evening by stating its date, as if to press home its trauma: ‘April 6, 1994’. “Giggsy was struggling with an injury and the manager [Alex Ferguson] wanted to make sure, because of the type of pitch that Wembley was – it was a killer of a pitch that sapped your legs – that I had some sort of match practise under my belt. So he sent me out on the Wednesday night against Blackburn [reserves] and he just said, “See how you feel.”” In this book, most of the players featured speak of moments in which their fate hung on the balance of a decision which, at the time, seemed of little consequence. Indeed, it is a fact as true in everyday life as it is in the unique milieu of football stardom that experiences are often shaped by chance, for better and worse, leading to thoughts of what might have been, the bedrock of regret. Thornley’s story is not without its own Sliding Doors moment, where, but for youthful exuberance and being caught up in simply enjoying what he was doing, things could have turned out differently, cruelly punished by fortune for not taking the chance to be substituted when it was offered to him. “We were 3-0 up, I’d scored two and made the other one. Jimmy Ryan, who was the coach at the time, said to me, “What do you want to do?” It just never dawned on me. It was like, “I’m here, I’m having a great time.” It turned out to be one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. “You just don’t think about it at the time. I could’ve scored my hat-trick so why would I want to come off? I was enjoying myself too much.” Late in the second half, disaster struck. Thornley’s enjoyment of the game had come largely at the expense of Blackburn full-back Nicky Marker, a comparative veteran. As Thornley sees it, Marker had grown frustrated at chasing the teenage winger’s shadow all game. His frustration manifested itself in an aggressive, high and late challenge on the United youngster, obliterating Thornley’s knee and hamstring. ‘I was 18 and he was 29 at the time,” Thornley explains. “He had just had enough. You could see from where the tackle happened – which was virtually in the middle of the pitch, and he’s a right-back – he had come for me. When you see the tackle, it was that high off the floor, straight into my knee as I passed the ball to Clayton Blackmore who’d gone up the outside. And as I planted my foot after passing it he’d just come straight in, and that was it. I felt it straight away. Gary Walsh was in our goal, and this was a third of the way into their half, but Walshy heard the snap. The manager was there. He grabbed my dad and they came flying down at Gigg Lane to the pitchside. He knew straight away, and the medical team knew straight away, that I had to get myself to hospital because they’d heard it and they’d seen it. They knew that it was bad. “It wasn’t just my cruciate. It was MCL [medial collateral ligament], hamstring, everything. Everything needed stitching up and repairing as well. Jonathan Noble, a guy I’m obviously very grateful to, who repaired my knee, said...


Published By: Fottball 365 - Wednesday, 11 July

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