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.

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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 that when he opened my knee up it was like putting a book on its spine: everything just fell apart. He said that, along with Jules [Maiorana, a gifted former United winger plucked from non-league obscurity who was similarly injured in a reserve game in 1993], it was one of the worst ones he’d ever seen.”

The dream was put on hold. By the mid-nineties, cruciate injuries were not necessarily the career-enders they had previously been, but full recoveries were rare, especially in cases as severe as Thornley’s. The FA Cup semi-final was now no longer a consideration; his only ever Wembley appearance would remain an England Schoolboys outing in 1990. An arduous, year-long rehabilitation lay ahead, watching on as United secured their first ever Double, and as a procession of former youth team colleagues got their first-team breaks.

There was distinctive, horrifying snapping sound heard around Bury’s Gigg Lane. Blackburn Rovers defender Nicky Marker’s challenge contorted Ben Thornley’s leg and left him writhing in pain on the turf. But the true severity of the damage done was only fully understood once surgeon Jonathan Noble operated on the injured knee. As soon as Noble glimpsed inside Thornley’s shattered knee, the extent of the devastation was apparent: his anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] and medial collateral ligament [MCL] were both shredded, and his hamstring was also torn.

The decision was made to repair the MCL at the expense of the ACL. The former, which runs down the inside of the leg, gives the knee joint stability, while the latter provides mobility. It is possible, through strengthening of the surrounding muscles, to get by without an ACL, and to this day Thornley does not have a functioning cruciate ligament in his affected knee. The hamstring had to be fixed, and would require immobilisation of the leg to properly heal; the opposite of what is needed after ACL surgery, when movement is encouraged at an early stage of recovery. It was decided that the MCL would take priority and the leg would be put in plaster for six to eight weeks.

Thornley’s experience in the immediate aftermath of sustaining his knee injury was the polar opposite of what Adrian Doherty had gone through. Doherty was a precociously talented Northern Irish winger who was ultimately unable to fulfil his immense promise after his own knee injury in 1991, and who later tragically died aged 26 after falling into a canal in The Hague in 2000. In Forever Young, Oliver Kay’s magnificent book about the young Ulsterman’s life, Doherty’s initial treatment after sustaining his injury is painted as bumbling and insufficient, without proper, timely diagnosis and having to wait almost a year before receiving the necessary surgery. Perhaps owing to the sheer impact of the challenge that caused his own ligament ruptures, there was no underestimating the scale of the damage Thornley had suffered. He instantly received expert help from United’s medical staff, for which he remains grateful.

“I was in the right place, no question about it,” he says. “I was in the wrong place to get the injury, but I was in the right place to have it rehabilitated. Fortunately for me, David Fevre, who is still the physio at Blackburn Rovers where Kiddo [Brian Kidd] had taken him when he left United, had just come across from Wigan in rugby league. He had quite an extensive knowledge of rehabilitating and treating serious knee injuries because they were a lot more common in rugby league than they were in football. He was brilliant with me through the whole summer.”

The gym at the Cliff was downstairs. It was an impersonal, basement-like room with filled fitness equipment, into which the only natural light creeps through narrow windows high up near the ceiling. Like the training field, it is a place of work. But unlike the training field, it can be a lonely place, bereft of the camaraderie, the japes and banter that make training sessions with the team something to look forward to, to relish and that are inevitably missed by footballers upon retirement.

There’s none of that in the gym for a player recovering from a serious injury. It’s just you, your physio and weeks upon weeks of hard, painful rehabilitation exercises. It was doubly tough for Thornley. He was part of a special generation of young players at United, many of whom were either making their first-team breakthrough or on the cusp of doing so.

“When all the lads are coming back for pre-season training and it’s nice outside, you’re stuck in this gym,” says Thornley, remembering those initial dark days. “It gets to you mentally, it’s not just physically. Because you’ll have weeks where you think, “Brilliant, I’m not that far away.” Then you’ll come in the following Monday and just feel like shit: you can’t do anything, you can’t lift anything and you can’t move. It aches and you feel like you’re three stone overweight.

“You’re there first thing in the morning, doing a double session because you’ve got a terrible injury and there’s loads and loads of different stuff you could be doing. Boring exercises. I have to show that I’m being professional about it. I can’t be disappearing with a cruciate knee ligament injury and having not played for a few months and not due to play for a few more. I can’t be coming in at ten o’clock and leaving at half-past twelve when I’ve had my dinner. I need to be coming in at half eight in the morning, when the physio is arriving, getting on with my stuff.”

Was it hard to stay positive? “It was, but the people that I was friends with at the time and the club that I was at, I couldn’t have been in a better place. I had mates there: I had Gaz [Neville], I had Becks, I Had Keith Gillespie and Sav. They were all close friends. Even though I obviously wasn’t training, they never excluded me from anything that was going on outside of training. If they went for a game of snooker, I’d always get asked; if they went for a few drinks, I’d always get asked; if they went for something to eat or to the cinema or to watch a game, I would always get asked. It wasn’t the case that I was out of sight, out of mind. And that helped.

“When you’re in that gym, that’s how it feels at times, because there’s literally no one else there and the sun’s shining outside – it was the one time you wanted it to piss down in pre-season, so you weren’t that hot. You were stuck in a gym indoors, but you knew that you had to be.”

After an aborted attempt at a comeback in November 1994, it was a year before Thornley’s knee was back in a condition that would allow him to play. Any player who has experienced and recovered from a career-threatening injury will tell you, though, that you have to learn to trust your body again. Memories of the physical pain and emotional strain of the initial breakdown, and the lengthy, arduous rehabilitation, all lurk in the recesses of your mind, creeping to the fore any time you enter a challenge or accelerate towards full running speed. “I was nervous when I was going to be tackled – that’s a definite,” Thornley admits.

In many cases, there also must come an acceptance that, even if able to play to a high level again, you are no longer the player you were before. Whether the injury robs a yard of pace, precludes quick changes of direction or forces a re-evaluation of certain techniques, there is an inherent adaptation period and a certain honesty required in assessing what this new reality holds.

Thornley: “I noticed that, because of the amount of time I’d been injured, my body shape had changed. I wasn’t as light as I used to be. And therefore the speed I had before the injury, I’d probably lost half a yard or a yard. In the position I was playing, that was crucial. That was a real contributing factor. Fortunately, I was fairly quick anyway, but without the injury there’s no question about it: I would have been quicker.

“Some people have an injury whereby they can get back to the position they were in before,” Thornley continues. “Mine was so bad that, no matter what I did, there was no way [my knee] was ever going to be fully one hundred per cent. And it was never going to be, because I still don’t have a cruciate.”

Then comes a delicate balancing act: brutal honesty and self-doubt at one end of the scale, the optimism and positivity required to get through the ordeal and salvage a career at the other. Unsurprisingly, mental loop-the-loops and bipolar thinking take hold. “It didn’t change the way I played the game, but it did change my outlook,” Thornley says. “There were certain times I’d think, “Do you know what, this isn’t working.” And the moment I felt that, I’d go and have a really good game: I’d create a goal or score a good goal. Then I’d be thinking, “I can do this.””

To his credit, Thornley remained a United player for more than four years after his injury was sustained. And he was the most eager participant in pre-season training ahead of the 1995/96 campaign. Most players dread pre-season, when intense cardio work is prioritised in order to rediscover peak fitness following the summer holidays and ahead of the new term. But Thornley had been injured for the entirety of the previous summer and a bout of appendicitis scuppered his 1993 pre-season, so he couldn’t wait to put in the long miles by July of ‘95.

He was never able to crack Ferguson’s first team on a consistent basis, making just eight more senior appearances for the Red Devils, clocking a miserly total of 264 Premier League minutes. But he was on the fringes of a squad that won the 1995/96 Premier League title, and featured five times as Arsenal dethroned United the following campaign. He even played in the pivotal game at Old Trafford in March 1998, when a Marc Overmars goal tipped the balance of the title race in the Gunners’ favour – recalling Ferguson dishing out his famous ‘hairdryer’ treatment after the loss: “I don’t remember him having a go at me – and, trust me, if the manager has a go at you, you remember it. But there were three or four players he really laid into.”

Post-injury, Thornley got a taste of regular first-team football thanks to loan spells with Stockport County and Huddersfield Town. The latter, in 1996, was a particularly enjoyable period, buoyed by the confidence shown in him by manager Brian Horton and feeling a developmental growth as a result of further honing his craft in the more physically demanding First Division. Thornley’s form at the McAlpine Stadium led to an England Under-21s call-up for the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France that summer, and the United youngster was minded to stay at Huddersfield and start afresh a level down from the Premier League. However, Ferguson, at the time, was only willing to part ways with the then-21-year-year old if a particularly attractive offer was presented, the kind of which Huddersfield didn’t have the means to put forward.

By the end of the 1997/98 season, though, Thornley had reconciled with the idea that the dream of playing consistently for the club he grew up supporting was effectively over, and decided to take hold of his future by approaching Ferguson and asking that he be allowed to leave. “I went and saw the manager and said, “Listen, I came for two years, I’ve never been any trouble for you. I am eternally grateful for everything that you’ve ever done for me, in terms of my rehabilitation and my football education, the way you’ve looked after me. I would love try and repay you by showing that I can be professional footballer in a squad somewhere, which, let’s have it right, isn’t going to happen here on a regular basis.” He stood up and shook my hand. He said, “You’re right, son.” And that was it.”


If you’d like to read Thornley’s story in full, along with the stories of other lost wonderkids from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, Ajax, Inter MIlan and more, order your copy of Next Next Big Thing here.