By Lee Gale
It all started with “Fergie’s Fledglings”, a group of players that were recruited into the Manchester United set-up in the late Eighties, round about the time Alex Ferguson was the bookie’s favourite for the sack. You may remember the likes of Lee Sharpe, Russell Beardsmore, Guiliano Maiorana, Mark Robins and Lee Martin. They won little but looked great in those classic, Sharp-sponsored Adidas kits.
There followed a second wave of talent in the early Nineties who became known as the “Class of 92” and included some of the players who’d go on to achieve resounding success under Ferguson. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville would become household names but there is one member of this gang of super-talented ball wizards – Ben Thornley – whose ascendency through the United ranks came to a clattering halt just as the club’s fortunes were rising.
Thornley’s new book Tackled: The Class Of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate (Pitch Publishing, £19.99) tells the story of a terrible injury and gradual rehabilitation – albeit at huge personal cost. Thornley’s shattered right knee following a mean-spirited tackle in a reserves match against Blackburn Rovers meant he missed his one shot at reaching the top. He was pure class, too, as good a prospect as Beckham, Giggs, Scholes et al, and would probably have been on the pitch at Barcelona in 1999 when United won the Champions League and the treble in such nail-biting fashion.
Watching footage of the Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers reserves fixture at Gigg Lane, Bury in April 1994, it’s clear that the game is as searing as any first-team encounter. The speed of the young United upstarts is apparent (they won the game 3-0) and the 18-year-old Thornley, playing No.11, is as energetic as a springer spaniel, with probing moves and jet-fast manoeuvring.
He shifts diagonally towards the left wing when, in his path, appears the 6’1” Devonian defender Nicky Marker. It’s a cynical lunge and Thornley collapses to the ground with leg straight, clasping his knee. Players could hear the injury as it happened. It was game over – and at that stage possibly career over too.
We catch up with Ben Thornley and his co-writer Dan Poole about their new book and why this story of a player’s struggle is every bit as gripping as one of all-out success.
Ben Thornley, at home:
BIC: Which shirt are you wearing on the cover of your new book.
Ben Thornley: That was our Class of 92 shirt. And that isn’t superimposed – I’m actually at Old Trafford. They were very good to let me use it and let me have a picture in the shirt. With Manchester United, it can be a bit political.
How did you get on with your co-writer Dan Poole while putting the book together? What was he like to work with?
Brilliant. It was him that convinced me to do the book. He wanted an autograph at Euston station [for a project Poole’s working on] – I was one of the few autographs that was missing. He must have had some light switched on and he said, “I think you’ve got a unique, interesting story.” I wasn’t really that bothered, I’ll be honest with you. The more he spoke to me, and the angle he wanted to approach it from, I said, “OK, let’s give it a whirl.” I didn’t think it was ever going to get off the ground because it took so long for him to convince a publisher to take it on. Eventually, he found one, Pitch Publishing, and the project started around this time last year.
Dan was saying that David Beckham tweeted about the book and it got something like 207,000 likes.
It was Instagram, actually. He’s got just over 50 million followers. It’s crazy. It definitely exceeded a quarter of a million likes. Gary Neville rang me on Sunday morning. He’s going to put it on his social media. He said he’s having a bit of a nightmare. Like me, he’s had delivery of the new iPhone and he’s in-between changing everything over. But David has already done it, and Robbie Savage has on his Instagram account as well. Unfortunately, Giggsy’s not on it.
Did working on the book bring back a lot of memories that you’d forgotten about?
Absolutely. Not just the people I was involved with at the club, but going back to when I was playing youth football for school, for Salford Boys, for the county, for England schoolboys. I was speaking to a few people who were my coaches and they gave me some memories that I’d completely forgotten. Being away in America with Salford Boys in 1989 or ’90 – we ended up getting lost somewhere, following my directions. Why they put me in charge of directing a bus through Los Angeles, I’ll never know. We ended up in The Ville, sort of a gangland place. I didn’t remember that but my joint managers remembered it vividly. Things like that come back to you.
Was it difficult to re-live the moment of your injury when writing the book?
No, not really. There came a time in my life where I needed to blank it out. In fairness, I had a lot of help through my friends and my family, right the way up to Sir Alex Ferguson. Jonathan Noble was my surgeon. In the book, he describes Sir Alex as acting like a “concerned uncle”. I had a lot of incredible help and I was in the right place to get that help. Over a period of time, I needed to make sure that I didn’t dwell on it because it would have taken me under and that’s not what I wanted – that’s not the type of person I am.
Most autobiographies of Manchester United players are non-stop success, but you’ve got a different story to tell.
I understand where you’re coming from. The opposite to success is failure. I did fail, in inverted commas, at Manchester United because I didn’t play 300 or 400 games. But all the lads who played an incredible amount of games and who won so much, this is their take on events too. Yes, I did fail at Manchester United, there’s no question, but there is a reason. If the injury hadn’t happened, then all these people – Beckham, Giggs, all these lads – said I would have been there with them.
Some believe you would have been in the treble-winning side of 1999, because you were that good.
I’d like to think that would have been the case. You can’t know, but I showed promise. The lads were all in that amazing winning side. There’s no reason to believe that barring anything ridiculous happening to me, then there’s every chance I would have been with them. That would have been fantastic. But I try not to dwell on that. I knew it was never going to be the case a long time before 1999. One thing that I never lose sight of is that I’m immensely proud of the lads that went on and did that, and whatever else they did. They were always going to achieve that, despite what happened to me.
That Champions League Final of 1999 was some game, wasn’t it?
I was there! My season at Huddersfield had finished and I’d gone on holiday with my girlfriend to Malta. They’ve got a huge Manchester United supporters’ club there. They said, “Listen, do you want to come to the Final?” We flew from Malta to Barcelona, went to the party and then came back at 7am. It was a great visit.
It sounds like you’re still in touch with a lot of the old players.
There’s nothing to say on a weekly or monthly basis. I’m not on the phone just to see how they’re doing because I know they’re all busy guys. But at times like this, I know I can call on them. I’ve got numbers in my phone, ranging from Sir Alex Ferguson down to lads who came through behind me. I’m proud of that. I have a vast number of contacts in my phone. I’m proud of the relations I’ve managed to keep with so many of them.
Have you spoken to Nicky Marker since your injury?
No. I played against him the following season in a reserve match but not directly. When I did my injury he was playing as a full-back. He played as a centre-half in the next match and we didn’t come into contact. I certainly didn’t shake his hand at the end. I don’t wish him any harm or any malice.
He was a tough player.
I wasn’t willing to shake his hand. What is a fact is that if he hadn’t tackled me the way he did, then basically my life would have turned out differently.
You went on to have a decent career in the game. You played hundreds of matches.
First and foremost, I’m grateful to the job that the surgeon, the physios and the manager did with me when I was recuperating and rehabilitating. If it wasn’t for the brilliant work that they all did, then I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I played my part as well. I worked hard to make sure I got myself back to playing. When I think, I played at Huddersfield and Blackpool, who’ve both been in the Premier League, and at Aberdeen as well. We finished third at Aberdeen and qualified for Europe. It’s not as if I struggled through playing at League Two level or Conference level. I did play with some very decent clubs.
You played in the Non-League when you got older. Is that because you had such a love of playing and just wanted to keep going?
Ironically, I dropped out of the League when I had offers to stay in it. I was starting to fall out of love with the game. It was getting into the Non-League scene, where it wasn’t quite as intense but it was still competitive, that I started to enjoy it again – and I wanted to continue for as long as I possibly could. Y’know, I’ve got my various ailments now at 43 but I’m still capable of playing in veterans’ games through 90 minutes.
Your surgeon said your knee injury was one of the worst he’d ever seen.
He’s quoted on record as saying it was in the top-three worst knee injuries he’s ever seen, yes. It actually made his job easier, would you believe, because he could start again from scratch. [Laughs] There was nothing left intact when he opened my knee up. He did a hell of a job repairing it.
Do you keep yourself in shape?
I do my best. Ever since my injury, from someone that was always very lean, I put on weight, there’s no question about it. I’m not prepared at this moment in time to stop battling against that. I want to keep myself fit. I was up at 7am running for two hours. I did the London Marathon in April, which was a real good goal. It was an aim and an achievement. I’m not the fittest person in the world but I’ve not let myself go.
Did you never fancy management?
I did some coaching badges but I always felt the route for me to stay in football was to be on the media side. A lot what I do now is centred around MUTV, the first team, home and away, and the under-23s. That’s what I really enjoy. I still do the hospitality as well on matchdays at Old Trafford. It keeps me busy.
Whose book will yours be next to in the sports autobiography section? T-h-o… Maybe Cliff Thorburn if he’s got a book out.
Ha-ha-ha! I know that Peter Crouch has got one out. Michael Carrick is on the verge of bringing one out, too. There’s always going to be people at this time of year bringing books out. Where everyone else is in the public eye, that’s not going to be the case with me. I’m hoping that with the amount of people who’ve contributed to the book, there’ll be a certain curiosity there.
Dan Poole, writer, The Metropolitan Bar, Baker Street, London:
BIC: How come you are a Manchester United supporter?
Dan Poole: I asked my dad who he supports. He said, “Man United.” He hasn’t got a particularly good reason to support them either. He was born in 1952, so he got caught up in the whole Busby Babes thing. I’ve supported them since 1993.
How old were you in 1993?
Eleven. My room – the posters were wallpaper basically. Ben [Thornley] must have been on there. I can’t remember but he must have been. I used to buy Glory Glory Man United and Manchester United magazine for their pull-out posters. Regardless of who it was, it would end up on my wall.
Do you have a favourite Manchester United football kit?
My favourite was the one Ben wore on his debut against West Ham. The black one. Sharp Viewcam. And that’s also Ben’s favourite kit.
Was it a strict deadline writing the book?
It worked out at nine months. We went from October 2017. We did the first chapter; when you’re pitching an idea, you need to be able to show them something. Once we had that, I was sending it out to publishers.
I’d have thought that was a tough deadline without having a daytime job – and I know your daytime job as chief sub-editor at Monocle magazine is time-consuming.
Well, I spoke to someone else whose day job is ghostwriter. She’s had to do one in three months before. If I was just sitting down and talking to Ben all the time, that would have made it a lot easier, but I was interviewing 49 other people in addition to Ben.
Where were you finding the time to write and transcribe?
My wake up was 3am. I tried to get to bed at 10pm. I was writing from 3am till 6am, then into work. Lunchtime; work for an hour. And then I’d try and do some in the evening. It was intense.
Did you ever see Ben Thornley play?
I did. Do you remember David Busst, the Coventry City player who got that awful injury against Man United? I didn’t go to that game but I went to his testimonial. I lived in Coventry. His testimonial game was at Highfield Road in 1998. Ben came on as a sub in a game that also happened to be Cantona’s last ever game for United. That was a Wednesday and he announced his retirement the following weekend. And he scored twice. And Gazza played in that game as well for Coventry. There’s a bit in the book that’s very funny where Ben meets Gazza a couple of months later in Barbados and it was only because of that testimonial game that Gazza knew him from Adam. They ended up having a two-and-a-half-hour chat.
Do you think that Ben could have reached the heights?
It has to be speculation. Based on how he was playing, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been in that first team along with everyone else. It was a very hard team to get into. By the time it got to 1995, Andrei Kanchelskis had gone, Keith Gillespie had gone, Lee Sharpe had gone. Ben was two-footed. He could play on either wing. All of a sudden, the wing positions had been freed up.
So he was in the running to get into the ultimate Manchester United team…
He was. The game he got injured in, the reserve game, Ferguson had told him beforehand, “Look, go out there and express yourself because it looks like Giggs might be injured for the FA Cup Semi-Final at Oldham at Wembley, and if he’s injured, you’re in, you’re starting.” Nicky Butt ended up being on the bench for that because Giggs played. But that wouldn’t have been Nicky Butt, it would have been Ben Thornley.
Did you get some insights into Sir Alex Ferguson’s management methods?
Ben’s got nothing but good stuff to say about him. He saw him tear strips off people but he never really got on the end of it. There’s a story of Ferguson absolutely laying into Nicky Butt. Ben was sat next to him and had never seen anything like it. It was because of a misplaced pass in a game in Europe. He decided it was Nicky Butt’s fault and he absolutely destroyed him. There was also an incident where he laid into his own son, when they’d been playing in a reserve game. Alex Ferguson walked in on Darren Ferguson having a go at Gary Neville and he saw that and said, “How can you dare have a go at him, a young man who’s trying to make his way in the game!” The rest of the post-match analysis was him having a go at his son, to the point of Ben thinking, “Can we get Cathy Ferguson [Sir Alex’s wife] in here?”
How do you think Ben dealt with the injury?
His brother said he was a much less happy person afterwards. Gary Neville mentions how he changed. Gary saw a lot of him – he was engaged to Ben’s sister and was with her for nearly ten years. Ben wouldn’t go as far as saying he was depressed, but it had a significant impact on his personality. He doesn’t think about Nicky Marker any more. He says, “What can I do?” He’s thankful to have had a career at least. If you look at someone like Paul Lake for Man City, that was him gone. At least Ben got to play again.
Nicky Marker was a proper British hard-man defender.
He was. Ben’s take on it is that Nicky Marker didn’t go in deliberately to do the amount of damage he did, but he knew full well what he was doing. It was one of the worst injuries his surgeon had ever seen. It was a reckless challenge by a 29-year-old on an 18-year-old who was giving him the runaround. That’s what it boils down to. You could get away with it more then than you can now.
You interviewed some of the Manchester United greats for this book.
I got to meet Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. Gary Neville was very intense. He’s everything you want Gary Neville to be in terms of just dominating the conversation. Ben says he was always like that, from the time he first knew him from the age of 17. In the same meeting, I met Giggs. He was lovely, awesome and just laidback. I spoke to Beckham on the phone and he was absolutely lovely and friendly. But it helps that I was talking to them about a mate from back in the day. I’m doing something for their mate and that helped.
Sport autobiographies are rarely regarded as literary classics, yet there are some superbly written books out there. Malcolm Allison’s Colours Of My Life is wonderful if you can find it.
Roy Keane’s is really good. He’s done two of them. He did his second one with Roddy Doyle. That’s really well written. Sport autobiographies – I can’t get enough of them. Andre Agassi’s is really good – it’s brilliant. And Marcus Trescothick’s. Brian Moore’s is good, too, the England hooker. I’m hoping people think this one’s quite good. I know what I like in a sports autobiography – and I think it helps that Ben isn’t David Beckham. He can be a bit more free and easy with what he says and doesn’t have to constantly watch his words.
Ben Thornley’s story is an alternative to the usual account of trophies and medals.
And you’ve got all the people in that story. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham – and they’re all saying how good Ben was. He’s got people vouching for him and that makes a massive difference.
Would you do another autobiography?
There’s two Class of 92 players, if I can convince them. The trouble is, if someone hasn’t done an autobiography, you think they probably don’t want to do one. Nicky Butt has never done one. He’ll have an interesting story. And Paul Scholes has an autobiography but it’s picture-led, with him giving little comments. There’s a story to tell with Scholes.
Are you now going to have a two-week holiday?
I took time off to write the bloody book!
Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole is out now.