‘I’m not jealous of Class of 92’s success’
Ben Thornley could have been a United immortal but fate sent his career down a different path
It was not supposed to turn out the way it did for Ben Thornley – drifting down the leagues, lost and eventually descending into a tailspin of despair that, with candour, he characterises as “boozing, womanising and annihilating myself ”. But, then, at just 18 and as 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 and 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”. Paul Scholes insisted he was a “step above all of us, he could do everything”.
Football is littered with hard-luck tales but, reading Thornley’s autobiography and talking to him, his story is tougher to stomach than most. Thornley was the shining light in the side who 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 had achieved immortality seven years later when a smash-andgrab against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final secured an unprecedented treble, Thornley had left the club and was only a spectator.
The moment it went wrong for him was 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 professional, careered through the United winger with catastrophic consequences. The noise was so loud that Chris Casper, a United team-mate who was watching from the stands, assumed a shin guard had snapped but, for the United players on the pitch, they knew that something dreadful had happened.
Thornley had ruptured the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, 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 demolished his dream, the mental toll it took, and the success his contemporaries would achieve, there is no trace of bitterness, just a 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 but I do know that I was part of a talented group of players and Sir Alex would have given me the same treatment, the same opportunities as 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 don’t hold any bitterness, resentment or jealousy towards what my team-mates went on to do.
“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 payout against Marker and Blackburn after Ferguson’s insistence he pursue a civil case but was he ever tempted to seek revenge? “I’m from Salford and there were people who were offering to do that for me but no, not my style,” Thornley says. “I don’t hold any malice but I do hold him responsible.”
It was remarkable that Thornley ever played again. He would go on to make a further 13 appearances for United but it became apparent to him 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. His family had noticed changes to his personality postinjury but it was when he ventured into non-League that his struggles deepened and, by 2006, he hit rock bottom, embarking on drinking binges.
Was that because, deep down, he was consumed by a sense of injustice? “I don’t doubt that for one second,” Thornley says. “I do wish things had been different but the hand I was dealt never allowed that to happen.”
He is happier now than he has been for a long time and is so gregarious and affable that it is easy to understand why he was, and still is, so popular.
Having worked as a minicab 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 has helped to exorcise a few ghosts but he cannot 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 tomorrow.
‘I don’t hold any malice towards Nicky Marker – but I do consider him to blame for the injury’
Lost chance: Ben Thornley today, left; as an aspiring star, bottom left; and (back row, left) with his FA Youth Cup-winning team-mates in 1992