‘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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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

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