Thursday, May 10, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: May 9, 5:34 PM UK
Mickey Thomas: Counterfeit Best
"People should remember me, the amount of trouble I caused" - Mickey Thomas, 2002
A skilful and pacy winger in his early days at Wrexham, Mickey Thomas later played for some of the biggest clubs in England, but rarely did he stay for long. Upon his arrival at Manchester United, he was dubbed the 'Welsh George Best' although, as the Northern Irish Best said, the manner in which he lived up to his name owed mostly to a "pattern of drinking, missing training and overseas jaunts".
Born in Mochdre in North Wales in July 1954, Thomas grew up on a council estate. "My life has had some highs and lows," he told the Daily Telegraph in 2008. "I was a kid growing up on a rough council estate, we didn't have much money and I was thick. I couldn't spell - even my own name - so writing off for trials was hard." Nonetheless, he was able to secure a contract with Wrexham, then in the English Fourth Division, at the age of 15. At 17, in the 1971-72 season, manager John Neal handed him his debut.
Wrexham by this time were in the Third Division, and with Thomas as their midfield inspiration they would punch well above their weight in the coming years. Success in the 1972 Welsh Cup saw the young Thomas taking part in the Cup Winners' Cup the following season, including a 3-1 home win over Hajduk Split. In the 1973-74 campaign, Wrexham reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, knocking out top-flight Southampton along the way. In 1975-76, following another Welsh Cup victory, they beat Djurgardens and Stal Rzeszow to reach the Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals, where they took on Anderlecht. After a 1-0 defeat in the first leg in Belgium, Wrexham drew 1-1 in the second leg in Wales; Thomas had been ruled out of that game through injury and the Daily Mirror felt the 21-year-old had been "badly missed".
In September 1976, Thomas scored twice in a 3-2 League Cup third round victory at Tottenham, which prompted manager John Neal to say: "This surpasses anything Wrexham have ever achieved. We've put up some remarkable performances both here and in Europe over the last couple of years, but I've never been more proud of the lads." A couple of weeks later, Thomas received his first international cap, performing well in a 2-0 defeat to world champions West Germany. "Everything seems to be going for me," he said.
Wrexham were finally promoted to the Second Division as champions in the 1977-78 season, and Thomas finally made his big move: Manchester United, under manager Dave Sexton, paid £300,000 to sign him as a replacement for Gordon Hill.
He struggled to live up to expectations, and it took him 15 matches before he opened his account in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in March 1979, but there were bright spots. He helped United to the FA Cup final in his first year, setting up Jimmy Greenhoff's winner in the semi-final replay against Liverpool before playing in the dramatic 3-2 defeat to Arsenal at Wembley. In his second year, United finished second, two points behind Liverpool, with Thomas making 35 appearances and scoring eight goals. In May 1980, he scored Wales' first in their 4-1 victory over England in Wrexham.
Yet he was never able to cope with the spotlight. He had long suffered with pressure - as early as August 1973, when he had inspired Wrexham's 2-0 victory over Walsall, he had walked out on his club. At Old Trafford, it was inevitably a more significant problem. "I was always nervous," he told the Telegraph. "I felt it difficult to combat the pressure of playing at home, in front of 58,000-plus." He found a coping mechanism: Thomas revealed in the 1996 book The Lad Done Bad that he "used to get pissed on a Friday so I could still be pissed on a Saturday so I could play". He said in 2002 that the boozing "didn't affect my performance as I was so fit", but United fans may have disagreed.
Following Sexton's dismissal in April 1981, Thomas asked the chairman for a transfer. "Just before Ron Atkinson took over, I said to Martin Edwards I wanted a transfer because I couldn't handle the pressure. Ron was very difficult to have a conversation with - he was on the sunbed at the time," he joked.
He joined Everton - the club he supported as a boy - but lasted only three months under Howard Kendall after refusing to play in the reserves. "Normally I'd say I wouldn't change a thing in my life, but I'd change that because Everton were my first love," he told the Express in 1992.
He secured a £500,000 move to fellow top-flight side Brighton, but it was a disaster from the off. "Half an hour after I signed, I was back in my hotel and I thought, 'F**k me. What have I done here?'," he later recalled. He had not realised how far Sussex was from Wales, and by March 1982 - having criticised the club's tactics and said the move was threatening his marriage - he had been placed on the transfer list after going AWOL for the third time. "I gave him a lot of problems," he told the Guardian in 1984 of Brighton boss Mike Bailey. "I felt sorry for him but he had no contract there and I think the way he wanted me to play was because he was trying to save his job."
He moved to Stoke that summer for £200,000 and was named the club's player of the year in the 1982-83 season, but in December 1983 requested a transfer. Chelsea, then in Division Two and under the management of John Neal, made a £75,000 bid and Thomas jumped at the opportunity of working under his mentor at Wrexham. The deal went through in January 1984, though he was perhaps fortunate that it did. In a story recounted in George Best's Scoring at Half-Time, Thomas was signing the deal at Chelsea alongside chairman Ken Bates when he saw an attractive lady walking past. "I wouldn't mind giving her one," Thomas said. "That's my daughter-in-law," Bates replied.
On the night of his home debut - a top-of-the-table clash with Sheffield Wednesday that Thomas described as his "most important club game" since the 1979 cup final - he suffered a panic attack. He took pills and had a massage to relax ahead of the game, and rewarded Neal's faith with two goals in a 3-2 win that sent Chelsea to the top of the table. Wednesday boss Howard Wilkinson offered a backhanded compliment in response: "When Thomas gets his tail up and likes a manager for a couple of months, he's a good player."
Thomas helped Chelsea to promotion as champions that season, even if he was still struggling with the commute from Wales. "I was so happy when Michael Ballack said he couldn't afford to live in London, and he's on £120,000 a week," he later said. "Now people can understand why I couldn't afford it on £500 a week. I'd stay in a hostel for homeless people - cost me a tenner - or I'd drive to the Bridge from the training ground at Harlington, get the key off a groundsman and stay in the ground. I'd sometimes have a kickabout on the pitch, then I'd sleep in the referee's room, or in the dressing room. I wasn't on my own - I had some female companions."
Chelsea finished sixth in the top-flight in 1984-85, and Thomas had his moments, particularly when he exacted revenge on Howard Wilkinson with the winning goal in a League Cup fifth-round replay against Wednesday in February 1985. "I have waited a long time to get my own back and that goal said it all," he said afterwards. "I have always resented him for it."
When Neal retired at the end of the season due to ill health, he was replaced by John Hollins, who - in Thomas' words - "took over, dismantled it, wanted to do it in his way". In other words, Thomas would not be able to pick and choose when he would drive in from Wales to attend training. Having turned 31 that summer, Thomas would be on the move again. He joined West Brom for £100,000 in September but, following a debut in which he had given away a penalty for handball in a 3-0 defeat to Coventry, manager Johnny Giles resigned. He spent some time on loan at Derby County before moving to Major Indoor Soccer League side Wichita Wings in a £35,000 deal the following summer.
He returned to the UK in 1988 after two years in the US to play for Division Two side Shrewsbury and, while they were relegated in his first year, Thomas did enough to secure a move at the end of the season; remarkably, it was Howard Wilkinson - by this stage in charge of Division Two promotion hopefuls Leeds United - who snapped him up for £10,000 after a recommendation from Dave Sexton. "He said I was one of the best signings he made at Manchester United and always gave him everything," Thomas said that summer.
Although Leeds were promoted that year, Thomas made just three appearances due to a succession of injury problems - "It was a disappointment at my age when time was against me," he later told the Yorkshire Evening Post - and though he was able to resume playing in the 1990-91 season with Stoke in the Third Division, he was released at the end of the campaign.
Without a club but seeking to prolong his career, the 37-year-old asked Wrexham manager Brian Flynn for a trial. He did enough to secure a move back to his first club, and though they were now in the Fourth Division, the glory of the FA Cup was to return. After victories over Winsford United and Telford, Wrexham booked a third-round tie at home to English champions Arsenal at the Racecourse Ground. Thomas, interviewed in the Daily Express ahead of the match, eyed his chance for glory. "In footballing terms I would like to go out with a bang," he said, "to be remembered as a good player and not just a crazy guy."
The match provided his defining moment as a player, Thomas firing a stunning 25-yard free-kick past David Seaman to equalise with only eight minutes left. Steve Watkin scored Wrexham's winner but, after the match, all the talk was focused on the veteran. "He trains when he wants to train," Flynn said. "I don't see him too often. He rings me and says, 'When do you want me in?' and I say to him, 'When can you come in?' Mickey is Mickey. I have known him since we played in the Welsh side and he's not changed over the years. He is folklore in Wales. If he was ten years younger, I'd be able to sell him for £5 million." Thomas put his longevity down to alcohol: "I always have two pints of Guinness on a Friday, sometimes more. It gives me energy. I feel stronger and I believe in it."
His moment of glory was swiftly overshadowed: less than two weeks after his goal, Thomas was arrested for passing 25 counterfeit £10 notes. Although banned from training with the his team-mates, he continued to play for Wrexham - including appearances in the FA Cup fourth-round games against West Ham - but in August there was more trouble. Thomas, following a messy divorce, was lured to have sex with his former brother-in-law's wife in a field, where he was set upon by two men, one of whom his former brother-in-law, and attacked with a hammer and a screwdriver. He suffered 15 stab wounds and a fractured jawbone and cheekbone. He feigned unconsciousness to halt the attack, but they continued, though thankfully stopped before he was killed.
Thomas remained on Wrexham's books for the promotion-winning 1992-93 campaign before being released ahead of his courtroom appearance. In July 1993, he was found guilty of passing £800 in counterfeit notes to apprentices at Wrexham, and later sentenced to 18 months in prison, with the judge suggesting he had a "self image as a flash and daring adventurer". The same month, his attackers were sentenced to two years in prison, while his former brother-in-law's wife was given community service for acting, as the judge put it, as "bait".
He found prison a chastening experience, but grew stronger from it, and benefited from his celebrity status. "In the holding pen at Walton, there was this big guy, kicking this tray around," he told the Telegraph. "He tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'You that footballer?' 'Yes'. 'If anybody touches you, I'll kill them.' Great. I had somebody to look after me. He was in for violence - I could tell by the way he was kicking the tray around - but he looked after me." He managed to make the most of his time in prison. "I got plenty of Guinness regularly, I had the best food, I had my own car there and I got home quite often. I can have a good laugh at the criminal justice system now because they took the piss out of me and I took the piss out of them."
Thomas emerged from his incarceration with little money and little prospect of prolonging his professional career. However, he managed to sign up with Inter Cardiff, who in August 1994 were looking to boost their UEFA Cup hopes against GKS Katowice; Thomas, though, failed to arrive at the airport for the game and left the club. He subsequently worked as player-manager of Port Madoc, and was then able to build a new career for himself as a broadcaster.
The events of the early 1990s ensured Thomas left an impression both of a good footballer and a crazy guy, though it would seem he would simply have been happy to have spent his life outside the spotlight. "I love the game, but I just wanted to play on Saturday for a local team in North Wales where there was no pressure," he said in 1996. "I didn't like the big-time. A lot of times in my career I just wanted to pack up. I just wanted to enjoy myself."