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 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 matchday 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 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 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.”’
Most of the players featured in this book speak of moments when their fate hung in the balance of decisions 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. The 1998 movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah, played with the theme of life-altering happenstance by depicting alternate universes affected irrevocably by whether or not the protagonist catches a train, and has since become synonymous with such scenarios. Thornley recalls his Sliding Doors moment, when he was asked whether he wanted to be substituted minutes before suffering the injury that redefined his career path.
‘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. A challenge by a Blackburn defender obliterated the United youngster’s knee and hamstring.
‘I was 18 and he was 29 at the time,’ Thornley explains. ‘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 1991], it was one of the worst ones he’d ever seen.’
The dream was put on hold. By the mid-90s, 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.