It was a long-forgotten reserve match on a wet Wednesday night in April 1994 when Manchester United reserves beat Blackburn 3-0 but Ben Thornley remembers every moment as vividly as if the final whistle has just been blown. It was, after all, the game that changed his life forever.
It’s the reason why the average fan, however devoted, might be forgiven for not even knowing the name of the man who, had circumstances not conspired so cruelly against him, might well now be a football legend.
Everyone knows about United’s fabled “Class of 92” which won the FA youth cup that year - the Neville brothers, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and Beckham. What most people don’t know is that Thornley was also in that elite band and regarded by Sir Matt Busby, no less, as potentially the best of the lot.
Nobby Stiles, in charge of United’s B team, went even further. He told anyone who would listen: “Ben is the closest I’ve seen to George Best in my time at the club.” Alex Ferguson regarded him as a future England star.
All of which made all the more poignant the events on that wet Wednesday night nearly 25 years ago when Thornley’s future was snatched away in the blink of an eye. He was just 18.
The Class of ‘92 are still his friends and he gets comfort from that.
“I don’t know if I would have made their level,” he says now. “But I know I would have been given the chance.”
Now Thornley has recalled those life-changing moments in a revealing and reflective autobiography appropriately called Tackle.
He recalls that after making his first team debut as a left-winger against West Ham at 18, he was due to play in the 1994 FA Cup semi-final against Oldham. To give him match practice before the game, manager Alex Ferguson included Thornley in the reserve side against Blackburn, played at Bury, and his fate as one of the game’s tragic heroes was sealed.
“We were 3-0 up. I had scored two and made the other one,” Thornley remembers. “The coach, Jimmy Ryan, asked if I wanted to be substituted but I was having a great time and was still hoping for a hattrick. Why would I come off? I was enjoying myself too much.
“It was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life.” Five minutes later, disaster struck. In a fierce challenge with Blackburn fullback Nicky Marker, Thornley’s knee and hamstring were demolished with a snapping sound that could be heard around the ground, leaving him writhing on the turf.
He remembers: “My first reaction was to reach for my knee and I fell to the floor holding it together. While I was lying in the treatment room it suddenly dawned on me that this could be it.”
Looking back on a terrible time, Thornley says: “The medical team knew straight away they had to get me to hospital. They had heard it and seen it and knew it was bad.”
It was. In fact surgeon Jonathan Noble, who hurried to the hospital from a dinner-party, said it was one of the worst knee injuries he had seen. Alex Ferguson, watching from the stand, was so outraged that he would insist that club and player take legal action against Blackburn and Markham. The case was settled five years later.
Noble found that Thornley’s medial collateral ligament and medial capsule were completely ruptured, as were both cruciate ligaments. He also had a torn hamstring.
Looking back on the long road to recovery, Thornley says: “Fortunately, around the time I got injured, rehabilitation for cruciates was starting to improve. Ten years earlier it would have been a lot different.”
But they were still dark days. “All the lads were back for pre-season training and I was stuck in the gym. It got you mentally, not just physically. There are weeks when you think: ‘I’m not far away’ then days later you can’t do anything.
“It was hard to stay positive but I couldn’t have been in a better place than United or had better mates than the ‘Class of 92’. I was included in everything, from games of snooker to going for something to eat or the cinema. I would always get asked and that helped a lot.”
It was over a year before Thornley’s knee had recovered enough to allow him to play again and he knew in his heart that although only 19, he would never be quite the player he was.
“The injury didn’t change the way I played the game but it changed my outlook. I didn’t have the same speed, and I was nervous when I was going to be tackled.
“My injury was so bad that no matter what I did there was no way that my knee was going to be 100 per cent.” It wasn’t the end of his career but it was the end of what could have been. He spent nearly four more years on the fringes of the United team, making eight senior appearances but realised he was no longer a major figure in Ferguson’s plans.
He has remembered the interview in which he asked Ferguson to be allowed to leave. He told the legendary manager how grateful he was for his help and support and would try to repay him by showing he could be a professional footballer in another squad “which isn’t going to happen here on a regular basis. “He stood up, shook my hand and said ‘You’re right, son’ and that was it.”
In 1998, Thornley moved to Huddersfield for £275,000 and left for Aberdeen three years later when Huddersfield were relegated to the Second Division, followed by 13 appearances for Blackpool and a gradual progression down the leagues…Halifax, Bacup, Salford City, Witton Albion.
Thornley says he didn’t go into non-league football because he wanted an easy life. “I trained and played as hard as I had in league football. I just didn’t have the motivation and confidence.
“There’s nothing worse than being a professional athlete who has relied on their pace, only to find that you haven’t got it any more. Obviously it happens to every footballer who plays into their mid-thirties but it doesn’t stop it being incredibly disconcerting when it happens to you.”
But the Class of 92 haven’t forgotten what a player he was. “Ben would have outdone all of us,” David Beckham says. “He had everything.” Nicky Butt believes Thornley could have solved England’s left wing problems for many years and Gary Neville says he was “one of the most outstanding talents I ever played with.”
Paul Scholes assesses Thornley as “a step above all of us. He could do everything.”
Thornley finally retired as a professional in 2008 at 33 and became manager of a Chinese restaurant but couldn’t forget football. Today he is back at Old Trafford, involved in hospitality and as a pundit on United’s in-house TV and radio stations and plays with other ex-pros in veterans’ celebrity games.
“I’ll always be grateful for being able to play football the way I played it. And here I am at 43 still playing and having crossed the finish line in the London Marathon this year. It could be worse…”
*Tackled. The Class of 92 star Who Never Got To Graduate by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole. Pitch Publishing.