From better than Giggs to ‘drinking and drinking’: how Ben Thornley battled back

David Hytner on 10 October 2018

It was a Sunday get-together that featured Manchester United royalty. Sir Matt Busby was there and so was Nobby Stiles, among others. It was the early 1990s; the venue a wine bar in Sale, and the question was for Stiles, then in charge of the B team at Old Trafford. Who was the best up-and-coming youngster at the club?

Stiles did not hesitate. “Ben Thornley,” he replied. What, even including Ryan Giggs? “Ben is the closest I’ve seen to George Best in all my time at the club,” Stiles said. Busby did not bat an eyelid.

Thornley smiles. “Crazy, absolutely crazy,” he says. “There are very few footballers that have ever lived that would measure up to George Best and so to be compared to him, at whatever level, by somebody who has been a World Cup winner – well, you can’t ask for more than that.”

Thornley was the Salford boy who lived the dream. Taken on to United’s books at 14, the winger made his first-team debut as a substitute at West Ham when he was 18 and he was in line to feature in the 1994 FA Cup semi-final against Oldham. Then, in practically the blink of an eye, it was snatched away from him.

Playing for the reserves against Blackburn Rovers, he was the victim of a dreadful tackle from Nicky Marker, then a 28-year-old professional. It would be quicker to say which parts of Thornley’s knee were not in tatters. The medial collateral ligament was completely ruptured and so was the medial capsule. Both cruciate ligaments were ruptured while the medial meniscus was detached and the hamstring attachment partially torn.

Rob Swire, the United physiotherapist at the time, says it was the worst knee injury he saw in 30 years. Sir Alex Ferguson, who was in the stands that night, was outraged and he insisted that Thornley, backed by United, pursue a civil action against Marker and Blackburn. After five years, he would secure a pay-out.

The story of the wonderkid who fails to fulfil his potential for whatever reason is an old one, if invariably sad. Yet Thornley’s has come to resonate more deeply because of his time and place. Everybody knows about United’s Class of 92, the band of brothers who won the FA Youth Cup that year – the club’s first success in the tournament since 1964 – to launch stellar careers. But not everyone knows that Thornley was the best of the lot of them.

“Ben would have outdone us all – that’s the sad part,” David Beckham says. “Without a doubt, he would have been one of the best for United and England.” Paul Scholes describes Thornley as “a step above all of us, he could do everything”, while Gary Neville says he was “one of the most outstanding talents I ever played with”.

Ben Thornley, back row far left, celebrates Manchester United’s FA Youth Cup win of 1992 with, among others, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.
Ben Thornley, back row far left, celebrates Manchester United’s FA Youth Cup win of 1992 with, among others, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Thornley fought back after surgery and it is a testament to his ability and determination that he made 13 further appearances for United between 1995 and 1998. But he had to adjust to a new reality, one in which his best level was not as high, and his career as a full-time professional would end in November 2003 as a 28-year-old, after spells at Huddersfield, Aberdeen, Blackpool and Bury. He went on to play with Halifax, Bacup Borough, Salford City and Witton Albion.

Meanwhile, he had to watch as his friends from United hit the heights. Thornley was closest to Gary Neville and Beckham but he was, and is, held in great esteem by all of the gang, including Giggs, Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville. The admiration is stamped across the pages of his soon-to-be-released autobiography.

One of the things that shines through in Thornley is the absence of jealousy. “I am immensely proud of everything that they all went on to achieve and that extends beyond the lads that we know as the Class of 92 – to people like Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage, Chris Casper and John O’Kane,” Thornley says. “Despite what happened to me, they were always going to make that level. I don’t know if I would have done but I know for a fact I would have been given the opportunity to try.”

Thornley’s book is loaded with poignant moments but there is one that stands out. In the 65th minute of the reserve game against Blackburn the United coach, Jim Ryan – mindful of the looming FA Cup semi-final – asks Thornley whether he is OK to carry on. “Yeah, Jim, I’m fine,” he replies. Five minutes later, Marker jumps into his knee.

What if Thornley had gone off? It is a haunting question. “People have always asked me that,” Thornley says. “It’s probably the worst decision that I’ve ever made in my life and something that completely changed my life.”

Thornley is at peace, these days, with how his elite-level career was destroyed. But it has been a process, a struggle at times, and one line from his brother, Rod, who is a masseur at United, hits home strongly. “Ben wasn’t the same person after the injury,” he says. “If I’m brutally honest, since that day, he’s never been as happy as he was before.”

Thornley pauses. “He’s probably got a point,” he says. “My brother notices things that only a brother would. Only really in the last four or five years have I come out of that cocoon, if you like.”

Post-United, there were good times on the pitch, namely Thornley’s first seasons at Huddersfield and Aberdeen. But the frustration and, yes, the anger were difficult to suppress. Thornley’s professional focus drifted, which would have been unthinkable before the injury, and he took solace in alcohol.

Ben Thornley, in action for Huddersfield against Blackburn in 1999, tries to get the better of Damien Duff.
Ben Thornley, in action for Huddersfield against Blackburn in 1999, tries to get the better of Damien Duff. Photograph: David Davies/Action Images

“I took it to extremes in my second season at Aberdeen [in 2002-03],” he says. “I lost discipline and that disappoints me. There were times when I got so frustrated. If you’ve ever been in that situation … it can be anything in any walk of life that stifles you – you just need that release valve.”

Thornley hit rock bottom in 2006. He separated from his wife, Claire – the mother of his 14-year-old son, Lucas – in the January and he went on a rampage. “I went from one pub to another, from one woman to another, from one stag do to another – not sleeping, not eating, just drinking and drinking,” Thornley says. “Somebody said: ‘Listen, if you are not careful you are going to kill yourself.’ All of a sudden, after eight or nine months, I just stopped. I said: ‘I can’t continue like this.’”

Thornley has rediscovered a balance in his life, thanks mainly to Lesley, his girlfriend of 10 years, and his work for United’s in-house TV and radio station, MUTV, and in the Old Trafford hospitality suites. Previously, he had worked as a minicab driver, a restaurant manager and a tiler. It was not him.

Talk to anybody who knows Thornley and the same descriptions recur: gobby, snappy, daft, so Salford. His former teammates rib him mercilessly about his crimes against fashion. “You look back at photos and think: ‘What am I wearing?’” Giggs says. “But then you look at Ben and think: ‘At least I didn’t look as bad as that.’”

Above all, Thornley is sparkling company, the type of lad who people want to be around. I grew up on the next street to him and I was always struck by his infectiousness.

Thornley passes unforgiving judgment on his career. “I will always have fallen short of what I thought I could achieve,” he says. On the other hand, he has the tales to tell from a life of rich experience, in which he has made his mark. Not many kids from the old neighbourhood are on first-name terms with Bryan Robson, have seen the Fergie hairdryer and have been out on the pull with Beckham.

“I used to say that something good would come out of my injury one day,” Thornley says. “And that something has been this book. It makes me feel so humble that the guys I grew up with have been willing to vouch for me 20-odd years later; to possibly make people realise that I wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky kid who never made it. No matter how the book does, I will always remember that.”

Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate (Pitch Publishing) by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole is out on Monday 15 October. To buy a copy click here .

Latest football headlines

Latest Football News