BEN Thornley may not have been a central component of the highly-acclaimed Class of 92 film that depicts the graduation of that stellar group of Manchester United footballers, but he still has a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson as a reminder of what might have been.
Like Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, Thornley was part of the United team that won the FA Youth Cup, scoring the opener in a second-leg triumph over Crystal Palace that sealed the trophy for the seventh time.
Twelve months later, he featured alongside Paul Scholes in both matches of a final defeat by Leeds and within 12 months was making his first-team debut at West Ham.
Unlike his illustrious former team-mates, Thornley does not have a stack of medals to reflect on. In terms of silverware, that 1992 FA Youth Cup triumph was as good as it got.
Thornley did make more than 200 appearances as a professional, mostly for Huddersfield and Aberdeen. But his life at United effectively ended within six weeks of that debut at Upton Park when he ruptured cruciate ligaments following a crude challenge by Blackburn’s Nicky Marker in a reserve team game that could easily have led to a place in the Red Devils’ FA Cup semi-final side to face Oldham the following weekend.
“The injury was a killer,” said Thornley. “I wasn’t envious or jealous of the other lads. I knew I was in a profession where injuries do happen.
“I actually feel quite proud of what I did achieve. I was only 18. It would have been quite easy to say this was too hard and give up. But the knee surgeon, Jonathan Noble, gave me an incredible chance to overcome a career-threatening injury. I realised very soon afterwards it was not going to be at Old Trafford but I still felt I could make my mark at a lower level.”
With patience and a fierce determination, Thornley did just that. However, it was four years before the umbilical cord to United was severed, the pain-staking recovery followed by spells on loan at Stockport and Huddersfield before his move to the Terriers became permanent and he left behind the lads he grew up with, whom were destined to become Champions League winners within a year.
“I had to decide whether to have the prestige of being at United but only ever playing in the reserves or in cup games when the manager has left all the main players out, or be a professional footballer in my own right,” Thornley said.
“The manager was brilliant about it. He understood completely. I still have a letter from him saying how sorry he was that the injury had happened. He wished me all the best and said if there was anything he could do for me in the future he would only be too happy to help.”
After leaving Aberdeen in 2002, Thornley had short spells at a number of lower-league clubs, drifting into non-league before retiring in 2010.
He remained in touch with events at Old Trafford through brother Rod, a masseur at both United and England, and, though now based in the south of England, is a regular sight on match days, either on the corporate side or working as a co-commentator for MUTV.
While it has not been plain sailing for his old club in David Moyes’ first season in charge, Thornley remains optimistic.
“People who say the title is out of reach are forgetting that not so long ago Arsenal came back on us from 12 points behind,” he said. “I played in the game when Marc Overmars scored for 1-0 to complete that turnaround. If it can happen then, it can do so again. It can’t all be doom and gloom. We scored five at Bayer Leverkusen, so we must be doing something right.
“There are one or two players who are perhaps not performing to their capabilities but I am sure, like any Manchester United team of days gone by, it will all come good and they will be in the shake-up at the end.”