Ben Thornley heard the noise, so did the rest of Manchester United’s reserves, even those at the other end of the pitch, and his family watching from the stands. It was the sound of his top-level career ending just as it was about to get going, as his knee was torn apart by a tackle from Blackburn’s Nicky Marker. Thornley was widely regarded as the pick of the “Class of 92”, better than Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the rest. A dynamic, ball-playing, goalscoring left-winger, the word in Manchester was that he had all the attributes to be a future Manchester United and England star. As his sister Hannah says: “The thing I remember most, is that as soon as Ben got the ball there would be a collective intake of breath. Everyone would on the edge of their seats thinking, ‘Here we go, something’s going to happen now’.”
But because of that tackle in a 1994 reserve game, this is not the story told here. Dan Poole, the co-writer, has chosen to arrange the narrative around what proved to be the two major facets of Thornley’s football career. The various graphically described stages of the prolonged and painful reconstruction and rehabilitation of his knee are skilfully intercut with chapters dealing with his childhood, growing up, starting out at Manchester United and progressing to the fringes of the first team. And Thornley’s voice is not the only one we hear. Comments from a large number of contributors, team-mates, friends and family are used liberally throughout – for example the Youth Cup run of 1991-92 is told primarily through a series of quotations from those directly involved, the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, Giggs, Scholes and Robbie Savage, as well as John O’Kane and George Switzer, while also addressing his questionable taste in big coats, copious body hair and constant high-pitched on-field commentary. This makes for a lively and different read, although the intercutting becomes slightly intrusive when repeated in the second part of the book, switching between the two Youth Cup runs, his later career away from Old Trafford and after retiring.
Thornley comes across as an engaging, funny character who has made many friends, not least Gary Neville, who he initiated into drinking Woodpecker. These tried to support him through a downward spiral in his personal life, finding him jobs as a Thai restaurant manager in Ramsbottom and a tiler. A handsome lad with the gift of the gab, he had no trouble attracting women and loved to go out and party. “Boozing, womanising and annihilating” himself became his refuge for a year after his split from his wife in 2006-07.
There is only the odd lairy tale or two of bad behaviour and clearly a reticence about going into too much detail about his psychological problems. Indeed, the book ends positively, Thornley enjoying family life and his current jobs in hospitality at Old Trafford, on MUTV radio and playing in various veterans’ games, although it is not only his leg (one photo shows the 9.5 inch mark left by the surgery) that bears an obvious scar.