Legendary Fund-Raiser Geoff On What Might Have Been
“Don’t get injured today,” said Kenny Dalglish, no doubt with a well-hidden smile. Two or three hours later, another huge icon of the game said as a parting shot: “See you Monday!” Alan Shearer and newly-promoted Blackburn were eagerly waiting to welcome Geoff Thomas to Ewood Park.
Ten months before Wolves jumped in and pulled off the marquee deal that convinced chairman Jonathan Hayward to proclaim to the football world exactly who they should get their money on for the First Division title, the Crystal Palace and England midfielder was all set to return to his Lancashire roots.
“Palace were in the top division as well, with Steve Coppell in charge, but I was sure I was going to Blackburn,” the player says over coffee alfresco in Kidderminster. He has, surprisingly, stepped out of a car rather than off a bike, although the distance from his home in Worcestershire is a fraction of one of the legs in those marathon cycling tours he has used to help raise millions for charity.
He looks tanned and well and we talk holidays, coastal walks, work, ex-colleagues and fund-raising – but football inevitably tops the agenda, the subject of his arrival at Molineux in the summer of 1993 still managing to pique my interest in particular.
We know all about how close he was to joining Manchester City instead but what happened with Blackburn? That link is much less known.
“I don’t remember talking about this one in interviews before but it was all set to happen,” he adds. “I think the fee was going to be £2.7m and, by coincidence, Palace were at home to Blackburn on the day the Premier League came into being.
“It was a strange thing to be facing them under those circumstances. Kenny made that comment to me before the game and then, afterwards, Alan Shearer, who I knew from Graham Taylor’s England squads, joined me for some TV interviews and made a comment as we went our separate ways about seeing me on the Monday.
“But Ron Noades and Jack Walker couldn’t agree over the fee, partly because my old club, Crewe, were due to get some of the money. So it was called off and Blackburn signed Tim Sherwood instead.”
In a 2-0 win over France at Wembley in February, 1992, Shearer had won the first of his 63 England caps on the night Thomas picked up the last of his nine. They might have shared something else…..the striker’s euphoria two years later in winning what proved the only major club honour of his career could have been felt by the midfielder as well had he joined the Walker-Dalglish revolution.
Thomas had twice been rewarded with player of the year silverware at Selhurst Park and helped the Londoners to promotion to the top flight in 1988-89, ironically through a play-off final win over Blackburn from which he was absent.
But his proudest times still lay just round the corner – leading Palace out for the 1990 FA Cup final against Manchester United and in the replay five nights later. “If only there had been penalties rather than a second game, who knows?” he asks wistfully. “Beating Liverpool 4-3 in the semi-final at Villa Park was an incredible occasion and we were close to repeating it at Wembley. Great memories.”
There was also a third-place finish in what was still the First Division but Palace couldn’t sustain such heights and went down in 1993. Cue a major pursuit of his signature…..
“Wolves and Manchester City were the two clubs most mentioned but Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle were also interested,” he says. “I spoke to Trevor Francis at Wednesday and he warned me, whoever I signed for, that City might be heading for turbulent times as Francis Lee and Peter Swales didn’t get on.
“I think I was still all ready to sign for City…..they were my club when I was growing up after all and Colin Bell was my hero as a lad. But Graham Turner wouldn’t leave me alone!
“We had met for a meal and he kept ringing me and finally asked me to give him one more chance. This time, Billy Wright and Jonathan Hayward came to the meeting as well and they hit me with all the ambitious plans they had….for the stadium and on the pitch.
“I was very impressed and thought Wolves were going to be another Blackburn. And we may well have been promoted if we had had kinder luck with injuries that season.”
Among others, Wolves had to cope for months without the two members of that squad who have picked up MBEs – the man who was going to score many of their goals and the one who would drive them on from midfield with his inspiring leadership in the captain’s armband.
Although Thomas scored in four of his first eight League games for the club, we now know the reality was much less fulfilling. But don’t assume that all the recollections are unhappy ones.
“I had seven years at Palace, so that is the part of my career I look back at most fondly,” he said. “But I loved my time at Wolves as well, although the injuries were dire. It was a tight dressing room when I got there and I very much liked playing for Graham Turner, who was as straight as a die.
“It has been said a lot, though, that the fans would become anxious if we didn’t get ahead in games and some players would find that difficult to handle.”
What with Graham Taylor next in line to try to deliver the elusive big prize, Molineux was knee-deep in GTs but the manager with the initials of M & M left a more bitter taste and Thomas was freed in the summer of 1997. His injury-decimated tally of 54 games measured up poorly against what he had amassed at Palace. Thank-you, Lee Howey!
It said much about Wolves’ frustrations during the era that, no sooner had their stand-out 1993 signing moved on, than he became a promotion winner again – with Dave Bassett’s Nottingham Forest. His role was again peripheral, though, and his injury problems also cast a shadow over his reunion with Peter Shirtliff and Bassett at Barnsley before the end to his playing days came following spells with Notts County and back at Crewe.
And you might assume that was that as regards his foothold in the game. Wrong! It is still capable of putting his emotions through the wringer.
“When Sergio Aguerro scored that title-winning goal against QPR, I nearly hit the ceiling,” he adds. “I don’t think I had ever celebrated as much apart from in matches I was playing in.
“Playing against City became another game during my career but I have become a bit of a supporter again in more recent seasons – the bug has come back to me.”
So how many games do you think the 58-year-old played in total? It might surprise those who remember the knee trouble, the operations and the long absences to be told he managed more than 550, including around 250 for Palace and the ones he played at full and B level for England.
*A special evening with Geoff Thomas is being held at the Cleveland Arms, Moseley Village, Wolverhampton, on Thursday, October 6. Tickets cost £15 (or £40 for VIP ones) and are available direct from the pub, through www.clevelandarms.com or by ringing 01902-451021.