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Exclusive: 'New Best' - Class of '92 star Thornley on missing Man Utd career

As a leading member of Manchester United's famed Class of '92, all of Ben Thornley's dreams were coming true.

The Salford boy was one of United's brightest stars, making his first-team debut at the age of 18 as a substitute against West Ham United in 1994.

According to legendary United midfielder Nobby Stiles, the talented winger was the closest player he had seen to George Best in all his time at the club.

Amongst his Class of 92' teammates, Thornley was a revered figure.

Just last month, Paul Scholes told ESPN of Thornley: "You never know how good any young player will be, but you knew he was going to be a top player from a young age." David Beckham said: "Without a doubt, he would have been one of the best for United and England. And Nicky Butt added: "Ben would have outdone us all".

While the future United stars were waiting for their chance, Thornley was about to given an opportunity to take another gigantic step in his career when Sir Alex Ferguson informed him he would be starting in the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham, just a week before his 19th birthday, in place of the injured Ryan Giggs.

To freshen his legs for the big game, Thornley would need a run-out for the reserves against Blackburn Rovers at Gigg Lane.

Little did he know that it would be a night he would never forget.

After tearing Rovers to shreds in the first-half, seasoned veteran Nicky Marker clattered Thornley with a brutal tackle that completely obliterated his knee.

As Thornley recalls in his new autobiography, Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate, reserves managerJim Ryan had offered him the chance to be substituted at half-time. It was his sliding doors moment. But Thornley says there was no chance he was coming off that night.

"Anybody, anywhere that you would ask, would always have one regret, but it's just that mine is bigger than most. That I elected to stay on the field," he tells Tribalfootball.com.

"But I think back and I was 18 years age and I was playing in a team that I loved, I was playing with guys that I loved, I was enjoying my football there and I though I was playing well. I was in a good place.

"You think you are invincible because you're playing so well. I didn't even think what was coming in the next five, ten minutes let alone what was coming in four or five days. And if there was one decision I could ever reverse, it would be 'Yes, Jim. I'll go and get my shower'."

All that were in attendance heard the awful sound of Thornley's knee shattering. Injured teammate Chris Casper, who was in the stands, thought it was just the sound of Thornley's shin-pad.

Thornley never fully recovered from the injury and left United in 1998 with nine Premier League appearances. Pushed by Ferguson, who was in the stands at Gigg Lane, Thornley pursued a civil case against Marker and Blackburn, which was settled five years later.

Despite the injury impacting his career and dreams, Thornley insists he does not hold any anger towards Marker.

"No, I didn't hold any bitterness, no malice, no resentment. Although, I do hold him responsible. It wasn't a tackle that any defender would have made. He knew exactly what he was doing. But I know for a fact that wouldn't have intended for it have an effect on my career the way it did."

But what about Giggs? Scholes? Beckham? The Neville's? Does Thornley harbour any jealousy towards his former teammates?

"God no absolutely not," says Thornley. "At the Champions League final in 1999 I went as a fan with the supporters club from Malta where I was holidaying at the time.

"They chartered a jet over and I had a fabulous time and I would be the first of a very long line that would congratulate each and every one of those lads because you know despite my injury and what happened to me they were always going to go on and have fantastic careers because they had skill and they had a work ethic that pleased Sir Alex Ferguson, and if you blend all those three together you've got a recipe for success.

"There was no question they were going to achieve the stellar heights that they got too."

Thornley managed to carve out successful stints with Huddersfield and Scottish giants Aberdeen before falling down the lower leagues in England. He would retire playing professionally at 28.

Unlike some former footballers who have had their careers cut short, Thornley has managed to go through the dark times after his retirement and make it through to the other side.

"They are emotions that if you let them take control of you, they turn you into a bitter person, and it will only be me and the people who are closest to me that will lose out in the end."


Ben Thornley now works as an analyst for MUTV and in the hospitality suites on matchdays at Old Trafford. If you want to enjoy an enthralling read, you can purchase his autobiography, Tackled: The Class of 92 Star Who Never Got To Graduate (Pitch Publishing) by Ben Thornley and Dan Poole, by clicking on the link here.

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Andrew Maclean
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Andrew Maclean

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