TRICKY Mickey Thomas was nothing but trouble in nine months as a Brighton player – and it wasn’t much better at his previous employers, Everton, either.
The diminutive Welsh wing wizard had a sweet left foot and no little skill on the ball but he also had a self-destruct button that he pressed on numerous occasions.
Born in Mochdre, Conwy, in north Wales, Thomas was on the books of nearby Wrexham at the age of 15 and made his first team debut when just 17, under manager John Neal.
Over the next six years, he made 230 appearances for Wrexham and scored 33 goals before making what one would imagine must have been a dream £300,000 move to Manchester United in 1978. He had already made his debut for the Welsh national team, in 1976, and in 10 years accumulated 51 caps.
Thomas played a total of 110 games for United, and scored 15 times along the way, including being a runner up in the 1979 FA Cup Final against Arsenal, but, he revealed in his autobiography Kickups, Hiccups, Lockups that he struggled with the pressure.
“I was like a startled rabbit in the Old Trafford headlights,” he said. “I always played well within myself. There was a lot more pressure than I could have ever imagined, especially in front of the home supporters, even though I knew they loved me.
“Sometimes it was too much to bear. I felt fear. Fear of not being the person I was at Wrexham. Gone was the happy-go-lucky lad and I knew he wouldn’t come back while I was at United. I didn’t feel as though I deserved to be a Manchester United player.”
He said it would take two bottles of wine the night before a match to help ease his nerves. “I was playing in front of 50,000 United fans and I was desperate to please them. In the end the pressure brought me down and I walked out.”
There was some degree of mystery exactly why he left Old Trafford in August 1981 (the Argus reported on 4 February 1982: “It wasn’t a gambling debt but Thomas needed the cash fast, and a move was the only answer”).
Moving to his boyhood favourite team, Everton, was, on the face it, a perfect next step but it didn’t take long for the move to turn sour.
After a bright 11-game start, he sustained a hamstring injury which sidelined him for several weeks. When fit again, he’d only trained for two days and expected to be restored to the first team. Manager Howard Kendall wanted him to prove his fitness in the reserves first – but Thomas refused to play.
Kendall said: “I put a high regard on discipline. I couldn’t let Thomas get away with refusing to play for the reserves.” He was fined two weeks’ wages with Kendall adding: “The whole club and all the fundamentals I believe in would have gone out of the window if I had let him get away with it.”
The hoped-for first team return never happened because Brighton manager Mike Bailey stepped in and snapped him up for £350,000 – on a four-year contract.
Bailey said in his programme notes: “The signing of Mickey Thomas was a significant move….it was no secret that I had been looking for a left-sided player and I had made an approach for Mickey in the summer before he moved to Manchester United to Everton.
“I am now confident that we have the depth of squad we need to continue our progress and now we are all together we will work to improve in both our teamwork and individually. We have the competition we want for places and the whole squad is aware of what we are trying to achieve.”
Three months later the manager was making completely different noises.
Thomas made an impressive cameo debut performance for the Seagulls as a substitute in a 1-1 draw with Birmingham. Blues midfielder and future Albion player Alan Curbishley made a hash of a back pass that enabled Michael Robinson to seize the chance to equalise for Albion.
The Sunday People reported: “Brighton cast new signing Mickey Thomas into a crazy, helter skelter 23 minute debut. And within seconds of his going on as a substitute, patched-up Birmingham cracked under the pressure.”
And the Sunday Express added: “Thomas, a £350,000 signing from Everton, came on as a substitute for Andy Ritchie and eight minutes from time he was floored in the box. But despite protests from the Brighton players, referee Colin Downey refused a penalty.”
Thomas made his full debut in a 2-2 draw at home to Notts County and kept the shirt for 12 games, getting on the scoresheet in a 3-1 FA Cup 3rd round game in which opposition full-back Graham Pearce did so well that Bailey promptly signed him.
It would later emerge, however, that Thomas’ 20-year-old wife, Debbie, had been unable to settle in Sussex – the word was that she gave it only five days, living in a property at Telscombe Cliffs – and had gone back to Colwyn Bay with their baby son.
Thomas meanwhile stayed at the Courtlands Hotel in Hove and the club bent over backwards to give him extra time off so he could travel to and from north Wales. But he began to return late or go missing from training.
Stories abounded across the press and in a candid interview with the Argus, Thomas admitted: “My wife will never live in Brighton, and I can see her point of view. All our roots are up north.
“Everything is fine in our marriage, but I want to be with Debbie and see our little son grow up. I just can’t settle down at Brighton.
“It’s a marvellous club but it’s in the wrong place. If it was up here, I would be the happiest player in Britain.
“My dream club was Everton, but things didn’t work out there, although I don’t think it was my fault.
“I was more or less shoved down to Brighton and really Debbie and I should have been given another couple of days before making up our minds.
“The signing was done in too much of a hurry, so I could turn out in the next match.”
Bailey was incandescent with rage and after the third occasion that he went missing, declared: “”Thomas has s*** on us….the sooner the boy leaves, the better.”
Thomas claimed he had a bad back “probably caused by all the travelling I’ve been doing the length of the country.
“I’m sick of everything. I’m made out to be a bad boy, but I’m not. I’ve got a genuine reason for this problem and people know what it is.
“The strain of the whole business on myself and my family has been immense. People don’t realise what I’ve been going through – it’s been an absolute nightmare.”
When he went missing again and was fined another fortnight’s wages, Bailey once again went on the front foot and told John Vinicombe: “He came in and trained which allowed him to play for Wales.
“He is just using us, and yet I might have played him against Wolves. Thomas is his own worst enemy and I stand by what I’ve said before – the sooner he goes the better.”
At one point in March it was hoped a swap deal could be worked out that would have brought England winger Peter Barnes to the Goldstone from Leeds, but they weren’t interested and so the saga dragged out to the end of the season.
Thomas was ‘shop windowed’ in the final two games and during the close season was sold to Stoke City for £200,000.
Unfortunately for Albion, it was only a matter of months before Thomas came back to haunt them again. Away to Stoke on 16 October 1982, the game was only four minutes old when Thomas seized on a Sammy McIlroy pass to put the Potters a goal up. Mark Chamberlain, who would have a spell at Brighton several years later, scored a second and McIlroy added a third as the Seagulls lost 3-0.
It was with some relief that Thomas left the field with a gashed ankle with 19 minutes remaining.
Tony Lamb in the Sunday People said Thomas had “mesmerised” Albion and added: “The little Welshman gave one of those brilliant all-action performances that used to delight the fans in his days with Manchester United before his unhappy stay in the south.”
Based closer to home, Thomas did indeed hit some of the form he had previously shown, scoring 22 times in 122 appearances for Stoke.
His old Wrexham manager, John Neal, had taken the reins at then Division 2 Chelsea, and, in January 1984, Thomas headed to London and clocked up 44 appearances for them, also weighing in with nine goals.
After John Hollins took over, though, he was sold to West Brom for £100,000 but he only made 20 appearances for the Baggies. He played nine games on loan to Derby and then tried his luck in the United States, spending two years with Wichita Wings.
Back in the UK, he had spells with Shrewsbury Town and, ironically, Leeds.
In an interview with respected football writer Henry Winter, in 2008, Thomas told him: “Howard Wilkinson paid me the biggest compliment when I signed for Leeds at 36. He said, ‘I’ve done my homework, you’re a player I’ve always admired, and I talked to Dave Sexton and he said, ‘Just get him on the pitch and he’ll be fine. Off it, I’m not sure what you can do with him’.’’
After helping Leeds win promotion, he went back for a second spell at Stoke City, and earned the player of the year award.
In 1991 he made another return journey, and went back to where it had started – Wrexham – during which time, at the age of 37, he memorably scored an oft-televised free kick when the mighty Arsenal were beaten in the FA Cup by the Welsh minnows.
Remarkably, considering the troubles he had along the way, by the time he hung up his boots professionally, he had amassed 727 appearances and scored 92 goals.
After his football career was finished, he was back in the headlines for involvement in counterfeit currency and was sentenced to an 18-month jail term in 1993.
“Prison taught me a lot,” he told Winter in that 2008 interview. “It taught me to sleep with one eye open! It gave me the confidence I’d lacked. I had to be sure of myself. It taught me not to trust anyone any more, to choose my friends carefully.’’
Now Thomas pops up as an analyst on Manchester United matches and is on the after dinner speaker circuit.
Further reading: Kickups, Hiccups, Lockups – The Autobiography by Mickey Thomas (Century).
Pictures show a News of the World article summing up his time at Brighton; Thomas on his full Albion debut against Notts County; a head and shoulders shot from the Argus, and in Stoke City’s colours.