Syd Thomas: Footballer for Wales and Fulham

 

There wasn't much of Syd Thomas, the Welsh international winger who helped Fulham rise to the top flight of English football in 1948-49, but on his day he was a captivating entertainer. Standing 5ft 6in and slight of build, he looked as if he might be eaten alive by some of the brawny full-backs plying their trade in the immediate post-war era, but often his sleight of foot and sudden bursts of acceleration, allied to a fierce determination which belied his diminutive stature, would leave them toiling impotently in his wake.

Sadly for Thomas, his Craven Cottage prospects were blighted by the substantial presence of his rival for the Fulham No 7 shirt, the far more prolific goalscorer Arthur Stevens, and then, shortly after a promising fresh start with Bristol City, his playing days were terminated by tuberculosis.

Thomas, a former baker's boy in the small Welsh market town of Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, built a local reputation as an outstanding teenage footballer and played for Wrexham reserves in 1937-38, but was not offered a contract. However, his breakthrough was not long delayed. In August 1938 he was invited to take part in a trial game by Fulham of the Second Division and so impressed the Cottagers' watching manager, Jack Peart, that he was signed from the Welsh League club Treharris at half-time, thus completing the first 45 minutes as an amateur and the second period as a professional.

A thrilling future beckoned, only for the Second World War to intervene.At either end of the conflict he madea handful of appearances for Fulham in unofficial emergency competition and he played frequently duringhis RAF service as a driver at an airport construction site in Africa's Gold Coast, but his senior debut was delayed for eight years.

It finally arrived in a home draw with Tottenham Hotspur in November 1946, but soon he drifted to the fringe of the team, occasionally making fleeting returns as an inside-forward, a role in which his precise passing stood out. Thomas's most consistent first-team run came in 1947-48, when he played 35 times, including an FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Blackpool, and that season, too, he made his full international entrance, against England at Ninian Park, Cardiff. The visitors, boasting arguably the finest forward line in their history – Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton, Wilf Mannion and Tom Finney – cantered to a 3-0 win, but Thomas was retained for the next three games, two defeats by Scotland and a victory over Northern Ireland, before losing his place to Tottenham's Ernie Jones.

In 1948-49, which Fulham finished as Second Division champions, he took up his favoured right-wing position in the autumn when Stevens was switched to centre-forward, only to lose it again when the dashing Londoner moved back to the flank following the arrival of Arthur Rowley, who was on his way to becoming the top scorer in English football history.

Still languishing in Stevens' shadow, Thomas was selected only three times in the First Division, and in June 1950 he was sold to Bristol City of the Third Division South for £9,000. At Ashton Gate he made a positive early impact, gelling instantly with the skilful German inside-right Alous "Alec" Eisentrager, a former prisoner of war who remained in England after his release to become a Robins favourite. Soon, though, Thomas fell victim to TB and never played professionally again, his eventual enforced retirement giving rise to a dispute over his fee between Fulham and City.

Thomas, who returned to his home-town to work in the family bakery business, was recently reported to be the oldest surviving Fulham footballer, but this has not been confirmed.

Ivan Ponting

David Sidney "Syd" Thomas, footballer: born Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire (now Powys) 12 November 1919; played for Fulham 1938-50, Bristol City 1950; capped four times by Wales 1947-48; married (one son); died 19 January 2012.

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