Geoff Thomas: How a midfield dynamo became a tour de force

His rapid rise up the footballing ranks was a dream come true but then Thomas was diagnosed with blood cancer; the time came to stand up and fight – and do the Tour de France twice. Simon Hart speaks to Geoff Thomas
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There was a time when it seemed the defining moment of Geoff Thomas's life might be his most embarrassing. It came on 19 February 1992, the night of his ninth and final appearance for England, when he tried to catch out the France goalkeeper Gilles Rousset with a 30-yard lob but succeeded only in sending the ball on a sorry trajectory to the touchline.

Had he scored, a trip to the European Championship may have beckoned. Instead the Crystal Palace midfielder became a symbol of Graham Taylor's ill-starred England reign, lampooned notably by comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner on their Fantasy Football League TV show. Thomas, 45, can smile about it now. "For the first time in my life I tried to chip the goalkeeper and I just picked a venue where millions of people were watching. But now it's like a calling card, when people forget who I am, I bring that up."

What is one mistake on a football field to a man who has climbed mountains? Captain of the Crystal Palace team that reached the FA Cup final in May 1990, he achieved an unimagined ascent as a footballer, from Rochdale to England via Crewe Alexandra, where Dario Gradi turned him from a left winger into a tough-tackling mid- fielder, and then Palace.

Thomas has travelled an equally extraordinary road since. In July 2003, 18 months after the last of his 550 games in a career comprising seven League clubs, he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia and told he had a 30 per cent chance of living beyond the age of 41. Only a bone marrow transplant would keep him alive longer than three years. Fortunately his sister Kay proved a perfect match.

Thomas's diagnosis altered his outlook entirely, as he explains over a cup of tea at his home in Barnt Green, a leafy village outside Birmingham. "After the first initial shock I was in a place where I had never been before. It was surreal. I was totally relaxed, I was happy with my lot. It makes you look back at what you've achieved." In his case, a football career beyond his dreams. "Even getting my first contract was massive – even if it was less money than I had as an electrician."

After the transplant in early 2004, Thomas learned he was in remission the following January. He had begun a fashion business post-football but now committed to spending his five-year remission period raising money and awareness about blood cancers. "My personality has changed. I am still driven but not just for myself." He takes the view, understandably, that "you're here once and make the most of it".

Thomas had lost over four stones – he is still lean – and wanted to get fit again. A journalist friend suggested they cycle the Tour de France circuit. "As a sportsman it was a challenge and I thought, why not? Ian Botham had already walked Land's End to John O'Groats and raised millions. We had to come up with something different."

In January 2005, he got on a mountain bike for the first time. "I did six miles and nearly killed myself." Six months later he rode the 3,484km of the Tour in 21 days, raising £200,000. For Thomas, who earned the Helen Rollason BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, it is "probably the best thing I've ever done".

"There was one day particularly, on one of the mountains [Col du Galibier], that is like talking about the FA Cup final," he adds. "When I got to the top it didn't just mean I was beating a mountain that was throwing all sorts at me – rain, snow, hail, a temperature that had gone down to three degrees from 28C – it was like chucking your old life away and saying welcome to your new one.

"Flying down the 25-mile descent of this mountain – we didn't have to pedal – the sun came out and it was spine-tingling. All I was thinking about was people who had lost their battle."

Having drawn inspiration from Lance Armstrong's books early in his treatment – "from this dark place it gave me optimism" – he chronicled his experience in his autobiography Riding Through The Storm, then completed a second Tour in 2007.

His ventures, including marathons in London and New York and London to Paris bike rides, have yielded around £1m and with the support of Professor Charlie Craddock, his consultant from the University Hospital Birmingham, the Geoff Thomas Foundation now aims to generate £20m to fund blood cancer nurses at six hospitals across Britain – Oxford, Cambridge, Barts London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester – and thereby create a network of centres for leukaemia drugs trials.

"Blood cancer is the biggest killer of 18 to 35-year-olds but it is still a very rare form of cancer in the grand scheme. With your big cancers, for a clinical trial you might have enough patients in one area but with blood cancer there are so many different strains and it is very difficult for one area like Birmingham, Manchester or London – because of different boroughs and trusts – to be able to get the answers quickly because they don't have enough patients."

Hence the plan to "put an umbrella over enough people to do these clinical trials to get all the science out of the labs". Thomas, whose foundation starts working closely with Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research this year, is optimistic. "I've been meeting the scientists at the labs in Oxford and Cambridge and they are confident they have potential answers for different blood cancers."

His old and new worlds overlapped on Thursday at a sports quiz night for the foundation in his home town of Manchester – he is a City fan – which featured Sam Allardyce and Mark Hughes as the team captains. It was Hughes who denied Thomas the chance to lift the FA Cup 20 years ago when Crystal Palace stood seven minutes away from victory over Manchester United. Those were golden days at Selhurst Park, when Steve Coppell guided promoted Palace to their first Wembley final in 1990 and then third place in the old First Division in 1991. "There is a special bond there," says Thomas. "I don't think with football clubs it comes about that many times where, without money, you get a group of people that gel together."

He recalls a cast that included the strikers-turned-broadcasters Ian Wright, Mark Bright and John Salako, and the current Southampton manager Alan Pardew. "Palace had all these players who had possibly missed the boat, like myself – I'd not even thought about being a professional footballer. I was 18 before I got spotted. Ian Wright got chucked away from clubs because he was too small. Mark Bright was told he was too slow. Andy Gray was another and he went on to have a great career. With the addition of the first £1m goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, and players like Andy Thorn with a bit more experience, it just seemed to gel."

With so many strong characters, it was a dressing-room high on friction but in Coppell, astute beyond his 34 years, Palace had a manager "clever enough to work with those personalities". They played only lower-League opposition up to the semi-final but then faced cup-holders and champions elect Liverpool, who had thrashed them 9-0 the previous September. "It taught us so many different lessons," he says of Palace's record League loss. "When the Kop is singing 'We want 10' with five minutes to go, it is a horrible place to be."

Coppell's instructions at Villa Park were to keep it tight, yet what followed was the highest-scoring semi-final of the last 50 years. "Everybody thinks it was an exciting game but the first half was dire. Ian Rush scored after 20 minutes and I always remember he didn't really celebrate. They just patted him on the back thinking 'Here we go again'."

Palace equalised moments after the restart through Bright and a "surreal second half" unfolded. "All of a sudden we took the lead, then they came back." In the last 10 minutes Liverpool went from 2-1 down to 3-2 up, only for Palace's Gray to force extra-time.

It was then that Coppell's gruelling Monday runs up Farthing Downs paid off, recalls Thomas, as Palace kept pushing and struck with a third set-piece goal headed in by Pardew. "It wasn't just free-kicks, we were mentally strong and physically strong and ended up playing decent football at times. It got us to the final." Cue a "bizarre few weeks in the spotlight – making a record in Abbey Studios".

Another goal rush followed at Wembley against a Manchester United side seeking a first trophy under Alex Ferguson. Wright stepped off the bench to score twice in a thrilling 3-3 draw before United edged the replay 1-0. "The first game was two sides that went hell for leather trying to win, with no fear of losing. Come the final whistle after extra-time, everybody was out on their feet but if we'd had penalties then and lost, I would have preferred it. The replay was a horrible game."

Thomas staged a fundraising rematch at Selhurst Park in 2006 and, grateful to Palace's owner Simon Jordan for his support then, is saddened to see the club's plight: in administration with debts of some £30m. "Simon was and is a Crystal Palace fan. Even though he rubbed people up the wrong way many times, he wanted Palace to do well. I'm sure he's chucked a lot of his wealth into there and it's sad to see. It is the way football is at the moment if you're not one of the top boys, and even the top boys are struggling financially."

As the man who drew Aston Villa's name out of the hat to face Palace in the fifth round today, Thomas foresees a tough afternoon for his former team but cites their defeat of Wolverhampton Wanderers as evidence they will not be short on spirit. "Neil Warnock has probably been the best man to have at the helm during this period and the performance against Wolves was a credit to Palace. The fans expect certain things from Palace and the fighting spirit has always been there from when I was there." In the case of their old captain, it has never gone away.

David Platt on Mr Versatility

Geoff was my captain at Crewe and he was a complete midfielder at the time. What he did was lead by example – he was quick, he closed down, he directed, he was a big leader. The problem is when you go and play for England you must either be seen to have exceptional technical ability or you have to excel at something.

I probably fell into the second category as I excelled at scoring goals from midfield. Geoff was very good at a lot of things – he could close down, he could tackle, he could pass, he could score goals – but he was not known for any one thing. He was the kind of player a manager or coach would like because he gave a balance in the team and allowed other players to go and excel.

But people look at an England international and don't necessarily look at the good they do the team. They look at him as an individual. Look at how England always have their best results under Emile Heskey; his place is always questioned but everybody playing alongside him says he enables the rest of the team to play.

David Platt played with Thomas at Crewe for two years and alongside him eight times for England

For more information about Geoff Thomas's charity work, visit www.geoffthomasfoundation.com

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