Football: Fledgling who flew the nest

Huddersfield are soaring and so is Ben Thornley.
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The Independent Online
WHEN BEN Thornley first signed for Manchester United he cast an eye over his fellow central midfield players and decided he would be better off as a left winger - only that then put him in direct competition with the most exciting talent these islands have produced for some time. Apart from Ryan Giggs there was also Lee Sharpe to contend with and, later, Jordi Cruyff. If Thornley had stayed another season he would have found Jesper Blomqvist blocking his path as well.

That is the dilemma for any star-struck youngster committing his future to United. It might appear that all your Lottery numbers have come up but instead of the anticipated jackpot you discover that there are dozens of others holding the same numbers.

All the likes of Thornley have achieved at 16 is to gain a place on the starting line of a desperately competitive race: the quest for a first- team jersey at the biggest club of all. To succeed is to embrace fame and fortune, the compensation for failure is that other clubs, knowing you have been well schooled, will offer a second chance.

For seven years Ben Thornley gave it his best shot at Old Trafford before deciding last season that he had to put his beloved Manchester United behind him. His importance to a rejuvenated Huddersfield Town vying for promotion from the Nationwide First Division suggests it was a decision well made.

United had the highest hopes for him and, when he was 14, Alex Ferguson came knocking on the family home in Salford to persuade him to train with them. That says an enormous amount about the priority Ferguson places on the development of young players. "I had been at Manchester City's School of Excellence but I had always been a United supporter and when they approached me there was really no decision to make," Thornley says.

"Mr Ferguson was great. I was too in awe of him to say much and I left the talking to my dad. He told me afterwards how impressed he had been by the manager. Even at that young age when he spoke to you he made you feel you were the most important person in the world."

In the two years before he signed YTS forms, Thornley attended twice- weekly session with dozens of other United wannabes. It was a privileged insight into United's glittering future because this particular generation had stardust in their boots: David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. There was also Keith Gillespie and Robbie Savage; international players now, then merely the latest arrivals to take their place at the academy.

"I remember those early days when the full-time training was so demanding it made you physically sick. But the care and attention was first class and Alex Ferguson was always available with a word of encouragement or advice.

"Lads like David Beckham and Nicky Butt are no different now to what they were then despite their public image. I remember Wes Brown making his debut for the reserves against Sheffield Wednesday. He was only 17 and he was up against Guy Whittingham and Richie Humphreys and he was superb. He was a centre-back then but he has now come into the team at right-back and I feel sorry for the likes of Henning Berg and David May because he has jumped the queue ahead of them.

"That's the way it is at Old Trafford. Sometimes it would get me down because apart from the next young lad coming through you knew the manager could always go out and buy the players he wanted.

"When I started out there were Butt, Beckham, Scholes and Savage all in the same position as me as well as Chris Casper, who has since become a central defender. I took the decision I would be better off in another position and switched to the left wing."

It appeared a sensible move, when, at 18, Thornley made his debut in a 2-2 draw at West Ham. However, a cruciate knee injury soon put the break on his development, and at a time when Ferguson liked to blood the next young starlet. He lost ground he was never able to make up despite impressing when coming into United's "Alternative XI" for domestic cup ties last season.

As Savage and Gillespie have also discovered, it is sometimes necessary to leave Old Trafford and start again somewhere else. "I took the view last season that if I had a future in football it was not going to be in Manchester United reserves," Thornley says.

"Of course it was disappointing to realise you weren't going to make it at your boyhood club but I'm not doing too badly now and if Huddersfield reach the Premiership it will all have been worthwhile.

"It was definitely one move I had to make."