Thomas primes Hinckley to hit the high notes in FA Cup's battle of the 'car-boot footballers'

Karaoke-loving manager tells Phil Shaw of his giant-killing education with Wimbledon and Notts County

Dean Thomas is the missing link between the Crazy Gang and the Rat Pack, a disciple of Dave Bassett's unorthodox ways at Wimbledon and a devotee of the crooning glory of Frank Sinatra and co.

If anyone can make the FA Cup go with a giant-killing swing this weekend, it is the manager of Hinckley United.

On Sunday, Thomas will bark orders from the touchline of Hinckley's soon-to-be-abandoned ground in Middlefield Lane as the Leicestershire part-timers and Brentford contest a third-round place among the Premiership giants.

Afterwards, he will wind down by putting his big-band karaoke album on the CD player of a nearby watering hole and serenading Hinckley's players and supporters with something that aspires to greater sophistication.

The Thomas repertoire, rehearsed in his car as he drives 1,000 miles a week as a sales-support rep for a timber supplier, features standards by artists ranging from Ol' Blue Eyes and Dean Martin to Bobby Darin and Michael Buble.

As a player, he not only shared in the early part of Wimbledon's remarkable rise but also established himself in the Bundesliga at a time when West Germany regularly reached the World Cup final. However, when asked what aims he still has in life, the answer relates to music rather than management.

"My ambition is to do a show with the Leicester City Swing Band on my 50th birthday," says Thomas, who turns 43 this month. "A friend I sing with, Morgan Perkins, is a Sinatra impersonator. My dream is to do a full concert."

He would not be first manager to don a dicky-bow and take to the microphone - Ron Atkinson and Terry Venables have both mangled "I've Got You Under My Skin" - but few can have approached the swing songbook with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the man who self-mockingly styles himself "Dino Martino".

"It's how I relax," he explains. "I've got a hectic job and when I'm not doing that, I'm preparing the team and watching potential signings or future opponents. The only place I can really switch off is in my car."

It is not uncommon, the Midlander admits, for him to be sitting in a motorway traffic jam, clicking the fingers and wrapping his vocal chords around "Mack the Knife" or "That's Life" as if he were strutting the stage in Las Vegas.

The latter's lyric about "riding high in April, shot down in May" might have been written with football in mind.

Thomas, though, is looking no further ahead than Brentford (though he also has an eye on Boxing Day, when Hinckley open their new, 4,000-capacity stadium).

For the younger members of a team that includes a window-cleaner, electrician, plumber, plasterer, financial adviser and college lecturer, the tie offers a televised opportunity to emulate his own advance from the non-League ranks.

Thomas was a left back at Bedworth United when he was recommended to Wimbledon in 1981. Although Bassett switched him to midfield to accommodate a promising youngster named Nigel Winterburn, he joined the likes of Wally Downes, Dave Beasant and Alan Cork in catapulting the Dons through the divisions.

Bassett and Downes were the arch pranksters, blazing a trail for the "crazy" generation. "They'd put Deep Heat in people's underpants or throw your clothes in the shower," Thomas explains.

"In a strange way it was great for team spirit. The important thing with Dave was that everyone knew where to draw the line with him. He was also very honest; if he left you out, he always told you why."

Thomas had already spent two summers playing in Finland and his horizons continued to stretch beyond Plough Lane.

Through his brother Wayne, who had been spotted by a German regional league club while touring with the Warwickshire FA, he won a contract with Aachen. Soon he was snapped up by Fortuna Düsseldorf, making his debut against Werder Bremen. "We were ahead in 10 minutes. I was thinking: 'This is fantastic, so easy'. Within 20 minutes, Rudi Völler had scored a hat-trick for them!"

"I played against Jürgen Klinsmann, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Lothar Matthäus, who was a very dignified opponent. I was OK technically and I improved while I was there.

"Every player had a training ball with his name on it, and they were years ahead of us in nutritional awareness. But I like to think I brought a bit of English passion to their game, too."

The call of home became too strong and he joined Northampton; after Düsseldorf, it was "like leaving Bedworth for Manchester United and then going to Hinckley".

But his best football came with Notts County, whose Wimbledon-like climb under Neil Warnock saw Thomas captain the side in the top flight in 1991-92.

He absorbed ideas from Warnock as he did from Bassett and in Germany.

"Notts were a team of nobodies who turned themselves into something special. Neil was perhaps not the world's best coach, but he was a terrific motivator."

When Thomas took charge of Hinckley in 1997, they were an uneasy recent amalgamation of two failing rivals, Athletic and Town, in the Western Division of the Dr Martens League. They are now in the Conference North, with a swish new stadium through which to cement their place in the community.

In the first round they despatched Torquay. Their 2-0 win featured a goal by Neil Cartwright, a cosmetics salesman, which Thomas claims would be a contender for Match of the Day's "Goal of the Season" had Thierry Henry scored it.

He warns, having worked as Sky's summariser for Brentford's replay with Bristol City, that the League One outfit epitomise the work ethic of their manager. Martin Allen is an old midfield adversary, who calls his collection of free-transfer recruits "car-boot footballers".

As one who cut his teeth with the ultimate car-boot club, Thomas would love to see the Hinckley gang step out at Old Trafford or Highbury next month. He will carry on crooning whatever Sunday brings. But it is always sweeter, to coin a phrase, to swing when you're winning.

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