Tale of Thomas the rebuilt engine

Simon O'Hagan charts the recovery powers of a footballer on borrowed time
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What Geoff Thomas says he really dreaded was the doctor coming up to him and saying: "I'm sorry, we can't do anything for you." It could easily have happened, and not many years ago it surely would, but in the case of the Wolverhampton Wanderers and former England midfielder, mercifully there was no such scene in the hospital corridor.

A career has been saved that long-term injury all but ended, and even if Thomas, now 32, had not capped his comeback in perfectly scripted fashion when he scored the winning goal against his old club Crystal Palace eight days ago, nobody would have needed to tell him how lucky he was. Every game, continuing with today's against Manchester City, is a game he might never have played, and for each one, he says, he will be profoundly grateful.

This season has already seen the enforced retirement of David Busst, the Coventry City defender, after a seven-month long battle against a leg injury made famous for being captured on film in all its gruesomeness.

Unlike at Old Trafford, where Busst was involved in a match against Manchester United, no camera recorded what happened to Thomas during a reserve team game between Wolverhampton and Derby County one November evening in 1993. But we have Thomas's description of it. "I'd been out for about six weeks after gashing my left leg in a tackle at Sunderland," he recalled last week. "But I'd injured my right knee at the same time. I just didn't realise how badly.

"I played in the reserves just to test my fitness, really. The strange thing was there was nobody near me when I did it. I made a run into the box and my leg just crumpled beneath me. My knee was bent completely the wrong way. It was frightening because you didn't really know what was going on. If anything, I was more guarding against my left leg."

Thomas had snapped his cruciate ligament, which is about as serious as it gets for a footballer. His first season at Wolves - he had gone there from Crystal Palace that summer - was over. He had made such a good start too, with four goals in eight games, and was by now, courtesy of Graham Taylor, also an England player.

But life for Thomas from that moment was destined to become a seemingly endless round of operations, hospital visits, physiotherapy and exercises interrupted by a brief period in the 1994-95 season when he got back in the team for 14 games but without the knee ever feeling right.

Thomas went for a second opinion, and the operations - there have been seven altogether - began all over again. This time he had the cruciate taken out and replaced by a piece of his hamstring. "The hamstring's quite a big muscle," Thomas said matter of factly. "It caters for that."

It was the helplessness of his situation that got to him. "You could see your career finishing without you having a say. But you have to find your own way to cope. It's a personal thing. You've got to be mentally strong. But there's enough inspiration from seeing others who've been through the same thing."

Uppermost in Thomas's mind was Alan Shearer, whose powers of recovery were evident when he was playing again within five months of his cruciate injury, and Thomas's former Palace team-mate John Salako, who went to the United States to have his knee repaired.

Boredom, as much as despair, was the enemy. But it is something of a myth that injured players have time on their hands. "In some ways it's more like a normal job," Thomas said. "You do your exercises in the morning, have lunch and carry on in the afternoon. When you're fit you train in the morning and then you're off home by 2.30."

The experience was not wholly without benefits, though. "It forced me to think about a life outside football. I like to think I already knew because I'd worked on a building site until I was 19. I never went through an apprenticeship. But once you start playing you think the end will never come and you keep putting off your plans."

Thomas didn't, and to show for his efforts he now co-owns a shop in Dudley, called Nicholls, which sells designer clothes. And with another injured player, Brian Law, he has embarked on a course in sports studies at Wolverhampton University. "We thought it would be easier if we both turned up together and could pull each other through."

Now Thomas is hoping, even more fervently, to play as long as possible. "When people finish I think it's often because of a loss of desire. But with today's technology nobody's got any excuse not still to be fit when they're 35.

"If, fingers crossed, I stay injury-free, I'll be looking to extend my career. After all, the rest of my body's had a rest."