Mickey Thomas, cult icon and colourful character at Manchester United in the late 70s and early 80s, played 110 times and scored 15 goals before a shock departure. The Welsh schemer went on to have a varied career playing for a number of clubs and courting some controversy along the way; he scored a stunning goal for Wrexham in the FA Cup to help knock out Arsenal in 1992. These days Mickey works in the media as a “talking head”, popping up on various media outlets as well as United’s own channel, MUTV.
Thanks for agreeing to have a chat, Mickey. Starting with your early career… You played for Wrexham at the start of your career – they were obviously a far better side than they are today, having good runs in the FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup.. how was your time starting out there?
It was the first club I joined and the first club that gave me an opportunity to be a footballer so yeah, I have great admiration and respect for that and I’m delighted that I was given the opportunity to play football in what was probably the greatest team in their history. So it was a great period for me, and for them of course.
Then you signed for United.. tough decision?
Well you’re talking about one of the biggest clubs in the world. I’d turned down about five clubs before that. Newcastle, Sunderland, Arsenal… City were after me as well. But I didn’t even think about them, when United came knocking it was a yeah straight away.
In your first season there was of course that fantastic FA Cup run and the two classic games against Liverpool in the semi final, with you creating Jimmy Greenhoff’s winner in the replay. How was your first season at the club, with Dave Sexton who was criticised for playing less exciting football that United fans were used to under Tommy Doc?
Well he had thing with the negative attention, but Dave Sexton was a very good tactician… don’t forget, we were playing Liverpool, the team that “nobody could beat”, and we actually did, on head to head we actually did well against them… without us being an “absolute best team” we were very close to going to go and win the league. We only lost it by a couple of points! You know, we lost in the final… he was very close to being very successful. We had some great players with Macari and McIlroy… we had a very good team, but unfortunately we didn’t have that bit of luck that you need sometimes to kick start winning trophies again. I don’t go along with the “it was negative, it was poor”, I think those people are being a little bit unkind to Dave.
FA Cup Semi Final Replay, 1979
So you don’t feel that Sexton was purposely negative in his style, just that he wasn’t what people were used to?
Well he wasn’t flamboyant was he? He wasn’t Tommy Docherty, but he was a well liked man by everybody in the club. He was a fantastic individual, Dave Sexton, and I’ve got a lot of time for him.
What was the final like? Obviously devastating having gotten yourself from 0-2 to 2-2, and then to suffer that late winner by Alan Sunderland… how disappointing was it as a player?
Well it was disappointing. It’s nice to have got to a Cup Final, and then to have equalised, but then they kicked off, and I just thought we weren’t ready. I’d gone from the left to the right, and there were a couple players but we couldn’t get near them. It went out to left which, you know, you’re thinking that’s where you want them to go, but the ball went in and went over Gary Bailey and they got the winner. It was really devastating at the time.
An article in 2002 in the Guardian describes your struggle with nerves before games for United, that you would stay up late drinking in order to calm you down before playing at Old Trafford… how accurate is it?
Well obviously the pressure of playing for the biggest club in the world… it’s quite demanding. And I did feel the pressure. I don’t think people understood in back in those days. You look at your Merson’s, your Gascoigne’s, your Adams’, what happened to them… I had the same sort of psychological problems. I was proud to have played some great games for United but I feel I still could have done better… I felt sometimes as if I played within myself, and that was down to the pressure.
It’s sad that some of the games greatest characters, such as yourself, seem to go through these problems…
Well there’ll be a lot more players that continue to go unidentified. A lot of players are under the pressure and depressed. People think it should just be normal, but it’s a pressure game, and we all know how hard depression is to handle.
That same article quotes Big Ron as saying he couldn’t believe it when you said you were quitting; and also that you regret not staying there longer.
Oh, of course I do. That’s my biggest regret in life, not staying there longer than I did. But I just couldn’t handle the pressure at the time. I can go back there now, I’ve been working there (ed: back at United in the media) for about 16 years, and I feel comfortable and confident in that environment. But I think initially I was a bit taken aback by it all.
Is it true that as a dare on an overseas tour you got off a plane at Heathrow as it was about to leave?
Yeah, that’s right but not a dare. That was owing to the pressure too.. I was feeling it then and just decided to get back off. The team went and flew to Poland and I just got a flight straight back to Manchester.
You didn’t last long at Everton after reportedly having a row with the manager about being dropped to the reserves..
Yeah… well, they told it was to improve my fitness, but I was already fit… it was the wrong thing to do, as there’s only going to be one winner in that situation and that’s the manager.
But you had a good spell at Chelsea…
Yeah, we played some great football at Chelsea.
Before that memorable return to Wrexham…
That’s right, yeah… 1992 wasn’t it, with the goal against Arsenal.
Yeah, that free kick is a goal that is replayed every year and every time there’s talk of a giant killing.
Did you see it?
Yeah, it was a cracking goal…
David Seaman didn’t see it!!
That was 20 years ago and every year I get the goal shown and articles every year about what a great goal it was, and that gets stronger as the years go by, and it gets further out every time people talk to me about it! It was a 25 yarder but with 20 years it’s become a shot from 40 yards out!
How special is it to have such a romantic lasting association with the Cup?
Yeah, I’ve got a great attachment with it haven’t I? I was lucky enough to score that goal and cause one of the biggest shocks of all time. It’ll be a long time… It’s been 20 years and I don’t think there’s been a better result since I’ve been finished. It’s incredible.
Internationally you represented Wales and scored in a famous 4-1 win over England in 1980; you played almost as many or more times for Wales as you did for any club aside from United and Wrexham. How proud are you to have represented Wales?
Yeah, I’m proud, I’m very proud. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to play that many times for my country. It would have been a lot more but I went missing for Wales as well didn’t I.. I could have had more caps but I had a great, long career in international football. It was fantastic.
(Mickey scoring for Wales in that win)
Moving on to your post career… Do you ever get sick of the printing money jokes? (Mickey was jailed after being found guilty in a money laundering operation)
No no, no! It’s something I’ve learned to live with. People like to have a bit of banter, and I’m man enough and big enough to take it, at 5’6! You know, it’s a bit of fun.
When you retired, you were in that era of players missed out on big player wages, but on the positive side, the growth in football coverage has been incredible.. you have tv & radio panel shows, you appear on MUTV, and then of course there are websites like ours that you have been kind enough to spend time talking to. So rather than bad timing having retired, do you see it as good timing to have gotten into the industry when you did?
For former footballers now it’s good enough with the way that TV and commentary gives them an opportunity… I played the game long enough and I know the game inside out. I’ve got an opinion like everyone else and it’s the benefit for the former players now isn’t it? They didn’t earn the type of money players earn today, and these players won’t have to work when they’re retired.
Yeah, when you put it like that it’s handy..
Well I’ve been doing it sixteen years haven’t I? As long as Ryan Giggs has been playing… I’m back up to the top now aren’t I!! I’ve done well in that respect and that gave me the opportunity to get back on my feet as such. It’s great that I can voice my opinion, I mean, I played the game for 22 years didn’t I!
You’re certainly one of my favourite pundits. You speak a lot of sense…
Oh, thanks! Well, I try and bring balance to it but I do it in a way that’s not horrible. In a nice way, constructive criticism, you know what I mean? People want to make a name just by being horrible. Doesn’t really go down too well does it?
Exactly. People just want to be controversial for the sake of it and barely have any conviction in their opinion…
Yeah, it’s to get work isn’t it!
Finally, name an all time United XI with yourself in it?
Ooof.. with myself in it? Bloody hell… that’s a great question that. Well Ryan Giggs is in it for sure because he’s done and won everything… Scholes too. I’ll go Edwin van der Sar… Gary Neville.. Denis Irwin… Centre backs, I’ll have to come back to.. in midfield we’ve got Scholes, Giggs, and we’ve got to have George Best.
Not a bad midfield.
No! Who can I have up front? Denis Law, I think.. and we need someone else. Rooney. And we need two centre backs… Ferdinand and Vidic!
Thanks for the chat, Mickey.
Thanks to Mickey for his time. Mickey will appear on the 7Cantonas podcast this week discussing the Ajax tie and the form of David De Gea amongst other things.
Thanks to Dan Burdett for assistance with the interview.