After five years out of the game, former Manchester United reserves and academy captain, Tom Thorpe, has returned to football with a smile on his face.
Most recognizable as the captain of United’s 2011 FA Youth Cup winning side, Thorpe was a highly rated young centre back with exceptional ability on the ball.
Despite coming through the academy in a group including Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison, it was Thorpe who commanded the armband for both United and England through the age groups.
But the transition into senior football wasn’t easy for the youth star who recently revealed to the Manchester Evening News that “there was a time when I thought I’d never… well, I didn’t want to play again.”
Thorpe’s recent interview with the outlet comes two years after he actually refused any contact and looked to disappear into the abyss away from the footballing world.
The defender’s return to football came in February when he signed for the recently formed Macclesfield FC, a phoenix club for the folded Macclesfield Town, and it has been a fantastic start with the club already sealing the Northern Premier League Division One West title.
Thorpe still looks back fondly on his time at United saying he was and is still a huge United fan and that he had the best coaches and facilities around him.
One stand out figure earning Thorpe’s respect during his time with United was former reserves manager Warren Joyce, who Thorpe regales “he could manage the player and the whole dressing room as well. In pre-season, he’d be at the front, leading the running, which earned him respect. You wanted to do it for him; you really wanted to put everything into it. If we had a first-team player who was coming back from injury, he’d play with us, and they instantly respected him. It wasn’t the case that they tossed it off.”
“You’d always have that doubt — are they going to keep me or are they going to release me? I was fortunate enough to go through it all. Playing on brilliant teams and winning things. We won loads with Warren, he’s probably the best manager that I’ve had.”
It is not all roses looking back though, as the former youth star is still confused about his dealings with Louis van Gaal.
Coming through the ranks at an unfortunate time, Thorpe was well-rated by Sir Alex Ferguson, but upon the boss’ retirement Thorpe was left scrambling at square one with David Moyes and then Van Gaal.
Despite being the reserves captain and preferred as the main centre back at youth level, Thorpe and partner Michael Keane were immediately overlooked by the Dutch manager in favour of the younger Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair.
“I don’t and would never begrudge players being selected ahead of me, but it was difficult to understand why I hadn’t been selected as the more experienced player.
“I was playing in the reserves, captain of the reserves, playing ahead of them both. I felt like I couldn’t leave on loan because this huge opportunity could come around.
“I spoke to Warren constantly throughout it, and he told me to stick around. I was playing ahead of them in the reserves and the youth teams. I’d have coaches saying to me, ‘You’ll have that opportunity now that players are injured.’ For whatever reason, I was overlooked.
“There was no explanation. Other coaches came up to me and said, ‘What have you done?’ As if I’d had a discussion or an argument with him (Van Gaal). They’d ask what had happened, and I’d genuinely not done anything.
“I didn’t understand why. As far as I was concerned, I had displayed everything that was necessary from a United player. I had done everything I could.”
The boyhood fan’s dream would eventually come true, making his debut as a late injury time sub at Old Trafford against West Ham. But what should have been a day to remember was left with a bitter note due to the manager.
“At first I was like, does it count? I look back at it now, and no matter what time I came on or however long it was, I played at Old Trafford for United, the biggest club in the world.
“It was amazing. Coming to the changing room afterwards one of the older players came up to me and was surprised. He presumed I’d already made my debut.
“Then Van Gaal walked over to me. He patted me on the cheek and said, ‘You’re welcome.’ That completely tainted the whole experience.
“It felt like I hadn’t worked hard all these years to deserve the opportunity. It was as though he’d done me a favour — a handout. It was just the most patronising feeling at the time.
“There’s no explanation as to why someone would do that. I guess that says more about his character than anything else. I spent nearly every day there since I was six. Training, working hard, doing the right things with the correct attitude. For him to then do that after making my debut, it left a sour taste. I think from then on, my mind was made up. I wanted to leave.”
Thorpe left United at the end of the season and was advised to go to Rotherham United but with a slew of injuries and Rotherham going through five managers in his debut season, he was unable to gain any consistency during his time there before enjoying a successful period on loan with Bolton where he helped the club achieve promotion to the Championship.
Thinking he found a good new home, Thorpe agreed to join permanently but due to the financial situation at the club being on the brink of bankruptcy, Bolton were unable to complete new signings and the new season started with Thorpe and a number of other players uncertain of the situation.
Starting to feel disillusioned with football, Thorpe looked to escape to India with the hand of former United striker Teddy Sheringham after unsuccessfully trialling with New York City FC in the MLS.
An injury during his time in India was the start of the end for the defender. A string of further injuries during rehab from a hernia problem left the young star with no hope.
“I didn’t want to continue in this bullshit cycle … There was nothing. It was severe depression. There’s no other way to put it. I had zero motivation for doing anything, or speaking to anyone. It was just this feeling of constant darkness.”
Struggling with depression for a number of years, Thorpe credits his family, girlfriend, and dog with helping him through the dark period, as well as reaching out to get therapy.
“I’ve learnt it’s not a weakness to be honest about things and to speak to people about things. It’s the opposite… There’s nothing tougher in the world than having to fight with your own mind every single day.”
“For a while now I’ve been going to therapy and it’s helped hugely. One thing I’ve realised is that depression will always be there. But it’s about me being able to understand it and being able to cope with it.”
Starting to look up, it was a chance encounter that Thorpe got back onto the pitch after being invited to a private Whatsapp group set up by former Manchester City star Stephen Ireland. This gave him the belief that he could start playing professionally again.
With encouragement from his girlfriend Katie to give it another shot, Thorpe received an invitation to train with Macclesfield before eventually signing a contract.
Finally happy to be enjoying his football again, Thorpe is keen to help anyone else in his situation saying “if anybody needed help, I’m more than happy to talk about either my own experience or any knowledge I’ve gained from therapy.”
“There needs to be aftercare in place for when players leave a club. I think one of the reasons I want to put this out there is that I want there to be more people who can come forward and speak about how they feel. It isn’t a weakness; it’s extremely brave to be able to say you need help.
“I’ve had plenty of injuries in my time, but by far the worst was in my head. I think that’s how I had to view it. Things should be put in place. I think they’d find that there’d be more and more people that would admit to requiring help.”
If any of our readers are currently dealing with mental struggles in their life, please reach out to the professional resources available to you including those below.
Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk/
CALM – https://www.thecalmzone.net/
Samaritans – https://www.samaritans.org/