MICKEY THOMAS is a survivor - and not only on the football pitch where his high-energy, fully committed performances were mixed with real quality in two spells for The Potters, which made him a firm fan’s favourite.
Here, we talk to the North Walian about his time in the game, and recently winning the biggest battle of his life - against cancer.

Tell us about growing up as a lad in North Wales

Well, I grew up in a town called Mochdre  - I lived on a council estate and it wasn’t very easy looking back on it. I wasn’t intelligent, I wasn’t clever in school. All I could do was kick a football.  That was what I used to do 24/7. I used to play every second, every minute.  That was the thing in those days - everybody wanted to play football and I was no different as a kid.

 You started at Wrexham where you played 230 games for them – why did it take you so long to get spotted by a bigger club?

Well, I had already been spotted on lots of occasions but I declined to move. I turned down Tottenham, Newcastle and Sunderland. I could have gone to Villa but I was happy to play my football there. I was happy to stay there as I really enjoyed it.  

You moved for to Manchester United for £300,000 to replace Gordon Hill. Did you feel under lots of pressure? How did you handle it?

I didn’t feel pressure from taking over from Gordon Hill because I wasn’t an out and out left-winger. I much preferred to play midfield but left hand side. I more felt the pressure of playing for the biggest club in the world! It was quite daunting really. I had played 90 times, 11 goals… I sometimes feel as though I played within myself at times.

That wink on Match of the Day was ace…tell us about it

Well yeah! I played for Man United against Tottenham and played against Glen Hoddle and Steve Perryman - and I just fell over! It wasn’t really wasn’t a foul..  As I got up I winked to the left back and what happened – they had a camera at ground level and picked me up winking! It caused me lots of problems really. I was just laughing that I got a free kick then obviously I got a bit too much publicity from it because it was on MOTD.  It hindered me a bit because in other matches I wasn’t getting free kicks I should have been…..

You had brief spells at Brighton and with your beloved Everton –why didn’t they work out?

Well, I had lots of problems really didn’t I? And once you have been at Manchester United you know that the only way is down really. 

You turned down Ken Bates the night before you signed for Stoke, didn’t you?

I had already signed for Stoke City and I already shook on a deal -then Ken Bates made a phone call on the Thursday night and asked me if I wanted to sign. I had been told by a lot of people in the game that I should choose Stoke.  I stuck on my handshake fortunately, because it was Stoke who revitalised my career. I had a great time at Stoke….. I never let Stoke City down on the football field and any stoke fan from that era will confirm I had an outstanding time at the club, scored some magnificent goals…... I had a great time.

Talk us through your first season at Stoke…..

I think it was the best season Stoke had had for many a year - we played some thrilling football. Sammy McIlroy, Paul Bracewell…..Mark Chamberlain, who was on his day an absolute world beater, an unbelievable player. We had a very good side. Big Brendan O’Callaghan up front - we had a really good balance which resulted in some brilliant games.

THAT goal against Liverpool, a bit special, eh?

Sammy McIlroy was in the midfield pulling the strings that day! I think Phil Thompson headed it out…As it came out I hit it on the half volley off the side of my boot and its gone right into the top right hand corner. That was one of the best goals I’ve ever scored.  (My family still talk about it all the time… ) It was a stunning goal. A great strike against a great team. Get in!

We went from playing great football to long-ball POMO under Richie Barker. How deflating was that?

Well that was the downfall of the team because we were playing some classy football.  Barks went on a coaching course and came back with a philosophy of kick it as far as you can and you know…….get on the end of that one. That didn’t suit anybody in the midfield because you just bypass them.  It wasn’t good football to watch or play.

Why did you leave Stoke in 1984?

I had decided that it was best to part. I fell out of love with the football we were playing.. ….that was always the main thing for me. That certainly didn’t help.  Stoke had an offer for me in from Chelsea. That was it really. I didn’t want to turn them down again… they were on the verge of promotion back into the big time and I felt like I could be the last part of the puzzle there. We played some great football down there and I had a wonderful time.

'He could be up all night in London, sleep in the Chelsea boot room, drive to training for a quarter to ten and still lead the cross country in training,' That was said about you once. Correct?

Yeah! I was a fit person, I could run all day. The lifestyle didn’t affect me otherwise I might have had to change my ways.  I used to like travelling back with Joey Jones. I enjoyed it! That was the format in those days – you could pretty much do what you want. Obviously its more different these days but that’s how it was. You didn’t earn vast amounts of money and you couldn’t really afford to live in London.  Far too expensive for me!

You celebrated goals like a fan would if we scored for Stoke. I remember a late winner at Bradford and a diving header at Orient. Must be as good a feeling as you can get, scoring important goals?

Yeah! The late goal at Bradford.. We were losing 1-0 and I notched the equaliser and went on to bag the winning goal. There was a pitch invasion after a gate opened, if I remember correctly?  After the game I was chatting and celebrating with Alan Ball in the dressing room when the Police tapped on my shoulder, wanting to talk to me about starting a riot!  I just said, “I’ve just scored the winning goal what do you want me to do?”

I remember the one against Orient as well, another late on if I remember right. Scored some great goals for Stoke in the periods I was there. Fantastic.

You were Player of the Year twice for us yet left very soon after both. Why?

Well I don’t know really. It’s the way I spent my career really. Didn’t spend much time anywhere. Bit of a traveller really, a nomad.  But all the clubs I played for….I loved. Man United, I maybe regret leaving there when I did.  Any Stoke fan or Chelsea fan I encountered would tell you that I had a great time at their clubs, and I have a great respect for all my teams. I still go to watch them when I can. Everywhere I have gone I have loved it. I love football. That’s it!

How much did you enjoy your time in Stoke and what was the social life like?

Yeah, I still talk to a few people. Anton and that lot - a few of the old Stoke fans! I try and go up when I can. I love watching football.  If I can get anywhere to watch I usually do. Man United have been fantastic to me as a football club - I am still involved with them. I go to Wrexham a lot, my first club as a child.  Anybody who knows me knows what I am like and I have a big respect for football. I’ve been very lucky. I had a wonderful career.

In your book you talk about Chelsea and sleeping at the training ground and in hostels. That must have been an unhappy time?

It was an experience. Don’t forget, we couldn’t afford to live in 5 star hotels so we just had to do what we could do. We usually stayed in a £15 a night hostel. We had some great times, don’t get me wrong. It was just the way it was in those days. It wasn’t all about playing for money.

Drinking before games. How did it help you to perform and how come you always seemed to have so much energy and ace fitness levels?

I think when I was playing for Man United it was just the pressure. I used to have a drink on the sly just to relax me. I think only when you have played for a club of that level that it can sometimes have an effect on the players. It was all about taking your mind off the pressure. I had some wonderful games, brilliant games, but sometimes I think I just felt the pressure a bit too much.

Tell us what you have done since finishing football Mickey…..

Well, I have been walking lots in North Wales where I live, media work, watching lots of Wrexham, Stoke and Man United games, playing golf and spending time with family……

When did you first realise that something was physically wrong with you?

In early 2018, I struggled eating simple food such as apples, and could not keep it down.  I went to the doctors frequently and they thought it was acid reflux. When I was first told that it was oesophagus cancer my first thoughts were of my family, and the impact it would have on them. Eventually, I went private and was told that I had 30% chance of survival.

Are you by nature an optimist or a pessimist?

I am optimistic by nature, but anyone diagnosed with cancer knows the shock and fear it brings. I know that I have a reputation when I was on the pitch for being tough, but away from the pitch I am happy go lucky, enjoy meeting people and talking about football.

Tell us about the actual timetable of going through treatment and chemotherapy……..

I had a long year: 13 weeks prior to my operation of chemo, then the operation, and then another 13 weeks…….oesophagus cancer has very low survival rates without the operation and I had to have an emergency operation as the tumour was a very difficult size and there were chances of it spreading. Without surgery, I wouldn’t have lived for long…..

How long were you in hospital after the operation and tell us about what the process of recuperation at home…..  

I was in hospital for two weeks, and then my recuperation was mainly small walks to begin with and trying to rebuild my strength.

You have now been cancer free for two years - how much is beating cancer about the mental side of things?

It is a very large part of the recovery. You have to keep positive and try to keep both your mental and physical health. Living where I do has been great, being by the sea and the mountains - lots of fresh air and walks.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to work recently due to lockdown, like many others. When lockdown ends, I’m looking forward to things returning to normal and getting back to walking in the mountains again.

What does the future hold for you now, Mickey? Are you planning ahead and do you have a bucket list of things you want to do?  

No, I’m just taking each day as it comes!