UTD Podcast: Why joining United was just too much for Mickey Thomas
The latest episode of UTD Podcast provides a fascinating insight into the confident mindset that is needed to succeed at Manchester United - from a man who openly admits he didn't have that vital ingredient.
Mickey Thomas is the former player in question, a cult hero among Reds fans of a certain age, who loved his sweet left foot and energetic style in the late 1970s and early 1980s - not to mention his penchant for conjuring goals against arch-rivals Liverpool, with an assist for Jimmy Greenhoff's winner in the 1979 FA Cup semi-final replay standing out.
But if supporters were also drawn to his cheeky and buoyant personality, then this week's guest on our official podcast - available to download or stream now - has a confession to make.
"That was just an act really," Thomas tells the hosts Helen Evans, Sam Homewood and David May.
"I came over as a confident person, some people thought I was cocky, but I wasn't. I haven't told this side of the story before but I couldn't walk into a room on my own, I was petrified. I was scared to walk into a dressing room, I didn't like it."
UTD Podcast: I was petrified when United signed me
Happy birthday, Mickey Thomas! Here he reveals just how nervous he was ahead of his Reds debut in 1978...
The respective sizes of the clubs involved in Thomas's first football transfer may go some way to explaining his anxiety. He joined United from Wrexham, who were then in the Third Division and the nearest league team to his small home town in North Wales.
In 2020, Wrexham made headlines when the club was acquired by two Hollywood actors in Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, star of the Deadpool movies. But back in 1978, there were no such benefactors around and the Robins couldn't afford to turn down United's bid for Thomas.
"The Wrexham manager called me and said, 'Manchester United have made a bid of £350,000 for you and we need the money, so you're going to go,' Mickey recalls on the podcast.
"I scored in my last game for Wrexham, against Leicester City at Filbert Street, and met the [United] manager Dave Sexton afterwards. He sat me down and said, 'I've been after you for a long time because you've got a great left foot and my centre-forwards Jimmy Greenhoff and Joe Jordan are going to love the balls you can supply for them.'
"Then he said, 'What do you want?'
“I said, 'What do you mean?'
“I said, 'No, I don't want any money, I'm not interested, I just want to be a footballer.' Sexton had never heard that one before but he said he'd look after me.
“Money wasn't in the game as much then so it was never in my mind that I wanted to get paid this or that. I wanted to be a footballer and I had the opportunity of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“Being a shy and nervous individual, I went into a different environment which was going to change my life forever. I was in every newspaper and on the TV and I wasn't used to that.”
During the podcast, Thomas vividly remembers how he felt on his first day of training with United.
"I was so nervous to walk into the dressing room. I parked my car and sat there for an hour and 45 minutes, that's how early I was. I was thinking, 'What am I going to do?' Then I recognised Arthur Albiston as he walked past, so I went into the dressing room with him and sat next to Stevie Coppell, because he was about my size!"
The transport and accommodation favoured by United for an away game, such as his debut at Chelsea, were also unsettling for the new signing from Wrexham.
"We got a first-class train which I wasn't used to. I used to thumb lifts to games sometimes! Then we stayed in a five-star hotel. It was hard for my room-mate, Gary Bailey, because I was awake all night, nervous.
"I'd got to where I wanted to get [in football] and I was thinking, 'Can I handle it?'
"Luckily enough, we won the game and I made the goal for Jimmy Greenhoff. I got back on the train and went home and thought, 'This is a different world'. I was still petrified... I still had my home debut to come!"
'The night I went to George Michael's party'
Mickey Thomas tells UTD Podcast a tale from his Chelsea days, when he used to sleep over at Stamford Bridge...
Thomas has worked as a football pundit since calling time on a playing career that also took him to Everton, Stoke, Chelsea, Leeds and Wrexham again, among other clubs, after his 110 games and 15 goals in three seasons with United.
But to hear him speak so openly and honestly on the podcast about the mental toll of being a top-flight footballer, not to mention his gruelling recent battle with cancer, it makes you wonder if Mickey could have an alternative career as a counsellor.
"The fear comes from inside you, because you have to go out there and perform," he explains, when asked by Sam Homewood why he was so nervous as a United player.
"I remember a game against Liverpool, probably one of the first big games I played in, when I couldn't move my legs, they were like lead. I was nervous and I couldn't perform. I felt intimidated.
“When you cross that white line, people don't know what you're going through. The fans don't really know you. They think you're perfect but you're not, you're a human being. I'm a human being and we all have problems but you can't tell the fans what they are.
“I've done a lot of commentating over the years and because I've been a player, I understand sometimes why someone hasn't performed [for United]. Maybe, like me, they couldn't handle it.
“In my era, there was nobody around who you could talk to about it. If I'd said to somebody, 'I'm scared', they would have laughed at me. So I had to keep that inside me and, in the end, I had to leave.”
You can listen to the Mickey Thomas episode on all leading podcast platforms now.