Exclusive - FA Cup final captain speaks to Independent.ie about battling back from leukaemia
Geoff Thomas had only hung up his well worn boots a year before his world was rocked by a diagnosis that changed his life.
As a doctor informed 38-year-old Thomas that he was fighting a battle against chronic myeloid leukaemia, everything he had achieved in a sporting career that saw him play nine times for the senior England side was relegated to a minor detail on his radar.
The leader who wore the captain's armband during Crystal Palace’s 1990 FA Cup final defeat against Manchester United was facing up to the biggest fight of his life and on the eve of a belated Wembley rematch between the same two sides in this year’s FA Cup final, Thomas reflected on his story with Independent.ie.
“You change your mindset on the world when a doctor tells you that your time on this earth may soon be over,” begins Thomas.
“I went from the game of playing football into a game of trying to keep myself alive. There are challenges that present themselves in every day life, but nothing compares to that kind of diagnosis.
“The doctors didn’t know whether I would come through successfully because while there have been huge breakthroughs in the treatment for childhood leukaemia, blood cancer remains a major issue in adults.
“As a relatively fit and healthy person, the last thing you think about is something like that, but I have been fortunate to come through the other side now.
“I still see the doctors that helped me to get to this point, but I do so now in a role as a fund raiser for leukaemia charities. I am not a patient any more. It feels amazing to be able to say that.
“I live every day differently now. I am just grateful to be here with my family and spending time with my kids means more to me than ever before now. It has been a long journey to get to this point, but the end result is successful.
“We didn’t know whether I would make it when the diagnosis came through, but I was in good hands with the doctors who looked after me, but some are not as lucky as me and we need to keep pushing to fight this disease.
“I have been told by a few doctors that we could get adult blood cancers under control if the right funding goes into research and medicine over the next 20 years, but I don’t want be hearing the same story two decades from now. We need to do all we can to fight this illness and hopefully me talking about it raises awareness.”
It was a fresh faced Thomas who led Palace into the 1990 FA Cup final against Alex Ferguson's United, with the future of the United manager on the line as the underdogs stormed into a 3-2 lead courtesy of two Ian Wright goals heading into the closing stages of extra-time.
A Lee Martin winner in the replay the following Thursday set Ferguson on his way to a quarter of a century of success as United manager, with Thomas not alone in wondering what might have been if Palace had lifted the FA Cup 26 years ago.
“As a Manchester lad and a big City fan when I was growing up, it’s especially tough for me to think that my Palace team may have started the ball for Ferguson winning all his trophies at United,” reflects Thomas.
“The trophy was there for us in extra-time. United were tired and didn’t have much left, but we let them back in and Mark Hughes punished us with an equaliser seven minutes from the end of extra time. We had chances in the replay as well, but the positive from that day is it changed the lives of so many of the Palace team.
“I played for England after that, our strikers Ian Wright and Mark Bright went on to enjoy great careers in the game and Alan (Pardew) has become a great manager in the last few years with the help of the profile his semi-final winner gave him back in 1990.
“It was a great story in so many ways, apart from the final act because we had chances in the replay to win that trophy as well, but maybe now, all these years later, Palace will get their hands on the FA Cup by beating Man Utd in the final at Wembley. How amazing that Palace are back in their first final since then and Man Utd are standing in the way again.
“I think they have real chance to get the job done as well this time and it would be a great moment for me to see Alan lift that FA Cup.
“Here was a guy who was always trying to prove he had a right to be in our team and he achieved that aim.
“Now Alan has spent the last few years proving he deserves to be a Premier League manager and if he wins the FA Cup, he will never have to prove himself again.”
Thomas has raised thousands of pounds for the Cure Leukaemia charity in recent years and he is missing Palace’s FA Cup final against United as he will be in the midst of his latest charity bike ride in Paris.
“We have booked the event long in advance and it is bad luck that Palace reach the FA Cup final and I have to miss it,” adds Thomas.
“I will be cheering on the boys from afar and as was the case when the Palace team I was a part of played Man Utd in the 1990 FA Cup final, it will be a close game, but I’m backing Palace to nick it and make history by winning the club’s first big trophy.”
For so many reasons, Thomas never thought he would live to see the day when Palace would lift the FA Cup. That fantasy could become a reality this weekend.
Geoff Thomas is currently cycling from London to Paris to raise money for Cure Leukaemia. He went into remission from Leukaemia in 2005. To donate visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Geoff-Thomas-2015.