Sad story of Thornton's slide into obscurity
THERE'S a good chance you missed the details of the first Irishman across the water to complete a deal in this January transfer window. Sean Thornton's latest movements barely merited footnote status.
If his name doesn't ring a bell then the picture should. A decade ago, the bleach-blond midfielder from Drogheda was in the middle of his most active season at Sunderland, making 30 appearances as the Black Cats failed to achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
The following season they got it right, and one of the enduring images is the sight of Thornton on the Sky Sports cameras performing a rap as the victorious dressing-room drowned in a sea of champagne. A character, definitely, but he didn't play for Sunderland again. He would never add to his 11 top-flight appearances from the 2002/03 campaign.
Instead, he was shipped off to Doncaster for £200,000, and from there to Leyton Orient before waving goodbye to English league football in 2010. These days, he makes his money in Wales. On January 3, he signed for Bala Town who are, as it stands, the eighth best team in a league that is ranked in the bottom half-dozen of UEFA's 53 member nations. "A major signing for us," said boss Colin Caton.
Last August, another Welsh Premier League boss was equally thrilled to have secured the services of a player who represented Ireland all the way through from U-16 to U-21 level. "When I first spoke to Sean, I was very surprised he wasn't already with a club," said Chris Herbert of Conwy Borough. "He is still very ambitious. For a club like Conwy to pull the signing of Sean off is a big coup for this league as well as the club."
Thornton lined out just six times for Conwy before they parted ways. A disciplinary issue was central to his departure, while there is also believed to have been a disagreement over wages. Either way, it's fair to suggest that Herbert may now understand why an individual with a Premier League pedigree was free to speak to anyone.
Five years ago, this reporter travelled to Leyton Orient's training ground for a pre-arranged interview about his journey to that point. Things didn't start off too well when the apologetic press officer said that Thornton, who was within eyeshot, didn't feel like talking and would take a phone-call instead as he was feeling under the weather. With some gentle persuasion, strengthened by a guilt-trip about catching a red-eye flight, he changed his mind and we sat down for a chat, touching on certain aspects of his reputation which he said that he'd never fully addressed before. Drink was high on the agenda.
The majority of interviewees set out to portray themselves in the best possible light, especially when it comes to the tale of a fallen star with vague hopes of making it back to the big time.
Invariably, they either claim their bad-boy reputation is undeserved, or assert they have matured from their experiences and have left those days behind.
Thornton went for a common tactic and chose a little from column A and a little from column B. He was likeable, and nowhere near as brash as the caricature, leaving the impression that he was misguided rather than a miscreant. He spoke of socialising in the wrong places and how it planted a perception, but asserted that he would be getting his head down with a view to earning his next contract for the sake of the family.
His words were never going to convince people at that stage, though. Unless he reversed the direction of his career trajectory, the label of wasted talent would stick. When he pitched up at Aberystwyth Town in 2011 following the guts of a year without a club, he was excitedly heralded as the biggest signing in the history of Welsh football. He did make headlines on his debut – by getting sent off.
Injury subsequently struck, and while he made just 24 outings during his two years in Aberystwyth, it must be stressed that he never fell out with management. Once he made it onto the training pitch, his attitude met with approval and there was sympathy for his perceived bad luck. They still speak fondly of him. But that could be more a reflection of their standards than anything else.
The Welsh top flight is a convivial environment, where it is traditional for both teams to sit down for a meal together following every league match. Local hacks grew accustomed to the sight of their Irish star having a crafty cigarette on match day. The football is competitive, means a lot to the leading protagonists and a couple of outfits pay reasonable money. But let's not kid ourselves here. At the age of 30, Thornton should be elsewhere.
A few weeks back, this column touched on the issue of the teenage kids cast aside from English clubs who come home to Ireland and disappear without a trace because the system forgets them. Thornton's descent is a sad story too, yet for a completely different reason. Blessed with the natural ability to play in the top flight as a teenager, he was given enough chances to get it right.
"If you're in a league for three and a half years, you have to consider yourself a League One player," he said in 2009. After almost three and a half years in his current division, he's a fully fledged Welsh League player, by his own criteria. The slide into obscurity is a desperate shame, but it's difficult to argue that he deserves any better.