'I'm enjoying my football more now than I ever did'
Soccer: North East Football League
He's starred in the English Premiership and lined out for a decade for Championship and League 1 clubs, but Sean Thornton feels life can't get better than lining out on his own doorstep with Rathmullen Celtic.
The 34-year-old midfielder, who returned across the Irish Sea three years ago to play for Drogheda United, officially hung up his professional boots last summer but dusted them off again to play in the North East League and is enjoying every minute of it.
Thornton coached Rathmullen initially and helped get them promoted from Division 4 and they are now chasing the Division 3 title, having gone the entire league season unbeaten to date under current manager Stuart Barnett.
'To be honest, I'm enjoying my football more than ever,' said the former Sunderland star, who scored a spectacular goal against Chelsea in the Premier League in 2003 and and enjoyed a number of successful years in the Championship and League 1.
'That's because, for the first time in my career, I've been able to play without any pressure and just do it for enjoyment.
'It's like being a kid again, playing football with your mates who you've known for a lifetime, and it's really great playing on a Sunday and then afterwards have a bit of a laugh and go out for something to eat and maybe a couple of pints.
'You are always getting judged, especially nowadays. It wasn't too bad when I was in England because there was no social media - Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and the like. But since I came home to Drogheda it's become part and parcel of life to be judged when things weren't going so well - like the first season with Drogheda United when we got relegated and people were saying I shouldn't be going out.
'It's been different with Rathmullen. We've been getting good results and you can relax more. We have a bit of experience and a lot of young lads and it's a good balance.'
In the North East League, Thornton has found that his playing colleagues have been more interested in learning about the game and taking advice, and that's another aspect that he's enjoyed.
'In football I've found that everybody thinks they know best. There's an attitude - 'we know best' - but they don't. At Drogheda United you couldn't really give advice because they thought they already knew it, even though they'd maybe only played in the league for a year.
'With these lads [at Rathmullen] though, they work hard and any time I've taken a training session they want to learn and then they take that into the next game.
'That didn't come overnight. The first two years weren't great because we had a lot of sendings-off and suspensions, so this year we said the focus would be on discipline on and off the pitch and I don't think we even had a single booking in our last match.'
Looking back to 2015 when he first became involved with Rathmullen Celtic, Thornton was only too pleased to link up with his old pal Robbie McDonnell.
'We go back to when we were kids and we were schoolmates. He was the founder of Rathmullen Celtic and I went in as a coach with him.
'I said when I did retire that I'd love to play for the club and thankfully I've got that opportunity, but our success isn't just down to me. Robbie is the main man behind the scenes, doing things like washing the kit, which people don't see. He stuck at it and without him there would be no Rathmullen Celtic.'
Ironically, his coaching connections with Rathmullen led to Thornton being forced to retire from senior football a few months earlier than planned, because of what Drogheda United felt was a breach of contract. He remains bitter about that episode, but does anticipate making a return visit to United Park in the future - albeit only as a spectator.
The Brookville native still has a lot to offer in the game as a player, but despite enjoying some success as a coach that's not a direction he intends to take.
'I'll keep playing until the legs fall off,' he said, 'and I don't think going into coaching is for me. I've been in football long enough and I don't want to go down that avenue.
'I don't know what I'm going to do with my life now. I've enjoyed my retirement for the first three or four months, but I've too much spare time on my hands and I'm starting work soon in a hospital.
'With Rathmullen, it would be nice to have a bit of success.
'We're in the semi-final of one shield and the quarter-final of another, and we'll go for the league, which is the big thing. It's the one you get the most satisfaction out of. In the cups you can get a easy run and then anything can happen in a final, but if you win the league it means you're the best team and it would be a great achievement for Rathmullen Celtic.
'But we're so close and yet so far away. You hear of teams going for the treble and they end up with nothing.'