On the 30th anniversary of the versatile midfielder’s arrival from Arsenal, James Noble recalls the career of a man who had a genuinely unique set of impacts upon the club.
Few Liverpool players can have joined knowing that there is every chance that they have already enjoyed their most famous moment on the Anfield turf. Michael Thomas is more than likely one such man – and he still made substantial contributions for the Reds.
“It’s up for grabs now!” The words of the late, great, Brian Moore are – quite rightly – firmly etched into football folklore.
Just as the events that cued them are – Thomas bursting through in the second minute of added time to give Arsenal the 2-0 Anfield win they needed to overtake Liverpool, on goals-scored, and win the 1988/89 First Division title in the season’s final match.
Friday May 26, 1989 was an example of sporting drama at its most intense.
Enthralling for neutrals, joyful for the Gunners and, of course, ultimately gut-wrenching for the Reds.
It could hardly have been written more thrillingly.
Thomas, only 21 at the time, had just made a timeless mark on English football and both clubs.
It earned his boyhood team their first league title since their 1971 double success and denied Kenny Dalglish’s men their second double in four seasons – the Reds had won an emotional all-Merseyside FA Cup final just six days earlier.
This was also a night for perspective.
It came only 41 days after the Hillsborough disaster. This match was when it was – and was a standalone – as a result of Liverpool’s fixtures understandably being delayed in the aftermath of the awful events in Sheffield on April 15.
Touchingly, each of Arsenal’s players emerged from the tunnel before kick-off with a bouquet of flowers that they then presented to the Anfield crowd.
Thomas may have inflicted considerable footballing pain on Liverpool players, staff and supporters alike when his goal decisively doubled the lead earned by Alan Smith’s 52nd-minute header, but he would be a Red himself within three years.
And he would be a source of considerable joy over the course of nearly seven years on Merseyside where he made 167 appearances, scored 12 goals and provided nine assists.
Born on August 24, 1967 in Lambeth, South London, Thomas signed schoolboy forms with the Gunners in 1982 and turned professional on New Year’s Eve 1984.
Following a brief loan spell at Portsmouth in the early weeks of 1987, the then 19-year-old debuted – of all matches – in a North London derby on February 8 as Arsenal lost the home first-leg of their League Cup semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur 1-0.
A 2-1 second-leg success and subsequent replay victory teed up a final with a certain Liverpool, though – a game which produced another 2-1 Arsenal win and earned Thomas, who came on as a late substitute, the first silverware of his career.
‘87/88 saw the flexible Thomas mainly play at right-back – but still notch nine goals in 37 appearances – before Lee Dixon’s arrival in the summer of 1988 saw him push on into midfield.
The conclusion of that next season – in which he won his first of two England caps – brought that aforementioned iconic moment, of course.
It was a goal that displayed many of his key qualities, too.
He showed significant dynamism to run beyond Smith, latch onto his pass and race onto the ricochet that took him past Steve Nicol, and then considerable awareness and composure to pause and then flick the ball beyond the committed Bruce Grobbelaar.
After Liverpool topped the table in 1990, another First Division title would follow for Thomas at Highbury in 1991.
A fallout with manager George Graham then led to his switch to Anfield a few months later.
By now 24, he signed for Graeme Souness’ Reds for £1.5 million on December 16, 1991.
His debut, as a substitute, arrived just two days later – again against Spurs, just this time at White Hart Lane.
Thomas’ first goal came a month later, in a 3-2 league victory over Oldham Athletic at Boundary Park on January 18.
The last of his total of 22 appearances for the Reds in that debut season came at Wembley in the 1992 FA Cup final.
A day which also brought his fifth Liverpool goal of the campaign. And it was some effort.
He opened the scoring in the 47th minute as he let a Steve McManaman pass bounce into his stride on the right side of the box before he arrowed a stunning right-footed volley across goalkeeper Tony Norman and into the top-left corner.
Thomas also teed up Ian Rush’s second 20 minutes later as the Reds came out on top in a closely fought showpiece.
Injuries began to bite that bit more from 1992/93, however. After snapping his Achilles tendon in the January of that season, he didn’t play again until early 1994.
He would be limited to just eight appearances in ‘92/93 and seven the following campaign.
Things did pick up in 1994/95, though, when he played 29 games across all competitions – 19 of them starts – during Roy Evans’ first full season at the helm.
That trajectory continued in 1995/96 and 1996/97.
He made 37 and 42 appearances respectively as his well-rounded midfield qualities allowed the likes of John Barnes and McManaman the additional freedom that their creative talents so often thrived upon.
1997/98 saw his game time drop off again, however, as Jamie Redknapp was the regular first choice.
He made only 13 appearances for the Reds that term, either side of a loan spell at Middlesbrough between early February and late March 1998.
With the likes of Danny Murphy and Norwegian Øyvind Leonhardsen now seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order, Thomas opted to move on to Benfica – where former boss Souness was in charge – that summer.
But he had a largely tough couple of seasons in Lisbon as Souness was replaced at the end of 1998/99 by Jupp Heynckes and Thomas then found himself playing much of his football in the reserves.
A single campaign at Wimbledon followed before he announced his retirement on May 31, 2001.
He’s regularly featured in Liverpool Legends sides in the years since he hung up his boots and that reflects the high esteem he is still held in.
That moment for Arsenal, against Liverpool, was always going to stand alone – and stand out – to a large extent.
That he followed that by forging a thoroughly respectable – and, in the case of his cup final goal, spectacular – legacy as one of Anfield’s own is testament to the player he was over several years.
A player with the biggest of moments. A player who, even so, was that and far more.
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