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'I gave the manager the excuse he needed' - Everton dream transfer ended after just 11 games

There have been plenty of regrets from players and the club alike over True Blues that left Everton too soon but Mickey Thomas’ 11-game spell at Goodison Park remains one of the most lamentable.

Thomas – who celebrates his 70th birthday today – might be viewed by many as one of football’s loveable rogues but he was also a hugely gifted player who could light up any match on his day, as displayed by his famous free-kick as a 37-year-old in 1992 to dump reigning League Champions Arsenal out of the FA Cup while turning out for Fourth Division Wrexham. This correspondent was fortunate enough to spend time with the former footballer during my time at the Welsh Daily Post and it was always a joy to be in his company.

He joined us for our staff Christmas meal at a local restaurant in Llandudno and took all the inevitable gags about paying the bill with dodgy notes in good humour even if they were regular reminders of a dark period in his life. He also once turned up for our weekly five-a-side kickabout where, sharing a sports hall with an assortment of office workers and farmers, he – despite by this stage being in his 50s – predictably bossed proceedings with minimal effort and without the requirement of having to make a single tackle, regularly placing shots into the top corner of the goal every few minutes when he felt like it.

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Thomas though had clearly mellowed with age though when it came to playing alongside those of lesser talents than himself as his dream move to Goodison ended up being short and not-so-sweet after he was sent packing by the club’s most-successful manager Howard Kendall for refusing to turn out in a reserve team match. Kendall, who was only on the cusp of his 35th birthday when he returned to the club as Blues boss in 1981, was still playing for odd game himself for Everton’s second string when he first came back.

Asked earlier this year what his former gaffer was like as a player at this time, Thomas’ fellow Wales international Kevin Ratcliffe told the ECHO: “Howard was great… when you had the ball – that was the same in training by the way – but he wasn’t so great at getting the ball back anymore. His qualities, his first touch and his awareness were still there, and you could see why he’d been a great player.”

Despite his own tender age for a top-flight manager, Kendall was not concerned by reputations when it came to sticking his stars in what pros would disparagingly call “the stiffs” as shown by the time he made Everton’s record signing Tony Cottee turn out for the Blues A team (the equivalent of the third XI), against Morecambe where he ended up playing against his own window cleaner. Unlike Cockney Cottee, who started his career at West Ham United having been a boyhood Irons fan, Mochdre-born Thomas was a lifelong Evertonian.

Liverpool legend Joey Jones, who was later a club colleague of Thomas at Chelsea, when the pair would make a daily commute to train near Heathrow Airport – infuriating chairman Ken Bates when he told them to move closer only for the maverick midfielder to merely relocate a few miles up the North Wales coast – recalls how they were pals from the first time they met as youngsters. The left-back, who would also line-up alongside Thomas at Wrexham, said: “I remember the first day I met Mickey.

“We were both picked for North Wales Schoolboys under 15s. I was on the bus already and we picked up players on the way.

“Mickey was one of them and he sat next to me. He had his school uniform on, and I remember looking at his tie. It was red and grey and in the grey bits he’d written Everton all over it with pen.

“Obviously I was Liverpool but we hit it off straight away and been best mates ever since. He’s like a brother to me.”

Mickey Thomas in his Everton kit for the start of the 1981/82 season
Mickey Thomas in his Everton kit for the start of the 1981/82 season -Credit:Action Images

After 283 appearances and 37 goals in his first spell at Wrexham, played exclusively in the Third Division until his final season, Thomas got his big break in the top flight when he joined Manchester United in the 1979/79 campaign. He played 110 matches and netted 15 goals for the Red Devils before making what seemed like a dream move to his beloved Everton in the summer of 1981 when he became one of Kendall’s “Magnificent Seven” in terms of a clutch of new faces brought to the club by the rookie manager.

However, only fellow North Walian, goalkeeper Neville Southall, proved to be a long-term success from among the initial recruits and Thomas’ time with the Blues was over after just 11 outings following his refusal to play for the reserves. Thomas had missed two games with a hamstring injury and Kendall wanted him to prove his fitness before putting him back in the senior team.

At the time, Kendall, who sold Thomas to Brighton & Hove Albion for £400,000, was quick to defend his actions. The Everton manager said: “Thomas let me down, the players and the supporters. I was not going to be told by anyone who played in my team.”

For his part, the player told Shoot magazine: “I didn’t want to leave Everton but Howard Kendall didn’t leave me with much choice. I told the manager that I had never done that before (play in the reserves) and I wasn’t about to start. At the time I believed my stand was right. But looking back on the decision, I suppose I was too hasty.

“He made it plain that I had no future at the club. That disappointed me and when Brighton showed an interest I jumped at the chance of a fresh start.”

Thomas was reported to have muttered that forgetting Everton would not be too difficult because he had not enjoyed himself at the club, but he denied making any such remarks. He said: “I didn’t say that. I love Everton.

“I stood on the terraces as a boy and watched them. It was like a dream come true when I signed for them from Manchester United in the summer.

“What I said was that Everton were a part of my past, and I had to get on with the job at Brighton now. I didn’t get on with Howard Kendall, but that’s a different thing.

“I never knew where I stood with him and I don’t think I was alone. I think he wanted to sell somebody around the time that I was pushed out and I gave him the excuse he needed. I’m sorry about that.

“But I still love Everton and their supporters, who were very good to me. I wish them well.”

Reflecting on the incident after Kendall’s death in 2015 aged 69, Thomas said: “He was a great man and a wonderful human being. Obviously, he signed me. He was right in what he did.

“I didn’t play for the reserves. I was wrong for what I did; he was right for what he did.

“I got on well with him but I got sold for half a million pounds to Brighton. He had no alternative. I don’t have any regrets. I was allowed to leave.”