One is on fairly safe ground in saying that if you mention to any random one hundred people, ‘Wingers of the Seventies’, Dave Thomas would probably be remembered more than any other. Why is this? I’ll suggest a few reasons and it is worth mentioning that he was not a winner of any major trophy during the decade.
More than any other he looked the part. Wiry, small with a bow-legged stance he was built for speed. He was the sort of guy that would take you back to your thoughts of opposition school teams. You could tell he was a threat before he even set foot on the pitch so he already had one up on you simply by appearance, especially if you were a right-back. He looked as if he should be wearing spikes and a vest before anything else. He was also a left-winger to his bones to the extent it should be under occupation in his passport. Like others though, he was equally two-footed and frequently cut across from the touchline to hammer one at the opposition goal.
He was such a feature of that famous QPR side of 75/76 and played a huge part in that team, being fondly remembered within and beyond Loftus Road. Later on, whilst he was only a couple of seasons with Everton, his laser crosses to Bob Latchford were an event in themselves. When you think of dynamic partnerships it was one of the best. He was the guitar of Jimmy Page to the front of Robert Plant to put it in rock terms. One was so diminished without the other. The image though was everything. The socks rolled down said it all. He was football’s Harley Davidson, and one wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Fonda has a picture of Dave Thomas on his wall in a reverse still from Easy Rider.
Yet a lot of this imagery is fanciful and well removed from the type of character Thomas was. That sort of stuff was more George Best. Thus, yet again in exploring these wizards of the flanks, we come across another type of persona to flesh out the width of the pitch, and indeed this series. Teetotal, non-smoking and well into things like fishing and gardening he was no stereotype. There is a lot of depth to him and as tends to occur in this sphere, that can be a difficulty to some of the media. The ‘more ordinary the soul the more depth there is’ can be a seemingly dark alleyway with more light at the end than first appears. That can be difficult to sell though. Consider the mechanical efficiency of Borg to the pyrotechnics of McEnroe.
There is some interesting stuff behind him. Born in Nottinghamshire but brought up in the North-East he was an England schoolboy sensation. Famously Don Revie and his Leeds chairman Manny Cussins drove down Thomas’ street with oodles of cash in the big Rolls – Royce. They were sure that it would change Dave’s father’s mind to move his son to Leeds instead of Burnley which had been agreed. Mr Thomas had given his word to Burnley and that was that; the Leeds pair left perplexed but respectful of such a stance. The depth of soul clearly started here.
Thomas made his mark at Burnley becoming their youngest ever player. But he ran into difficulty with manager Jimmy Adamson who moved him around midfield to accommodate one Leighton James of course. Form slipped and Adamson appeared to have it in for Thomas. He felt he lacked courage and wanted him tackling more which simply wasn’t his strength. An exit was needed but Adamson almost seemed to spite Thomas by selling him to southern second division club QPR which Thomas had stated he was adamantly against.
In the early days at QPR just like Burnley, he was lost in midfield so he was moved out to the wing again. The Thomas we all know and loved started to flourish. By 1974, two years after his transfer he gained his first English cap as a sub from Don Revie no less, in the manager’s first match v Czechoslovakia. He was only to collect eight caps. He grew to like the anonymity of the south whilst living in Wokingham and of course loved riding the surf of the 1975/76 season when QPR nearly won the title. Any player will tell you of the fun of playing for a club punching above expectations. We have already been here with Manchester United in the same season.
Nevertheless, the call of the north was hard to resist and he left his allotment and joined Everton in the summer of 1977. There he had the forward that suited him a little better than Don Givens and Stan Bowles who were not perhaps quite what he needed. The crosses and goals of the Thomas/Latchford axis were almost metronomically guaranteed. Thomas became to look odd if his socks were ever rolled up. He simply would not wear shin pads despite damage to his legs. The sight of him ripping down the wing was a true sight of the decade. He amplified the absolute beauty of football, man against man in a battle of skill, speed and balance.
He could stand literally in front of a defender with the defender desperate not to make the first move, yet knowing that Thomas could be away from him in a flash. A brief look up and a perfectly placed ball was scattering shrapnel in yet another penalty box. Thomas could have a busy running style with his hands active and moving but he always had that slightly arched form over the ball which he was ready to detonate. I would love to have seen him in a race with Willie Johnston who was probably the nearest to him in style in this list.
He turned down Manchester United to play for Wolves in 1979 enthused by the idea of putting balls on the ferocious head of Andy Gray. There is a debate there in itself as to whether Gray’s heading ability was really that far ahead of Joe Jordan’s but you make your bed. However, he had a very unsuccessful spell there with manager John Barnwell and a year later was off to Vancouver Whitecaps. Shades of Gordon Hill’s career path flutter in the shadows here don’t you think?
Nowadays he suffers from the optical condition glaucoma and has a guide dog to get him around. He’ll occasionally turn up at QPR and Everton to stand on the pitch partly from nostalgic club invitation like many others, but also to highlight the condition from which he suffers. The respect and awe from the crowd for one of the game’s classiest wingers is always palpable and rightly so. It’s one of the game’s great genetic conditions how previous greats pull admiration from the present assembled custodians of the club. Every Burnley, Everton and QPR fan worth their salt would know Dave Thomas.
As I mentioned he is at the very core of this series for me. Footballers in full flow espouse the spirit and beauty of the game and he did it better than most. It’s pure opinion of course but if you were going to put the decade’s wingers up on a footballing Mount Rushmore you probably would get few arguments if you started with him and moved out. There or thereabouts anyway…. as against his crosses which were pretty much ‘there’ all the time. I’ve addended him the athlete. Should it have been ‘The’ winger?