Former Millers winger Jerome Thomas is the next up in our 'Featuring...' series on www.themillers.co.uk. The one-time Arsenal flyer tells us his story...
Football can be a ruthless game for aspiring professionals. Many fall by the wayside through the years in a club’s Academy setup, others become disenchanted with sport entirely and choose to pursue new opportunities and career paths along the way.
Anyway, the point is, eventually reaching the stage whereby a player has signed on the dotted line of a pro deal arguably presents the youngster in question with their toughest test to date – breaking into the first team.
Naturally, you would assume that the further up the pyramid the player is playing, the harder that task becomes, and we assume few would disagree with that notion. But ‘ambition’ is a key word in the footballing dictionary and is often a defining characteristic of those that excel in the game.
With that considered, you would think that very few would be brave enough to have followed the career path of one-time Rotherham United winger, Jerome Thomas, who traded his first team breakthrough at Luton Town for the challenge of earning his stripes at one of the world’s most illustrious clubs of the era, Arsenal.
Having impressed sufficiently at Kenilworth Road to progress through the ranks after joining at the age of 12, Thomas looked to have ‘made it’ with the Hatters where he was on the fringes of the first team by the age of 16, but gambled his future with a move to Highbury where the queue for a place in the matchday squad was star-stricken to say the very least.
"I was weighing up staying there and being involved with the first team at a young age, where I'd just about broken in at 16, or to go to Arsenal,” he told www.themillers.co.uk.
"It was the choice of being a big fish in a small pond or going to test myself against the best at Arsenal.
"You can't put a price on the footballing experience that I gained there, regardless of where my journey went afterwards and I still feel it was the right decision in hindsight.”
It wasn’t just a change of scenery for the Wembley-born winger, who wasn’t actually a wide man at all when he put pen-to-paper with the Gunners, and it took the intervention of famed Arsenal youth coach Liam Brady to spot Thomas’ obvious potential before his role shifted.
The Arsenal side of the era were unstoppable, invincible even, and like the first team squad, Brady was keen to ensure that the Gunners’ next generation only had eyes to emulate the best in the game.
"When I first got there it was the likes of Steve Bould, David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon and Ray Parlour. Immediately after that it turned into the 'Invincibles'.
"When I first went there, I was more of a central attacking midfielder but I got moved out onto the left wing because Liam Brady wanted me to base my game on David Ginola and he gave me examples of him.
"This was before it was popular for a winger to be playing on the opposite side to his strong foot. I was playing on the left wing but was right footed. David Ginola was probably the most famous example but there were only a few at the time.
"Overmars then came in and started playing on the left as a right-footer. I could watch him up close in training.
"Thierry Henry was playing on the left before he went up front and then Robert Pires came to play out there as a right footer.
"I had the perfect examples of how to base my game as a right-footed left winger.”
It was the ‘up close and personal’ nature of being surrounded by such talented players and coaches on a daily basis which had aided the Londoner’s decision to abandon his chances at Luton Town, but it wasn’t long before he was realising the magnitude of their influence in his development.
"The chance to train with them every day and play with them in the reserves or in 11 v 11 in training was invaluable,” Thomas admitted.
“I played with the Invincibles. That was the likes of Bergkamp, Henry, Petit, Vieira, who were all unbelievable and I was seeing them every day.
"When I was getting to 20 or so and my contract was due to expire, they just couldn't guarantee that I would even be training with the first team, let alone involved on matchdays - that is how high the standard was.
"I had Overmars in front of me and then Pires. That is who I was trying to compete with! It was almost impossible."
"I had the best coach of my career there as well in Don Howe.
"You just cannot put a price on that education - it was unbelievable."
It was no surprise that with the tuition on offer at Highbury that Thomas was among a cluster of players who tasted success in the FA Youth Cup in consecutive seasons and included in the ranks over the respective triumphs were the likes of Jermaine Pennant and Steve Sidwell, both of whom would become well-respected names in Premier League circles in years that followed.
Even David Bentley, the brightest of prospects and a man who would go on to be capped by England, had to settle for a place on the sidelines as Thomas and his teammates got their hands on the silverware on two occasions.
"I was playing a year up the first year we won the FA Youth Cup, which was in David Noble's age group. The players of note from that team were Jay Bothroyd, Graham Stack, John Halls, Liam Chilvers and Jo Kuffour,” he explained.
"There were a few of our age who filled their team and included the likes of myself, Steve Sidwell, Jermaine Pennant and Rohan Ricketts. I could go on and on talking about the talent we had.
"We were blessed with it over two age groups and at the time David Bentley couldn't even get into our team. He was on the bench and we had Jeremie Aliadiere as well.”
The acts following those age groups were equally as impressive and Thomas would enjoy another significant outing in a cup competition in October 2003, in which Millers fans were privy to a first glance at the newest rising star as their team travelled to the capital to face Arsene Wenger’s hottest prospects in the Carling Cup.
Thomas was not the only player making his Gunners debut on that day, as a Spanish midfielder, unknown to the world at the time and going by the name of Cesc Fabregas lined up in the middle of the park with his first professional opposition provided by Carl Robinson and Stewart Talbot in the Millers' engine room.
“To be honest, when he first joined the club it was too much for him,” Thomas said of his young teammate.
“He couldn't keep up the pace and he hadn't developed enough. The Fabregas that you all know when he made it at Arsenal, wasn't the Fabregas who first came but credit to him, he adapted and became the player we all know now.”
"That was the normality then because Wenger would use that competition to blood the youngsters. When the season started once it was time for the Carling Cup as it was called then, you knew you would be in and around the squad.”
The 20-year-old, who had never ‘supported’ a team as a youngster, instead learning his trade by watching the best players from the Spanish and Italian leagues during his formative years, admitted upon selection he was largely unaware of the South Yorkshire-based side he was set to make his debut against.
Furthermore, without the benefit of a crystal ball, he could have been forgiven for not realising that among his opponents on that London night was a man in Paul Warne, who would go on to be his fitness coach when Thomas joined the club he once didn’t realise existed later in his career.
"I'll be completely honest, I would have had no idea.
"It wasn't a disrespectful thing but because I'd watched so much foreign football as a youngster, I didn't really have a great knowledge of the English leagues,” he joked.
"My time at Rotherham ironically is the last time I enjoyed my football and that was at the end of my career, so it is funny how it went full circle like that. It shows that you should always be appreciative of your current situation and respectful of your opposition.
"The only reason I knew I played against Warney is because we have been in contact since I left Rotherham.
"We did our coaching badges together in Northern Ireland so we did a crash course whereby we were there for 17 days and did our UEFA 'B' and UEFA 'A' Part One.
"Obviously during that time, we had a lot of free time together and we would converse and talk about anything. Warney is such a good guy. We did speak about that game between Arsenal and Rotherham, so I was aware I'd played against him after we'd spoken! He reminded me!”
The pair would be reunited nearly 13 years on from that night at Highbury, this time both in the red and white of Rotherham when experienced boss Neil Warnock found himself charged with the task of steering the seemingly doomed Millers clear of relegation from the Championship in the 2015/16 season.
Thomas was one of a number of trusted experienced players brought in by Warnock to bolster the Rotherham United ranks, and while he admits he never reached the peak of his performance levels, Thomas admits he thoroughly enjoyed his time in South Yorkshire.
"I spoke to Neil and he asked if I'd fancy the challenge and I remember myself, Lloyd Doyley, Leon Best and Paddy Kenny all came in around the same time,” Thomas revealed.
"It was an enjoyable time. There was confidence there. I loved it. I was fine with the cabins on the training ground as it was back then, I was fine with living in Rotherham even though I was in the hotel and the best part was the stadium. I loved the new ground and all of the fans, so it was a really enjoyable period for me.
"I would say in my whole time at Rotherham I would say I was probably only about 70% fit. Even when I played in the games, I wasn't 100%, so the fans didn't get to see the real me because I hadn't played the whole season.
"Because I wasn't fit, I picked up a few injuries and niggles but when Joe Newell came in he knew that he had to perform because if he didn't, I'd take his place. That is what you need and it is what we had. Besty came in and you saw Derbyshire producing and scoring some important goals. It all goes hand-in-hand.
"It was a great group of lads honestly, there were no bad eggs. When you're in a position where relegation is looming you sometimes get that, and it wasn't the case at all.
"I definitely have a high level of confidence and I remember that I looked at the points and thought 'if I can get on the pitch, setting up goals and scoring them, I can help the team get points'. I wouldn't have signed if I wasn't confident we could achieve something.”
The start and end of Thomas’ career ended up being played under two very different, but very successful managers.
Wenger, the architect behind constructing the ‘Invincibles’ at Arsenal and overseeing many years of fluent, passing football was the man who had laid the foundations in the winger’s career.
Fast-forward to Thomas’ Millers days, and it was the much more ‘old school’, ‘win every challenge’ approach of Neil Warnock by which he and his teammates played.
While it may be an overly-kind comparison to liken players such as Richie Smallwood to Patrick Vieira or Danny Ward to Thierry Henry, Millers fans definitely felt as though they had their own ‘invincibles’ representing their club in a quiet corner in South Yorkshire.
When asked to speak about his former bosses, Thomas was complimentary of both and was quick to add that their respective styles brought success in their own right.
"There is no set recipe for success. I would describe Warnock as a 'player's manager',” he explained.
“He knows how to get the best out of his players, how to respond and how to communicate.
"Arsene Wenger was good, although we didn't have much dialogue. A lot of it was more through Liam Brady, Don Howe, Don Givens and Neil Banfield in the youth setup.
"Obviously as I got older there was more work with Pat Rice and the Gaffer.
"You need managers like Neil in the game, I always say it. He is everything you ask for as a player and Warney has a lot of the same features, in that they are going to be brutally honest with you, you know what you're getting and they will give it all they can. That is all you can ask for.”
"They are straight-forward and honest with you and they put in as much work as they can. Those types of managers are big on everyone pulling in the same direction and that is what they've got with Warney now.”
Unprompted, the winger began drawing comparisons between his former Millers boss and the man he knew as the fitness coach in his time with the club, Paul Warne, who is now steering the ship at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
Explaining that, in his experience, players prefer to be told straight, Thomas believes Warne’s honest approach to management will see him go far in the game.
"I think Warney has surprised a lot of people and it is because he is very honest and he stands by what he believes in,” he continued.
“You will see him putting in as much work as you see the players putting in.
"He'll be the one that leaves the building last because he commits fully to everything he does.
"I remember seeing him doing an interview saying that he didn't even want the job and it is ironic because that is how honest he is as a person. That has worked to his advantage and I'm glad it has.”
The Wembley-born retired winger is now pursuing different options in life after football, and having completed his coaching badges alongside Warne a couple of summers previously, he is now enjoying a role scouting the next generation of talent within Chelsea’s illustrious Academy setup.
"I retired and then took a year off to spend with the kids, I have two girls, who are eight and three. I had a new born at the time and I got to spend a full year which a lot of parents don't often get to do.
"I did my coaching badges and I was on the course with Warney, Stiliyan Petrov, Phil Bardsley and Alex Bruce.
"I started to look down the recruitment side of things as something different and I did my Talent ID courses. I did the Level 1 and 2 and then completed Level 3 last year, which was a year-long course at St. George's Park.
"Now I'm on my Level 4, which is applicable to all of the Head of Academy roles and Head of Recruitment and Chief Scouts and people like that. They have now actually made that qualification mandatory like the coaching badges, so if you want to be a 'Head of' or 'Technical Director' then you'll need the qualification with the Level 5.
"I'm also working with Chelsea in recruitment with their Academy. I kind of fell into the role and like I've said, I wanted to go down a different route. I saw the job advertised at Chelsea and didn't call in any favours.
"It was part-time and it was perfect for what I needed for the kids and I went to my first ever job interview and got the role and now I've been there for two years.
"The long-term plan would be to try and get a Chief Scout role with a senior side, or a Technical Director or Head of Academy and I'm heading in that direction with the qualifications and then I'll see where it takes me.
"I haven't completely written off coaching. Stiliyan Petrov has half forced me to verbally agree to be his assistant if he gets a managerial role!”