WORDS: JOE WHITELEY
The career path of former Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen youngster John Thorrington took a few unexpected twists and turn, but while you may not have heard it before, his story is one of the more fascinating in the varied world of football. We caught up with the ex-Huddersfield Town midfielder as he settles into his new role within the MLS Players Union…
From Johannesburg to Washington, calling at California, Manchester, Leverkusen, Huddersfield, Grimsby, Chicago and Vancouver.
That’s the life and career path of John Thorrington. Granted, it’s not the most traversed of footballing roads, but it is the unique nature of Thorrington’s route that sets him apart from others.
Throw in an undergraduate degree in International Studies, a handful of US national team caps and the graduate degree he is currently undertaking, and his looks less like the average footballer’s story with every new detail.
Thorrington, a winger-turned-central midfielder, was born in South Africa and raised in America. His professional career started at Manchester United, but the bulk of his appearances came in the colours of Huddersfield Town and Chicago Fire.
Off the football pitch, decision making has become his forte – after all he’s had to make some pretty big ones, beginning when he was a child.
While his friends growing up in California were all leaning towards American football, Thorrington had to make a choice that would ultimately affect where his own future lay. If it hadn’t been for the advice of his parents, his career could have been a whole lot different.
“I grew up playing all sports,” says Thorrington, speaking to us over the phone from his office on the West Coast of USA, where he currently holds a position in the MLS Players Union.
“I played baseball and soccer – and I wanted to actually quit soccer at one point to play American football because that’s what all my friends were doing. But my parents, being foreign, saw American football as organised barbarianism, so they wouldn’t let me, and I stuck with soccer.”
Quite rightly too, as it turned out, because Thorrington was soon scouted by one of the biggest clubs in the world.
At a time when American players were few and far between in Europe, Manchester United made the bold decision to bring an untested 17-year-old across the Atlantic Ocean to turn professional in 1997.
“As unrealistic as it was, I had always in my head said ‘I’m going to be a professional soccer player and I’m going to play for Manchester United,’” he admits. “I think kids say that all the time, and I was just fortunate enough that it ended up happening.
“I left a great family and friend support system, and went over on my own. I’d had pocket money from little jobs, but now I had a job and there was a professional environment and I’m the one foreigner in this cut-throat world.
“The old school English mentality was very different to the one I grew up in, so there was a lot of adjusting, but I still say to this day, the hard times and dealing with that were the most valuable for me as a person.”
More hard times were to follow when Thorrington was forced to move on from Old Trafford in search of a first-team breakthrough.
Following a two-year spell at German side Bayer Leverkusen, where he never made the step into the first team, he was signed by Huddersfield Town, who had recently been relegated to the third tier of English football.
The Terriers were mired in off-field difficulties surrounding ownership and administration, but the West Yorkshire club gave Thorrington the chance to prove himself.
“I’d been at two of the bigger clubs in Europe at that time and enjoyed those experiences,” he reflects, “but I’d just got to a point where I wanted to play.
“In Germany the reserves played in the third division, in real meaningful games, but I think it was a combination of [wanting to play] and wanting to get back to England. There was an opportunity, [then Huddersfield manager] Lou Macari had known me from Man United, and I took it.
“It was a big difference – earning your spot. I was involved in a promotion chase, playoff games and relegation – the stakes of those games were unbelievable.
“I think there’s pressure in professional sport but those were the most pressure-filled games you can possibly play in when you talk about the money at stake.
“I was at Huddersfield when the club went into administration. Finding your way through these difficulties is sort of what shaped me. I enjoyed the playing, but the stresses that came with it have helped shape me as a person and as a player.
“I ended up somehow surviving and playing for 17 years, for the large part because of what I learned in those situations.”
After experiencing relegation during a turbulent period for the club, his spell at Huddersfield – which included one moment that lives long in the collectively memories of Town fans, if not for him, after he was knocked out by an Alan Mahon free kick while standing in the wall – came to an end in 2003. A short spell with Grimsby Town followed, but Thorrington felt the time had come to return to America, nearly a decade after leaving.
An offer from Chicago Fire in 2005 gave him the opportunity to do that, and to finally sample Major League Soccer first hand, having seen the competition grow from afar.
“I think every American player, at some point in their career, wants to help grow the league here. I always knew I would come back eventually. The offer that came in from Chicago was a great one, which ticked all the boxes and came at the right time.
“It’s strange, I kind of did the reverse of what people do now, starting in the MLS and then wanting to go to Europe.
“It’s great now to see kids that grew up watching the league are now actually at the initial stages of their professional career. I think you’ll see the league get better, and hopefully we’ll be able to keep the right American players.
“It’s a learning process – the league is so young, relative to any other professional sport in America, and certainly soccer everywhere else in the world, that there’s a lot of learning on the fly that goes on. I think we’re evolving and hopefully getting more of those decisions right.”
His time in the MLS was plagued by injuries, but Thorrington put his time off the pitch to good use, starting a second degree during his time in Chicago. He started planning for the future, something he believes a lot of professional footballers fail to do.
“The silver lining of all my injuries was that I always had to think about the future when I couldn’t play any more. I got my undergraduate degree part–time when I was in England – certainly at the urging of my parents.
“I started a graduate degree when I was in Chicago, which I’m still completing now while I’m working.
“I’ve always given it thought. I had seen players treading water in the deep end when they retired, having given it no thought, and I certainly didn’t want that.
“I retired in December and now I work for the MLS Players Union – the equivalent of the PFA. I’ve alluded to those things in England that shaped myself and my interests, and when I was in Huddersfield it seemed as though being the PFA rep in England is kind of handed to the young kid who doesn’t know any better, and the extent of your responsibility is to put something up in the locker room on the bulletin board.
“When I joined it was when they went into administration, and all of a sudden I’m thrown into this deep end. We’re not getting paid, I have to work with the union and we have to find a new owner.
“All of these things that I would have probably thought were above my station as a 2-year-old, but I ended up really enjoying it and that sort of always fuelled an interest of mine in the business side of sport.
“That, in part, is sort of what started it. From then on I was very involved as a player, so when it came time for me to stop playing, I started sending feelers out about my different options to do work wise. I started with them this season and I’m really enjoying it.”
He looked the perfect fit to go straight into management following retirement, but Thorrington, who incidentally took his coaching badges in the UK alongside former Huddersfield boss Simon Grayson, openly admits it is the business aspect of the game that grabs him at the moment.
“The standard is to get involved in coaching,” he says, “which I haven’t ruled out and I certainly have some interest in. But the business side of sport has always intrigued me and motivated me to go and start this graduate degree in business and this involvement with the union.”
His overriding professionalism shines through, and in one way or another, the MLS must do all they can to keep him involved in the game – because they will struggle to find a better advocate for the wellbeing of players, and the game as a whole, than Thorrington.