As Arsenal prepare to host West Ham in Tuesday’s FA Youth Cup final, one former captain who lifted the trophy with Manchester United has opened up about his mental health battle after a five-year absence from the game. Tom Thorpe was one of the brightest prospects in United’s academy and captained a side including Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard to FA Youth Cup glory in 2011. He represented England at every youth level and was part of the Young Lions’ side who won the European Under-17 Championship in 2010. But following a number of struggles on and off the pitch, Thorpe slowly fell out of love with football and decided to take a break. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. Thorpe got to a stage where he thought he would never play again.
After rising through the youth ranks at United, Thorpe earned a loan move to Birmingham City in the January 2014 transfer window. It was a spell blighted by two nasty ankle injuries, the first of which saw him carried off on a stretcher just 14 minutes into his professional debut. He returned to United to fight for his place – and got the chance he had always wanted. Yet it was also the moment that, for Thorpe, marked the beginning of the end for him at his boyhood club. Thorpe’s senior debut came in a Premier League win over West Ham in September 2014. It was a brief appearance, as a 94th-minute substitute. It was his only senior game for United. And it’s a day he remembers for the wrong reasons.
“Going back into the changing room, I was overjoyed,” Thorpe said. He remembers manager Louis van Gaal giving him a pat on the cheek and saying “you’re welcome”. But it made him feel like he had “been gifted the opportunity, rather than earning it through hard work”. “It was at that point I knew I was fighting a losing battle,” he added. Thorpe was released in 2015 and signed for Rotherham, before loan spells at Bradford and Bolton. He then joined Indian Super League side ATK, who at the time were managed by Teddy Sheringham. “Looking back, it was a case of me wanting to just get away from it all. My enjoyment in football had just gone completely and India was an excuse to escape that,” he said.
After 11 appearances, Thorpe returned home with a hernia problem and after a month of no improvement, surgery was required. The initial operation went wrong, leaving Thorpe requiring further surgery. Then came another setback. A freak gym injury as he stepped up his recovery caused his elbow to break. He had to have another operation with two pins inserted. “That was major catalyst for me going under and into a really dark place,” said Thorpe. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience and it’s something that had a huge impact not only on my life but on my parents as well. I don’t know what I would have done or where I would be if it wasn’t for them.” Even living in the same house, there were days when I wouldn’t want to speak a word to them. I just felt empty.”
Thorpe was on a downward spiral, but nobody other than his parents had any idea. “It was horrible because I could see how it was affecting them and that then made me worse with guilt,” he said. “If you haven’t been in that situation, you can’t find any motivation. You just feel empty.” Thorpe reached a point where he couldn’t bear hurting those around him any longer. He reached out to Sporting Chance through the Professional Footballers’ Association for help and began therapy sessions, which he said helped hugely. He never thought he’d cross the white line again. But then, after five years without a game, came a chance with Macclesfield.
“Initially it was a case of ‘I don’t want to play again’,” Thorpe said. “I was done and I was more than happy to just walk away. There was never a time period of seeing how I feel to get better. There was no aim of getting back into football.” But there was the stress of: ‘If I’m not going to play football, what else am I going to do?’ That in itself was enough to fill me with anxiety. I was fortunate that somebody from Macclesfield contacted me and things went from there joining them.” Thorpe, now 30, featured for the Silkmen as they were crowned Northern Premier League West Champions – in the eighth tier of English football – but winning trophies isn’t at the forefront of his mind now as it once was.
“I’ll play football as long as I enjoy it,” he said. “If that stops, then it’s not something that I want to continue doing. I’m not putting any pressure on myself as to where I aspire to go to. It was my enjoyment at Macclesfield FC that made me want to start playing again. I’m relaxed and I’m happy there.” When I previously played, I cared too much about what the wrong people thought. I’ve come to realise your mental health is much more important than anything else.” If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this article, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.