When Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour found himself shunted into the limelight after his scintillating performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup, I found myself watching his interviews and marvelling at just how young he is.
That might seem obvious. He’s seventeen. Of course he’s young.
Then I found my mind flitting back two and a half decades, to another FA Cup match, and another teenager taking one of the giants of English football completely unawares.
In 1993-94, my team Luton Town were in what’s now the Championship, the second tier. They weren’t doing particularly well, either. An FA Cup run would have been a nice distraction.
And then they got drawn against Newcastle United in the fourth round. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Featuring Andrew Cole and Peter Beardsley. At St James’ Park.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t expect anything from that match. I was following it on the radio, and as usual, a couple of hours before the start of the match, I was listening out for team news.
I never expected Tony Thorpe to be in Luton’s starting line-up. He was nineteen years old, and he was my slightly wildcard choice of favourite. He wasn’t in the first team, but I’d been watching him in the reserves. In January 1994, I was just thirteen; I wasn’t allowed to go to away matches then, so I made do with watching the up-and-comers and those recovering from injury in the second string when the first team weren’t playing at home.
Thorpe had signed for Luton as an 18-year-old, initially playing as an attacking midfielder, occasionally moving out wide. As a youth player, he’d incurred a serious injury and later been released by Leicester. The Foxes’ former manager David Pleat had gone on to Luton – a club where he’d had great success in the early 1980s – and passed on a message via mutual contacts that he’d be interested in seeing Thorpe in action in a Hatters shirt. Boots in a bag, Thorpe caught the train down to Luton by himself, played a reserve game, and ended up agreeing professional terms.
That FA Cup tie was his full first-team debut. Everyone seemed slightly taken aback that Thorpe was playing, not least Newcastle, who had no idea how to counter his liveliness, lack of fear, and eye for goal. His stunning first-half goal, a chip from outside the area, looked set to send Luton on the way to a famous upset – before Peter Beardsley equalised with a second-half penalty.
Watching Billy Gilmour on television 26 years later made it clear to me just how young Thorpe had also been when he made that massive breakthrough; he could not have had any sense of perspective on what he had achieved. How much of it did he remember now?
“It’s a bit of a blur now I’m nearly 46!” he laughed when I asked him about it via telephone. “I remember the day – travelling up, staying over. I don’t remember the whole game but I remember scoring the goal.”
He didn’t realise quite what he’d achieved against Newcastle until the next morning – when his mother bought the newspapers to save the press cuttings about her boy.
“It was such a big scalp – getting them back to Kenilworth Road, and they were such a good team,” he recalled.
Luton won the replay 2-0 back at Kenilworth Road, with goals from a teenage John Hartson and Scott Oakes, and made the semi-finals of the cup that year, losing at Wembley to Chelsea. Thorpe was a bit-part player in the campaign.
Two years afterwards, though, with a relegated Luton side, he hit the big time. No longer a midfielder, he had been converted to an unerring centre forward by new manager Lennie Lawrence, and scored 31 goals in the 1996-97 season as the team finished third and reached the Second Division play-offs. I felt a personal sense of pride; this young man whose career I had followed had more than proven my faith in him.
“When Lennie came in, he said, ‘No, no, no – Tony’s a centre forward, we’re going to give him an opportunity,’” he said. “And bang – 31 goals that year. Lennie didn’t have the resources to go out and spend on a centre forward, so he changed me from the left to play up front. I hit a dry spell in the last ten games, and if I hadn’t, I’d have got 35, maybe 40.”
Inevitably, a young player scoring such an abundance of goals at a lower-league club will catch the eye of the big teams. Thorpe signed for Premier League Fulham in early 1998, having scored 14 league goals for Luton already that season. His new manager was Kevin Keegan – the man whose Newcastle side Thorpe had helped to dump out of the FA Cup four years previously.
“People get vocal about this young striker who’s scoring all the goals,” he said. “It was great scoring 31 goals, but the second year, and then moving on, showed I was capable of doing it again.”
My parents were looking out for me from the living-room window as I made my way home from school, to make sure that they were the ones to break the news to me that Thorpe had left.
“Oh no, I’m sorry!” he interjected. It wasn’t his fault, of course; a third-tier striker scoring that many goals at a tiny, impoverished club was inevitably going to leave sooner rather than later.
“Luton needed the money. They’ve always been a selling club, and for somebody they paid nothing for, to balance the books and get rid of him for a million pounds – that was good money 22 years ago. Gates weren’t so good – they needed to offload me. In hindsight, I think it would have been better if I’d stayed until the end of the season and then gone – going to Fulham was probably not the right move for me. I don’t think I was ready for that level of expectation.”
Bristol City, who had been interested in him for many months, were tracking his progress, and he eventually moved there, spending four years at Ashton Gate. But Thorpe never really cut the ties with Luton. Every transfer deadline day, it seemed he was linked with a move back, and he returned on loan later that year, and again the year after, before making a permanent switch in 2002. He struck up a formidable partnership with Steve Howard – another one of my favourites – and all was well.
Except the club was still in dire financial straits, and any assets that could be shed were inevitably going to be furloughed. That included Thorpe, who went on the record urging everyone to stick together and then promptly left for QPR.
“That was when the shit hit the fan,” he admitted. “We’d had a great season, me and big Stevie Howard, scoring 50 goals between us, and then I left, in circumstances that the Luton fans have never really understood. We were in administration, the club didn’t care how much I was worth, and just wanted to offload me.”
When he returned to Kenilworth Road in QPR colours, he was received with fury by fans, who felt betrayed. That anger was perhaps understandable, but some of the abuse directed at him, and the chants directed at his family, must have been painful.
“I got absolutely destroyed. I get that. It’s only a game of football at the end of the day. [QPR manager] Ian Holloway used to say to me, ‘Tone, no-one ever kicks a dead dog.’ Nobody would be talking about it if you weren’t important to them. But no, it wasn’t very nice. Luton gave me an opportunity to be a professional footballer and I’ll never forget that. They’re a great club, close to my heart to my dying day, pretty much my number one club.
“I’ve never regretted it – I had two great years at QPR. But if I could flip it back, and not say the things I said, then I think my career leaving Luton wouldn’t have been tarnished. I scored 85 goals for that club. I would have broken 100 if I’d have stayed there. That gives me a bitter taste in my mouth.
“Otherwise I have fond memories. I try not to worry about it so much now.”
Now back in his native Leicester, he works outside football and is perfectly happy with that.
“I never wanted to go back into football permanently in terms of management or coaching, no, definitely not,” he confirmed.
Postscript – he says he has never been invited back to Kenilworth Road since he left the club for the final time.