Former Everton Ace On Losing His Sight

Dave Thomas was a fabulous footballer for Everton, QPR and England. He started losing his sight after his 50th birthday but guide dog Hannah has returned Thomas’s keys to the world.

He shared his ultimately uplifting story with Everton’s matchday programme.

You need not dig far beneath the surface to locate the roots of Dave Thomas’s single-minded streak.

His granddad – a ‘World Cup winner’ – would threaten to disappear indoors if Dave refused to use his left foot in the pair’s kickabouts.

Dad resisted Don Revie’s “mind-blowing” offer for his boy to renege on a contract with Burnley in favour of Leeds United.

Thomas is succinct when asked if he considered conforming when Wolverhampton Wanderers manager John Barnwell demanded the player ditch his rubber studs and pull up his socks.

“What do you think?”, he replies. “No way.”

Thomas was a spellbinding footballer. Two-footed – not by accident, evidently – he was the archetypal, dribbling winger with a near-guaranteed end product. He eschewed shin pads, leaving his socks at the mercy of gravity.

He was done at Wolves after hurling his shirt at Barnwell’s assistant, Riche Barker, during a half-time flare-up.

Thomas has had cause to reach deep into his well of character since his sight started failing him after turning 50.

An elite sportsman and teetotaller who placed a premium on his physical condition – “I owed it to my profession to look after myself” – he never tended towards self-pity after being diagnosed with glaucoma.

Thomas’s father suffered with the same predominantly inherited condition – which damages the eye’s optic nerve and destroys peripheral vision – and was completely blind when he died aged 97 in 2014.

“I thought, ‘Okay, there’s people worse off than me, bring it on’,” says Thomas.

Losing his driving licence in 2008 was a “life changer”. He had relied on his car to get to work as a PE teacher at Chichester’s Bishop Luffa School, where he would drive the minibus to various sports fixtures.

His “lifeline” is Hannah, the guide dog who has been by Thomas’s side for two-and-a-half years.

He was plagued by guilt over the prospect of being granted a dog but time and rationale have ushered away those invasive feelings.

“That guilt has gone now and why shouldn’t it,” says Thomas.

“I was affected so severely, the DVLA took my licence away.

“I used to feel it wouldn’t be fair for me to have a dog because totally blind people were on the waiting list.

“But every day since I’ve had her, I’ve become more and more confident. She is so special.”

Thomas had retreated within himself before uniting with Hannah. He withdrew socially and minimised the world around him.

“I couldn’t mingle with people,” says Thomas. “If we were in a pub or restaurant, I’d say to [Thomas’s wife] Brenda, ‘Just get me a drink and stick me in a corner’.

“People would think I was rude. But I was happy to do that.

“I can’t see anything above me and have lost so much peripheral vision.

“I was at a sportsman’s dinner [in aid of a mental health charity] with Ian Botham in May. It was the first time in two-and-a-half years I’d been without my dog, I had to go into this area with loads of people and it was just horrendous.”

Thomas learned this month that his condition is deteriorating.

“I have a lovely guy who looks after me at Sunderland Eye Infirmary, Mr [Scott] Fraser,” says Thomas.

“I was there last week and I am glad I went.

“I was worried because I was having a problem with my left eye.

“They discovered the pressure [glaucoma is linked to a build-up of pressure inside the eye] and vision in my left eye have worsened since I saw him in June.

“It was a bit of a shock to me, that.

“It is worrying but I am prepared for it.

“If I lose my sight completely, I have my dog.”

Thomas’s voice wobbles when he namechecks any of the “remarkable” people who have assisted him and mention of Hannah particularly stirs his emotions.

“I don’t feel sorry for myself but I get very emotional about things, which is understandable,” says Thomas.

He is similarly moved when reflecting on his dad – David Lloyd Thomas – shooing away Leeds manager Revie and director Manny Cussins when the high-rolling pair entered the Thomas household to offer 15-year-old Dave £30 per week and a lump sum of £2,000 to sign.

He had already agreed to join Burnley and be paid £4 per week.

“My mum and dad were lovely parents, typical working class,” says Thomas.

“They brought me up the right way, I think.

“My dad wasn’t earning that money.

“He was a miner, then got out the pit and worked as a welder on the railways.

“The offer was mind blowing.

“But maybe if I’d taken that money years ago, I’d not be in the position I am.

“I have a great lifestyle.

“I have never wanted for anything.”

Thomas was an FA Youth Cup winner with Burnley in 1968, one year after making his full senior debut against Everton aged 16 years and 220 days.

Good memories but not as precious for Thomas as the deep connections formed with Burnley colleagues which survive today.

He explains by detailing his location as he sits for this interview.

“I am in the Lake District with four of my Burnley teammates,” says Thomas.

“Paul Fletcher, Colin Waldron, Frank Casper and Jimmy Thomson.

“It is getting on 50 years and I am still in contact with these guys. They look after me.

“You cannot buy that.

“We’ve been out for breakfast. We’re off into Ambleside later and I will feel so confident walking where there’s loads of people.

“I didn’t have that freedom before Hannah.

“It has been a special couple of days.”

When he retired in 1984 Thomas was “so disillusioned” with football, “losing faith in it… I didn’t want anything to do with football again”.

Regardless, Thomas, who turned 69 this month, remains a football man to his core.

Reminded of missing the title by one point with a free-spirited QPR team in 1976 he emits an almighty sigh.

“That will stick with me until the day I die,” says Thomas.

Leaving his parents’ County Durham home for digs in Burnley aged 15 had been a “wrench”.

“But if you want something you have to go and get it,” says Thomas.

“You have to be strong minded.”

He harboured concerns over moving to London to play for Second Division QPR in 1972 but those fears were washed away on a wave of personal and professional euphoria.

“We had Terry Venables, Gerry Francis and Stan Bowles, streetwise people,” says Thomas.

“Terry was great with me. He was knowledgeable and charismatic, there was an aura about him. He took an interest in you personally and would do anything to help you improve.

“I had the best five years of my career at QPR.”

Thomas married Brenda after two months in Shepherd’s Bush and was promoted at the end of his first season.

In October 1974 Dave Sexton replaced Gordon Jago – “two wonderful mangers” – and constructed the side which in 1975/76 torched English football’s established order.

QPR won 13 of their final 15 matches, losing only one, 3-2 at Norwich City.

Sexton’s team had returned from an end-of-season trip to scorching Israel for a friendly with Maccabi Tel Aviv by the time Liverpool won their final match at Wolverhampton Wanderers to pip QPR.

“They had their last game 10 days after us,” says Thomas. “It would never happen today, would it?”

Thomas’s grandad, David Rhys Thomas, was a prominent member of the West Auckland team which won the 1909 Sir Thomas Lipton World Football Trophy, the competition which spawned the inaugural World Cup 21 years later.

“I was brought up in my grandfather’s house,” says Thomas. “My dad had lived in that house 94 years when he passed away.

“Grandad was a lovely man, he was about 72 when I was born but would take me into the back field kicking a ball around.

“I was naturally a right-footer but from three years old, he’d say he was going inside if I wouldn’t kick with my left.

“I’d say, ‘Okay, grandad, I’ll kick with my left foot’. He never taught me how to head it or tackle, though, that’s for sure.

“God gave me a gift and I used it.”

Leaving QPR for Everton in summer 1977 came as a “shock” for Thomas. Everton lost his opening two matches but were unbeaten in their next 18.

Gordon Lee’s team started the following season with 19 undefeated games.

That they finished third and fourth respectively still needles Thomas.

“It does,” he starts, “we had the potential to do more.

“After those first two games, I honestly thought, ‘This doesn’t look good’.

“But we were a strong team, solid and well-balanced.”

Thomas is best remembered at Goodison Park for being the chief support act in Bob Latchford’s 30-goal campaign.

The two would regularly talk football and Latchford’s belief Everton should recruit Trevor Francis was shared by his oppo.

“Latch was a wonderful goalscorer, a natural, and I think Trevor Francis would have guaranteed another 15-20 goals a season,” says Thomas.

“We were just a little bit away from being good enough to consistently win things and Trevor Francis would have been the icing on the cake.

“I loved Everton, it was a great club.”

Thomas is effusive about Harry Potts at Burnley, Jago, Sexton and “lovely” former Everton boss Lee. A dispute with Potts’s successor Jimmy Adamson prompted Thomas’s exit for QPR but “I had great admiration for him”.

After those managers, relates Thomas, “I would not have bothered with any of them. Maybe they thought the same about me.

“Sadly, after leaving Everton [releases exasperated growl] I just fell out with people.”

Thomas chose Wolves over Manchester United in 1979 only to walk headfirst into conflict with Barnwell and Barker.

Things were reaching a head around the time Brenda bought a new outfit for the League Cup final at Wembley.

“I said, ‘Sorry Brenda, we’re not going’,” says Thomas.

“I went home to Parbold and watched it on the telly.

“It was a horrendous time.”

Thomas slipping in his moulded boots and giving away a goal against Norwich City was the tipping point.

“Richie Barker always had a go in training about wearing rubbers and having my socks down” says Thomas.

“He came in at half-time against Norwich and went for me, big time.

“I chucked my shirt straight in his face.

“I never played again.

“That’s fair enough.”

It didn’t seem so reasonable that Thomas’s England career was curbed after eight caps won inside one year and 20 days.

Thomas is especially perplexed he was never asked to recreate his lethal alliance with Latchford on the international stage.

He provided a goal for Mick Channon on debut against Czechoslovakia in October 1974 but wasn’t summoned after leaving QPR.

“I was playing the best football of my life with Everton but never received any explanation from England,” says Thomas. “Not from Don Revie [in charge from 1974] or [successor] Ron Greenwood.

“Bob got in, but I didn’t.

“It was bizarre, really. But you don’t take it personally, you just get on with it.”

Getting On With It would have been a viable title for the autobiography Thomas has written with author Dave Roberts.

He agreed to the project on condition all proceeds from the book – Guiding Me Home & Away – go to charity Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Thomas got on with it as he waited approximately four years from his initial application for Hannah to arrive.

“It is an incredible process,” says Thomas.

“We live out of a village [Lartington in Durham] in a real country area, no roads, no footpaths. Nothing.

“When the instructor came, she said, ‘Oh my, where am I going to get a dog to match this environment?’

“We have two horses, chickens, ducks, geese and cats – the giraffe is coming next week.

“In 20 years she’d matched one person in a similar environment.

“That’s why I waited so long. But she is the perfect dog.”

From birth to retirement, a guide dog costs £50,000. Thomas has raised £75,000 for Guide Dogs through various initiatives and hopes his book lifts that tally beyond £100,000.

Thomas returned to his native north east around a decade ago.

Fed-up after Wolves, he escaped England altogether but counts his one year with Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada as a “terrible experience”.

He was briefly with Middlesbrough before joining Portsmouth, where he played for two years and had another two as youth-team coach.

Being told his position was being made redundant only to receive a phone call weeks later from a journalist informing him Peter Osgood would be installed in the post turned out the lights on Thomas’s football career.

“You can imagine how I felt,” says Thomas. “Bruce Rioch offered me the Middlesbrough reserve team manager’s job but I was finished with football.

“I was very lucky to get a job [teaching] and stayed 20 years.

“We lived in a wonderful place on Chichester Harbour. My two daughters went through their education down there and everything was hunky-dory.”

Thomas talks about his sport with renewed passion today and was counting the days before he attended Everton’s match with Manchester City last month.

“My situation is one of those things that life throws at us as we get older,” says Thomas. “You have to accept it.

“On the whole, I am very positive.

“I get on with it.”