Born in Middlesbrough but bred, professionally speaking at least, in Newcastle and Sunderland, Nathan Thomas boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of North-East football.
The Sheffield United midfielder has also rubbed shoulders with some of its greatest names after beginning his career, as a starry-eyed youngster, surrounded by legends at St James’ Park.
“I’ve been really fortunate with regards to the people who taught me,” Thomas says. “I always remember Gazza coming in and working with all of us up there. He was the nicest bloke you could ever hope to meet and, blimey, he could still play football too.”
Thomas is sitting behind a desk inside the Championship club’s study centre as, reflecting upon those masterclasses, he details his journey from the banks of the Tyne to Bramall Lane via Darlington, Hartlepool and the Stadium of Light. It is a fitting venue because, as quickly becomes apparent, the 22-year-old boasts a fervent desire to learn.
“I started out at Newcastle and then joined Sunderland’s youth system,” Thomas explains. “The people we had access to was absolutely brilliant. I don’t remember Gazza at his peak but, when you’ve got someone who has achieved what he has in the game giving you advice, well, you just listen and soak it all up. The same goes for Alan Shearer, who used to be around the place a lot, as well. Really, it was just brilliant.”
Thomas, who scored on his debut for Chris Wilder’s side during Wednesday’s Carabao Cup tie with Walsall, is equally enthused about joining United. So much so, in fact, he chose them over Middlesbrough, the team he has supported since childhood, after leaving Victoria Park earlier this summer. With the two clubs set to meet at the Riverside tomorrow, it was a decision Thomas accepts, if selected, could see him targeted by sections of the crowd. But, outlining the reasons behind his thinking, he has absolutely no regrets.
“I was never going to chose anywhere else,” Thomas admits. I did have a conversation with Middlesbrough but it wasn’t really going anywhere and I had my heart set on coming here. Basically, it was just the feeling I got. It immediately felt like a really good place to be.”
Hailing from Ingleby Barwick, less than six miles from Middlesbrough’s home stadium, the move to South Yorkshire sees Thomas follow in the footsteps of Keith Edwards, United’s legendary goalscorer, who grew-up in the same borough.
“He’s from Stockton-on-Tees. That’s really good to hear but I’m a long, long way from doing what he did, writing his name into history. Of course, every player dreams about going somewhere and creating a legacy. But it’s a lot easier said that done isn’t it. I’m not going to get ahead of myself or start thinking like that. I just want to work hard, listen and improve. I just want to do my very best.”
Although Thomas made his name as an out and out winger, Wilder has frequently deployed him at wing-back.
“I’m probably quite an old fashioned winger. I always remember, years ago, someone telling me that wingers should be getting chalk on their boots. It was that long ago, I can’t remember who it was but it did stick with me. A lot of wingers these days like to cut inside and play quite centrally. I’m probably quite old fashioned in a sense, with the way I play, but I still think there’s a place for that. For people who bring the width. But wherever I am, I’m just happy to be out there. I’ll adapt and do whatever I’m asked.”
Despite winning all of their last 15 matches - a record which includes last term’s League One title triumph and also pre-season competition - United enter the second fixture of the new campaign as heavy underdogs. Middlesbrough, now managed by Garry Monk, are in receipt of a £47m parachute payment after being relegated from the top-flight and spent nearly a third of that prising Britt Asombalonga away from Nottingham Forest three weeks ago.
Thomas, though, is used to battling the odds after representing Plymouth Argyle, Motherwell and Mansfield Town before heading back north to Hartlepool.
“I’ve always gone where I think I can get games,” he says. “I’m not someone who wants to just sit around picking up money for doing nothing. I’ve been all over the country, from where I’m from, to the south, to the middle and then, before coming here, back home again. It’s because I just want to play.”
“Things didn’t really work out at Plymouth but, at Mansfield, things went really well,” he adds. “I went to Hartlepool after that but I had to go home for personal reasons. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave Mansfield, I just had to go back for family reasons. I can’t thank them enough for letting me do that and the same goes for Hartlepool who were brilliant with me as well. I just hope they bounce back.”
Thomas, of course, is referring to his former club’s recent slide into the National League following a desperately disappointing campaign. Although their demise ultimately paved the way for his departure, Thomas wishes his old employers all the best.
“I just want to thank Hartlepool for everything,” he says. “Hartlepool gave me a the opportunity. They couldn’t have done enough for me and I’ll never forget that. I went from the lowest low to a real high in a month after coming to United. Probably the biggest high I’ve ever had in the game. But I also hope they come back because the club and the fans don’t deserve what happened. They should be a league club, without a shadow of a doubt.”