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Nov 7, 2006

'I just count myself lucky'

In May 1990 Geoff Thomas played in two of the biggest matches of his career. The games proved to be two of the most memorable in the history of Crystal Palace and two of the most significant matches in the career of Alex Ferguson.

Then aged 26 Thomas was captain of Palace and led the team out at Wembley to take on Manchester United in the FA Cup final, the game ended 3-3 and was taken to replay where United eventually ran out 1-0 winners. It was United's first trophy under Alex Ferguson and, along with nine England caps, represented the pinnacle of Thomas' 20-year career.

Sixteen years on and Palace met United again, this time in a testimonial rematch which Thomas helped arrange in order help raise money for Leukaemia Research. The match came three years after Thomas was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia an illness which led doctors to warn him he could have as little as three months left to live.

Thomas was fortunate enough to have been diagnosed early and underwent an arduous and intensive course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed by a procedure in which stem cells harvested from his sister were transplanted to replace the leukaemia cells.

Thomas has been in remission since January 2005 and has dedicated himself to raising awareness and money to help fund the research he believes saved his life.

The seeds for a replay of the famous 1990 FA Cup final were first sewn shortly after Thomas had been diagnosed and was actually conceived as a means to help safeguard his family's future.

It is difficult to even begin to comprehend the fear and distress someone in Thomas' position must have experienced after his diagnosis, however he was heartened by the help and support of friends, particularly from within football.

'[Palace chairman and owner] Simon Jordan was quick to help', recalls Thomas, speaking to ESPNsoccernet. 'He called and said he would do what he could to help me and my family. At the time it was a huge weight off my mind to know that there were people who would be there to take care of my family if... if I was not around'.

After entering remission in January 2005 Thomas began to investigate the possibility of staging a testimonial, not for his family's benefit but to raise money for Leukaemia Research. Not one to shirk a challenge, Thomas fell upon the idea of arranging a replay of the 1990 cup final.

'People warned me that it might be difficult to get United, but the first phone calls I made were to Sir Alex and Steve Coppell who were both more than happy to lend their support and do what they could. In the end we had over 15,000 people at Selhurst Park for the match and raised over £200,000'.

Since his fundraising activities began in March 2005 Thomas has raised over £500,000 through various events, the most notable, successful and inspirational was last year's feat of bicycling endurance; an assault on the Tour de France, another challenge the seeds of which were planted while still in hospital.

'When I was still undergoing treatment a friend sent me Lance Armstrong's book 'It's not about the bike' and it really helped me. His sheer determination to conquer his illness was an inspiration to me. I took from the book a focus for what was required to get healthy. After that the idea of riding 'Le Tour' kind of started as a joke and just snowballed'.

In what was a first by an amateur cycling team, Thomas completed all 21 stages of the 2,400-mile 2005 Tour de France route in the same time as Le Tour's professional cyclists.

Gruelling mental and physical challenges are anathema to most of us, but Thomas relishes them, not perhaps for the pain, but because of the end result - the chance to raise money to help those who are still fighting for their lives and those specialists whose knowledge and assistance is vital.

'When I was in hospital there was a guy next to me who had the exact same illness and was undergoing the exact same treatment. Sadly he is no longer with us, like so many of the people I have met. The only difference between us was that he was diagnosed just a few months later than me.

'I have been very fortunate. I am one of the success stories, but for every success there are seven failures. Which is as heartbreaking for the families as it is for the staff and specialists who help care. It is very wearing for them as well'.

Thomas is an affable, easy-going character and certainly not overtly political, or one to court controversy, but he does have a view on the debate surrounding stem cell research, not a topic many ex-footballers concern themselves with.

'I think that in 10 or 15 years we'll look back and wonder why certain things were not commonplace today', believes Thomas. 'There are a lot of positive strides that can be taken with ethical research. Ultimately there are a lot of clever people in laboratories ready to perform but it does come down to finance, which is what spurs me on.

'I want to be able to go to a specialist with a sort of shopping list and be able to say 'What do you need?' and then raise the money to get it.'

Thomas' outlook on life has changed as a result of his battle with leukaemia but he is at pains to stress that there are many positives to be taken from such struggles.

'One of the things I try to stress is that leukaemia wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to me, and others who have experienced similar illness say the same thing. It changes your outlook on life, you see things clearer. Survivors say 'It's an eye opener'.'

However, while survivorship may have given Thomas a fresh perspective he has always appreciated how privileged he was to have enjoyed a career as a professional footballer.

Like Ian Wright and Mark Bright, team-mates during Palace's successful spell in the early 1990s, Thomas came to the game late, in fact he was working as an electrician before being offered terms by Rochdale, his first club back in 1982.

'I used to turn up to training on a Tuesday night in my overalls straight from work', he says. 'At that point I couldn't have imagined what would follow. When you're playing football you're just enjoying it, not really looking forward.

'I represented England nine times, and maybe they weren't the most important games but looking back at the names of players who didn't play for their country as often as they should I just count myself lucky.'

So what next for Thomas? Well, the future promises yet more fundraising and evermore exciting and challenging ways to do it. There are plans for a foundation in his name and a variety of charity events, plus Thomas will again be pushing his body and his bike to the limits.

On the agenda for 2007 is the 'Race Across America', which is surely the world's toughest endurance cycling race - 3,052 miles across 14 US states, non-stop day and night from West to East coast, and if that were not challenge enough, there is a time limit of less than 10 days.

It is perhaps a measure of the man that after beating what he refers to as the toughest opponent of his career, Thomas retains the strength and determination to help fight leukaemia again for those who cannot.

Anyone wishing to follow Thomas's efforts, learn more about his career or would like to donate can do so by visiting his website, www.geoff-thomas.com

Thomas is also fronting a campaign for UK DIY retailer Wickes who are striving to raise £50,000 for Leukaemia Research with a search for the best in UK humour which will be published next year in a new book, 'White Van Wit'. Email your joke to whitevanwit@wickes.co.uk.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.