It is fair to say that the diminutive individual who provided the FA Cup’s most iconic giant-killing moment 30 years ago this week was a more complicated soul than most.
Eight days after his searing free-kick for Wrexham helped sink Arsenal in that third-round tie on January 4, 1992, Mickey Thomas was arrested for his part of a counterfeit money scam. He ran out for the fourth round at West Ham to a ticker tape welcome of Monopoly money.
But one of the lesser appreciated aspects of Thomas is how very seriously he always viewed any perceived slight on his own team-mates. That January day in North Wales against George Graham’s champions goes to prove it.
Wrexham produced one of the greatest FA Cup upsets ever by beating Arsenal in 1992
Steve Watkin pounced on a Tony Adams mistake to score a late winner for the Welsh side
Wrexham, who’d wound up bottom of the Football League the previous season and been spared the non-League because there was no relegation, had signed a few old-timers to strengthen the ranks, including the 36-year-old Gordon Davies, who was and still is Fulham’s record goal-scorer.
It was Thomas’ view that Arsenal’s Nigel Winterburn was taking some delight in mocking Davies’ seniority, including ‘running towards Gordon like an old man to give him the ball’ when Wrexham had just won that fateful free-kick. ‘I didn’t like it,’ says Thomas. ‘I was there thinking “What a p*** taker.”‘
The video evidence is slightly inconclusive. Winterburn certainly stoops rather oddly as he hands Davies the ball. But Thomas, who was 35 himself, decided that he must inflict instant revenge by taking the free-kick himself.
He’d also tried one from about the same range in training two days earlier. That one was by no means on target ‘I think it’s still going round the universe,’ he says now, but he fancied this one.
Mickey Thomas (right) was defensive of his team-mates and wants them to get the credit
His young team-mate Waynne Phillips fancied the kick, too, but Thomas wasn’t having it. ‘When we won that free-kick I’d barely touched the ball when Mickey said: “Leave it to me”,’ Phillips told the latest issue of Wrexham magazine Fearless in Devotion for one of a number of interviews marking this week’s anniversary. ‘I wasn’t going to argue with him.’
The rest is history, of course. Though FA Cup third-round weekend is the most evocative of the English football calendar, no moment of euphoria is recalled quite like Wrexham’s.
The gulf in class – the Football League’s best v worst of 1990-91 – contributed substantially to it.
Half an hour before kick-off, the mood in Wrexham’s dressing room seemed so oppressive that Davies wandered over to the tea urn, filled a plastic cup with tea and walked back to his seat pretending to shake the cup and spill the liquid all over the place. ‘I’m an experienced player and I’m not nervous at all,’ he declared. The dressing room dissolved into laughter.
The anxiety was understandable given how the first half went. Paul Merson capitalised on their lack of personnel down the right before easing past defender Mark Sertori to set up Alan Smith for a goal just before half-time. ‘It was a bit like a Rocky film,’ Sertori told Fearless in Devotion. ‘He could run faster with the ball than I could without it.’
Smith recalls how Arsenal stayed in a pleasant country hotel the night before and were served a particularly fine lasagne. All was well.
Arsenal were the best side around having won the top-flight title in the 1990-91 season
Wrexham had been the worst side in the Football League and so it was David vs Goliath
But Wrexham’s shrewd, seasoned manager Brian Flynn sensed the Gunners might become complacent in the second half. ‘Teams who have so much of the ball get bored of it,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘They get start doing sloppy things. They lose concentration. That’s what Arsenal did.’
The linesman’s call that Davies had been elbowed, creating the free-kick Thomas despatched left-footed from 30 yards with only eight minutes to play, was a marginal one. ‘I’ll be honest, I thought the free-kick was a bit soft,’ says Flynn’s assistant Kevin Reeves. ‘But how many games are changed on a decision like that?’
Flynn had a Highbury replay on his mind, because chairman Pryce Griffiths had agreed to a ‘chunk of money’ if the team secured one. ‘I was thinking, “50,000 people at Highbury, 45 per cent of the game, so more than £200,000.” That’s like winning the lottery,’ he says.
But Wrexham had not finished. David Rocastle’s loose pass into touch handed them a throw-in and a subsequent hoisted ball to Davies, who levered a pass into the six-yard box towards 20-year-old Steve Watkin, one of those he had done most to settle before the game. Tony Adams failed to clear and was off balance when Watkin hooked a right leg around him to squeeze home the winner.
Arsenal were magnanimous in defeat. Thomas had asked David Seaman before the game if he could have his gloves. Seaman was waiting at the Wrexham dressing room door. Flynn encountered Graham in the tight little dressing room corridor. ‘He said, “Well done, Bri, you deserved it,”‘ recalls Flynn. ‘That was typical of George.’
The night did not improve for Arsenal. Graham gave his players 10 minutes to shower and get on the bus to beat a hasty retreat but their coach broke down on the motorway. ‘Standing on a hard shoulder in the middle of nowhere in January wasn’t really the best way to end a miserable afternoon,’ says Smith.
Winterburn declined our request to discuss the match.
The complicated part for Flynn was Tony Gubba’s post-match request that he and Thomas head to Manchester in a BBC car – leaving around 6.15pm – for a pre-recorded Match of the Day interview.
‘I told him: “Not a cat in hell’s chance! Mickey could be in Bangor by now”,’ says Flynn. ‘But Mickey was very particular about his hair. And more importantly his loss of hair! He took a lot of time in the dressing room to make sure his hair was right. So someone found him.’
Watkin thinks he might have got a £50 goal bonus for leaving Adams on his backside, but the win did help stabilise Wrexham and set in train an extraordinary decade of FA Cup heroics – including a run to the quarter-finals in 1997.
For Arsenal – and any Premier League club in third-round action against lesser lights next weekend – the defeat became a watchword for what can happen if you lose your focus in some far-flung corner of the football map.
‘We won the Cup the following year and maybe what happened at Wrexham played a part,’ says Smith. ‘Because you don’t want it to happen to you again.’