Leicester full back Luke Thomas on winning the FA Cup, Brendan Rodgers and playing for England

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‘So, let’s get this straight. The first game of professional first-team football you ever played in front of fans, and the first time your dad saw you play live for Leicester City, the club he’s supported all his life, was at Wembley when you won the FA Cup final?’

Luke Thomas grins and nods. ‘Yeah, that’s right.’

Even the impressive Leicester full back knows that is not the usual way of doing things.

Luke Thomas won the FA Cup with Leicester in his first first-team game in front of a crowd

Luke Thomas won the FA Cup with Leicester in his first first-team game in front of a crowd

Young full back Thomas (left) has described the victory over Chelsea as the 'best day' of his life

Young full back Thomas (left) has described the victory over Chelsea as the ‘best day’ of his life

Thomas was still 19 when he started against Chelsea at Wembley in May. He’d broken into Brendan Rodgers’ side a year earlier but every match he had played was behind closed doors. 

All 25 of them, from an assist on debut against Sheffield United in July 2020 to scoring at Old Trafford in victory over Manchester United four days before the final.

For that historic occasion, 20,000 fans were welcomed back into Wembley as part of a Government pilot event. Thomas’s dad, Nathan, was one of them. So were his mum and sister, who had only ever watched him play for the first-team on the television. 

The rest is etched into Leicester folklore. Youri Tielemans scored a famous winner, Chelsea’s late equaliser was dramatically ruled out for offside and the Foxes lifted the FA Cup for the first time in their history.

Youri Tielemans' thunderbolt, a moment etched in folklore, proved the difference at Wembley

Youri Tielemans’ thunderbolt, a moment etched in folklore, proved the difference at Wembley 

‘My dad hasn’t stopped putting it on Facebook for six months or whatever it’s been!’ laughs Thomas. ‘He called me straight after the game. A tear came to his eye at one stage. That’s when I realised how much it meant to fans who had been around for so many years. They’ve had so many heartbreaks in the FA Cup, lost finals. But eventually we got there and won it. It was mind-blowing. The best day of my life.’

Beforehand, he’d never been so nervous. He played darts with James Maddison at the hotel the night before to ease the tension. 

‘When I walked out at Wembley, I thought to myself: “Whoa” but I loved it. They are just people in the stands who have come to watch a game. It’s not about thinking who’s in the crowd, it’s about focussing on where that ball is and as long as it’s not in your net and it’s in theirs then you’re happy, ain’t ya.’

It wasn’t all plain-sailing. Thomas made way for retiring club legend Wes Morgan for the final throes and watched from the touchline as, in the last minute of normal time, Ben Chilwell thought he had levelled it, only for a long VAR delay to rule the former Leicester defender offside.

Thomas recalls feeling nervous before the final, but Leicester went on to lift the coveted cup

Thomas recalls feeling nervous before the final, but Leicester went on to lift the coveted cup

‘I was sure he was onside,’ says Thomas. ‘You couldn’t really tell from the angle I was watching from, you couldn’t see across the line. I just put my head in my hands. I just thought: “It’s another half-an-hour and everyone’s knackered.” 

‘But as soon as [the VAR decision] comes up you’re praying there’s not too much time left. For the last three minutes we were all standing up and then the final whistle goes and everyone’s on the pitch.’

Thomas is from the Leicestershire town of Syston. His voice reveals a local twang. He’s supported the club all his life, a season-ticket holder from the age of six. He went to games with his dad and his uncle Wes. He saw the club relegated to League One. He knows how far the club have come since.

Back then, he dreamed of being a striker. ‘Do you remember Iain Hume and Matty Fryatt up front? I had an Iain Hume shirt. Hume 7, it had on it. I used to love him.’ 

It was not until Leicester youth coach Brian Hookway asked him to fit in at left back that his dream of emulating the Canadian journeyman ended. Or, as Thomas puts it, ‘they eventually realised that I can’t actually put the ball in the back of the net!’

(His goal at Old Trafford would suggest otherwise.)

A boyhood Leicester fan, Thomas was asked to play at full back and broke into the senior side

A boyhood Leicester fan, Thomas was asked to play at full back and broke into the senior side

Rodgers invited Thomas to train with the first-team during lockdown after the club sold fellow youngster Calvin Bassey to Rangers. Suddenly, for this Leicester fan, the likes of Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy went from idols to team-mates. Thomas didn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

‘It was weird to be in the same dressing room as the people you watched a few years ago thinking how good they were. Now, you’re on the same pitch. It’s quite scary, to be honest. They’re great lads, though. They helped me to play as well as I have. They’ve boosted my confidence and helped me fit in.

‘Brendan’s a great man manager. When I first came in he spoke to me a lot and tell me how good I was as a player and how I’ve got to believe in what I can do and be confident when I get the ball and join in with the lads. He keeps pushing me and obviously believes in me to put me in his starting 11 a lot of the time. Hopefully that can continue.’

Thomas has had big boots to fill. Chilwell joined Chelsea the summer after Thomas’s debut, Christian Fuchs was heading into his final season. Rodgers put his faith in Thomas.

‘I watched Ben week in, week out, to learn from him. He’s such a good player. We’ve got similarities in many ways. Even now I learn from him. He’s unfortunate to have the injury he has at the minute but I’ll know he will bounce back just as good as he was before.’

For Thomas, this season has not been quite so euphoric. Leicester have followed up two fifth-placed finishes, an FA Cup and the Community Shield with a cough and a splutter. 

Brendan Rodgers put his faith in Thomas after the exit of Ben Chilwell, who left big boots to fill

Brendan Rodgers put his faith in Thomas after the exit of Ben Chilwell, who left big boots to fill

Decimated with injuries, results have been poor – ‘a difficult half-season’ – Thomas has been in and out of the side. Leicester, albeit with games in hand, are as many points off the relegation zone as they are West Ham in fifth.

Not to mention the calamitous defeat to Tottenham last month when Leicester led 2-1 with 30 seconds to go and lost 3-2. ‘That was our fault, we gifted it to them’ admits Thomas. ‘That was a really tough one. You could tell with how the dressing room was. There was just silence for 20 minutes.’

But you can’t dwell on it, he says. You’ve got to get up and go again. He wants Leicester to ‘prove to everyone we are a top side and can finish high up there every season.’ 

It’s a sign of his this young man’s mentality. And despite all the setbacks, there’s talk of a senior England call-up.

‘When you see things in papers like that, it is hard to keep the emotions in,’ he says. ‘It would be an honour to represent my country. I play for the under-21s but there would be nothing like making my senior debut. I wouldn’t be able to wait, it would be such an honour for me and my family and my friends. There is no better thing to do.’

Before all of that, though, the small matter of another FA Cup game. And not just any old FA Cup game. A fourth-round tie with Nottingham Forest.

This term has been tough for the club, but Thomas is keen to prove Leicester remain a 'top side'

This term has been tough for the club, but Thomas is keen to prove Leicester remain a ‘top side’

It’s been eight years since the two clubs last met. Thomas was 12. ‘I didn’t really get to see too many of the games,’ he says, making everyone in attendance feel ancient. ‘But I know about the rivalry.’

He does remember one, though. The one all Leicester fans remember. When Anthony Knockaert scored a last-minute winner at the City Ground on the final day of the Championship season to send Leicester into the play-offs. ‘The fans went wild, didn’t they?’

There’s another connection, too, one Thomas was hoping to keep quiet. His dad once had a trial at Forest. ‘Luckily, he didn’t get in! He’ll be in the away end this afternoon.’

As a local lad, he can feel the excitement building around the city. ‘I’ve had a lot of people ask me for tickets, that’s how you know it’s a big game,’ he says. ‘You know the fans are going to be up for it. They’re going to want us to win and they won’t be happy if they don’t. So we’re going to go out there and, hopefully, smash them.’

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