Sunday 2 August 2015

Time for Thomas to stand up and be counted

A lot can happen in a year. Just ask footballers. Angel Di Maria started last season as a World Cup star and the record British signing. Now it looks like he'll be off to Paris Saint Germain after failing to live up to his own hype at Manchester United. Harry Kane began as Tottenham's first choice striker amid raised eyebrows after a few indifferent seasons and kept himself there, scoring enough goals and impressing the right people to earn himself an England call-up and talk of a move to a footballing superpower.

For Conor Thomas, one of our more successful academy graduates, his year has been more Di Maria than Kane. As many will fondly remember, his role in the first half of that Jekyll and Hyde 2013-14 season helped to provide a platform that enabled the front-four of Moussa, Baker, Clarke, and Wilson to score more goals than we're ever likely to see from a Coventry team. Thomas and John Fleck, a partnership forged by necessity rather than choice that for a while ended up feeling rather serendipitous, were the perfect foils for each other in a central-midfield pairing that, when on form, was one of the more effective double-acts we've seen at Coventry in recent years. Thomas' tireless running and simple recycling of the ball was a lovely counterweight to Fleck's measured passes and intelligent touch. The cart-horse and the show-pony, each very different yet equally important in their own right.

Although the form of both dipped after Christmas - it could be argued the loss of Leon Clarke was a factor in this, as his ability to receive the ball into feet from midfield and hold it up was a key role in the system which no incoming striker could really replicate - the hope was that at only 20 years old Thomas would continue to improve and that the blip in form was a natural result of a young player struggling to match the consistency of a seasoned professional. Thomas played 49 matches in that topsy-turvy campaign, an incredible amount for such a young man and a figure which underlined his importance to the team during that time. The 2014-15 season would be an important step for the young midfielder, a chance for him to display he could be for one, the midfielder we have needed but have so rarely enjoyed, and secondly, the player that he has threatened to become but hasn't quite metamorphosed into: one that grabs a game by the balls and exerts his influence on it, rather than letting the match pass him by.

For a number of reasons, we were to see less of Thomas last term than in 2013-14. He made only 19 appearances last season, as former boss Steven Pressley seemed to prefer Jim O'Brien as the high-energy presence in the middle of the park to partner John Fleck. Even Adam Barton, who had failed to impress Pressley but found some success with current boss Tony Mowbray halfway through the season, ended up making more appearances than Thomas. The former-mainstay missed chunks of the season due to injuries and poor form and failed to build momentum within the first-team. He finished the season playing with the under-21s.

At the start of pre-season it was encouraging to hear from Tony Mowbray in an interview with the Coventry Telegraph that Thomas had been impressing in training and was putting forward a case for a return to the first-team. Mowbray remarked that, "In pre-season this year he’s giving me, not a headache, but something to think about because he’s looked powerful, strong and fast. With total respect to him, he’s showing me more than I saw at the end of last season so he’s come back really hungry to force his way into the team which is a real bonus for us."

Yet for all this positivity from the manager, pre-season has seen Thomas play less than one half of football against Nuneaton Town; he started the second-half but came off after a clash of heads which left him concussed in the 78th minute. Mowbray had said he expected Thomas to be out for at least a week but the young midfielder hasn't made any further appearances in the lacklustre pre-season matches, which may well hamper him when it comes to the season proper. The lack of depth in the City squad has been exposed by the recent friendlies, and all over the pitch (except, possibly, in defence) we look short of quality. There was a time during that dreamland of the first-half of the 2013-14 season where we would look at Thomas and think that the midfield would be in safe-hands if he was on the pitch. Now with Fleck, Romain Vincelot, and O'Brien ahead of him in the pecking order, he will need to take his chances and prove he is worthy of a place in this team. We shouldn't write him off yet of course, but this will be a telling season and determine whether the the local lad has a future at this club.

After last year's disappointing season, I would love Thomas to force his way into Mowbray's thinking for the year. New signing Vincelot seems to have the nod from the manager on starting with John Fleck in that all-action, central-midfield hard-man role, but Thomas is no fool; as a professional footballer he will know any loss of form or injury for the new man will mean an opportunity to force his way into the team. Thomas has always seemed like a player and personality who will always work hard, and his natural fitness levels are impressive. Concerns remain about his passing ability and propensity to earn silly bookings, usually after a particularly heavy first touch has forced him into a rash challenge (the 2013-14 away match against Crewe remains in the mind - his touch, passing, and tackling were all over the place that day and I actually doubt whether he made a single effective contribution to the game) but at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to mature into a more effective, clever, and dominating player. Maturity tends to have a calming effect on central midfielders, and if it means his body will start to look on the same wavelength as his brain during crucial moments, he will be all the more useful for it. Whether he can add that sangfroid to his game before Tony Mowbray loses faith in him remains to be seen.

As an academy graduate and local boy, of course most fans will want to see Thomas improve and fulfill that early promise which nearly materialised in a move to Liverpool as a teenager. For his footballing career, and our team, I desperately hope at the end of this year we are again remarking on how, in football, a lot can happen in a year: and how Conor Thomas' year has looked less like Di Maria's, and more like Kane's.

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