The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Brighton's Rod Thomas vs Mansfield Town

Despite a promising start as a tyro schoolboy, the career of Rod Thomas was largely unfulfilling. But there was this one day, when he played for Brighton and Hove Albion...
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Despite a promising start as a tyro schoolboy, the career of Rod Thomas was largely unfulfilling. But there was this one day, when he played for Brighton and Hove Albion...

Despite a promising start as a tyro schoolboy, the career of Rod Thomas was largely unfulfilling. But there was this one day, when he played for Brighton and Hove Albion...

Contrary to the sentiments of five thousand Brighton fans one sunny afternoon in August 1999, Rodney Thomas wasn’t all that super. But he could’ve been.

The dreadlocked winger had been heralded as ‘the next Pele’ following a scintillating performance in a televised England Schoolboys international in 1987. Then, as the label started hampering his development, he was downgraded to ‘the next John Barnes’, probably by virtue of the fact that he was black, and played for Watford. But by the time he arrived at Brighton in the summer of 1998, he was bereft of the dreadlocks and the potential, and in any case, we’d have settled for ‘the next Joe Average’ as long as he was willing to put up with the Spartan training facilities, poor pay and 150-mile round trip to ‘home’ games at Gillingham.

Brighton and Hove Albion FC had faded into the abyss with a similar whimper to the 28-year-old former Lilleshall starlet. In a way, Thomas and Albion were kindred spirits – both showing great promise in the 80s, and stuttering on a progressively downward spiral ever since. In fact you could probably have buried The Stone Roses in that graveyard of unfulfillment as well.

For the majority of the 90s, Albion were a laughing stock. A debt-stricken outfit regularly scrapping for Football League survival in the lower reaches of the bottom tier. The club had been bought out by a crook who promptly knocked down the stadium and sold the site to his own construction company for a pittance. Bill Archer then made himself millions by building a retail park for Toys R Us, PC World and Burger King on top of The Goldstone Ground’s rubble, leaving The Seagulls without a nest, and on the verge of extinction.

After a valiant supporters’ campaign that brought the club back from the brink, we rode out a couple of frankly forgettable seasons renting Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium every other Saturday. But with the 1999/00 season came a fresh glimmer of hope. We were back in Brighton, albeit at a converted athletics track, we had a new sponsor – Skint, Fatboy Slim’s ironically named record label – and the sun was shining beside the seaside.

As a player, Rod Thomas was frustrating. Consistently inconsistent, yet remarkably contented with his lot, he was more of a cult hero than a bona fide legend. He spent a lot of time on the bench at Brighton before and after this game. He’d always warm up in front of the South Stand just after half time, even if he hadn’t been asked to by the gaffer, because he loved to banter with the fans. “Rodney, give us a wave, Rodney, Rodney…” became something of a ritual. He’d wave enthusiastically at the crowd, and then a chorus of “Sooooper, super Rod” would commence while he flexed his muscles in jest. He never took himself seriously, did Rodney. Maybe that’s why he never fulfilled his promise.

I’ll never forget a fella a few rows in front of me shouting “just give it easy now Rodders,” a split-second before our number 16, with no backlift, unleashed his shot goalwards. The strike was as pure as they come, piercing through the hot summer air no more than three foot above the turf.

Watford or Carlisle fans may wish to correct me, but his part in Brighton’s first game back on home soil in August 1999 was probably the best performance Thomas put in as a professional; the best since he tormented Scotland’s U16s at Wembley more than a decade earlier.

Buoyed by a no-strings-attached role on the left flank that encouraged him to cut inside onto his favoured right foot, he ran Mansfield ragged. We were 2-0 up at the break, and as Thin Lizzy’s epic hit ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ pumped out of the tinny Withdean Tannoy system, it was a time for reflection. A proud moment for the likes of Des Lynam, who’d fought to save the club, and new chairman Dick Knight.

The second half granted yet more pride, and in the end an embarrassment of riches that we just weren’t used to. Cue ‘Super’ Rodney, who, on 56 minutes – and just as Mansfield had begun mustering a sense of endeavour – won the ball on the half way line, and waltzed through four yellow-shirts as if they were traffic cones full of sand. At this stage, we were already on our feet in anticipation. Thomas briefly lost balance, but then checked back onto his right foot 25 yards out, evading another defender in the process. I’ll never forget a fella a few rows in front of me shouting “just give it easy now Rodders,” a split-second before our number 16, with no backlift, unleashed his shot goalwards. The strike was as pure as they come, piercing through the hot summer air no more than three foot above the turf. Even with the goalie diving full-length from a reasonable starting position, this bullet was unstoppable. It crashed in off the far post.

The place went mental with a combination of intense adoration and utter disbelief. Brighton players didn’t score goals like that, let alone Rodney Thomas, the geezer who spent most of his time waving to us from beside the advertising hoardings. What’s more, we were 3-0 up, in our own stadium, in our own town, in 25°C sunshine. After all the dark days; the tears and tantrums with which we said goodbye to the old Goldstone Ground, the protests, the petitions and the car shares to Gillingham, this was a moment to savour. Even we couldn’t f**k this up now.

Albion beat Mansfield 6-0 that day. We hadn’t won like that since the halcyon days of Peter Ward, Mark Lawrenson, the first division and the FA Cup final. The result, and Thomas’ goal in particular, marked the first day of the rest of the club’s existence. We may not have been back in the big time just yet, but the boys were back in town. And, just for one day, Rodney Thomas was Superman.

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