You don’t often hear of Premier League clubs loaning players from the Football League, but that’s exactly what Liverpool did with Conor Thomas in 2011. And if that wasn’t unusual enough, six years down the line he was playing in India…
Thomas progressed through the ranks at Coventry City as a youngster and went on to make his debut for the first team as a 16-year-old in January 2011.
However, rather than be slowly integrated into men’s football, as is usually the case with any emerging talent, Thomas was signed on loan by Liverpool just six days after the first ever senior start of his career against Birmingham City in the Championship.
The Reds were trying to fight off competition even before it arrived, including a £1million option to make the move permanent, but that never materialised and in hindsight Thomas believes the move came too soon in his career.
“I was just 16, and I’d literally just broken into the first team at Coventry,” he says. “Then on deadline day my agent called me up and said that Liverpool had come in for me and I had to pack my bags and head up there to meet him.
“From that moment I just sort of knew it didn’t feel right. I thought I wasn’t ready to leave Coventry yet.
“I didn’t have a say in it all, right from minute one. I went up there, rushed through the medical and it all got sorted out.”
— CovLiveCCFC (@CovCityLive) January 31, 2011
Understandably, Thomas found it difficult to adapt to life at a new club in a new city at such a tender age.
“I was up there living on my own in a hotel as a young lad, I wasn’t driving and I ended up just being stuck in my room all day,” he says.
“I was a bit homesick and to be honest I just wasn’t ready for it. I was too young and mentally not quite mature enough.
“When I was training everything it was great, I really enjoyed it. But then you finish training at quarter to 12 and I’d be back at the hotel by 1 and I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
“I don’t want to say I regret it. It was a great experience and I took a lot from it. I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into in terms of moving away from home and stuff.
“I just think the timing of it was off. Maybe I could have told my agent to hold off a bit, so I could finish the season at Coventry and get some games under my belt and then go then maybe, but it was all a bit rushed.”
Thomas returned to Coventry and ended up making over 100 first-team appearances for the club prior to his release in 2016.
He wasn’t on the free agent list for long as Swindon Town made a beeline for his services, but all was not well at the County Ground as the club were relegated from League One.
A disconnect between supporters and the club’s hierarchy grew as the season progressed, particularly over Tim Sherwood’s somewhat unclear role.
“It was a real strange one,” Thomas says. “We had a manager Luke Williams who was in (sole) charge until November.
“Tim came in and took a couple of training sessions, but we were never told what his role was going to be, what was happening or even who was going to be picking the team.
“As footballers you just get on with it. Anyway, Tim took charge of the first couple of games and we got good results. But I think he was just there to drive recruitment really, it got to January and we bought in five or six loan signings, and obviously that policy didn’t work out.
“In the end he left his position and I think he’s come out and said he was just helping out a friend, the chairman (Lee Power). I don’t know if he ever had an actual job title or anything which is why the situation probably looked like a mess from the outside.”
Thomas made 37 appearances for Swindon in 2016-17 and appeared as a substitute in the first two games of the following season, too, before making the surprise move to India to join ATK.
He was able to count Robbie Keane, Tom Thorpe, Ryan Taylor and Martin Paterson as team-mates and was managed by Teddy Sheringham until the former England international was sacked, but it’s still hardly your average move for a 24-year-old playing in League Two.
“It was really random,” he says. “I started the season at Swindon, did pre-season there and played a couple of games including against Norwich in the cup.
“After that game I got a Whatsapp call. It just came up with Teddy Sheringham and I thought, ‘Flipping hell, what’s he calling me for?”
“I answered and he told me about the situation out there and asked whether I’d be interested in joining. After a few weeks and quite a lot of phone calls it got further down the line, the deal got sorted and in the end I decided to come out here.
“I was really open to the experience. I’d never played outside of England before and I just thought I’m 24, I don’t have a missus or kids at home, so I’ll give it a go and take it from there.”
Sheringham was sacked by ATK on January 28 after just 10 games in charge, but Thomas was impressed by the former Tottenham striker during their brief period working together.
“Obviously having the opportunity to work under him was key to [the move]. He is the best manager I’ve worked under so far. We haven’t been doing as well as we should be, but he is top class.
“His man management and attention to detail is great. Obviously he’s played at the very top level and he knows all the little details at that level and it comes across in his training.
“From day one I said to the gaffer and to Robbie, ‘Look I want to learn as much as I can from you,’ and they’ve both helped me out a lot with my game and little pointers here and there.
“The knowledge that they have of the game is huge and I’ve taken away a lot of what they’ve said to me.”
Playing with and learning from the likes of Sheringham and Keane is one thing, but doing so in a completely new environment is another entirely.
It would be difficult to find two places as polar opposite to one another as Kolkata and Coventry, but Thomas embraced a new culture far removed to anything he has experienced before.
“It has been an experience,” he laughs. “It has been totally, totally different, I’d never been out to this side of the world before, so it has been an eye opener.
“It is a very poor country and the gap between the rich and the poor is massive, so you do see some sights, but I’m really glad I’ve come out here and seen it all.
“The most difficult thing out here is what to do in your free time and how you fill it. In England and Europe, you can nip out to the cinema, go shopping, get something to eat whereas here it is a little bit different; you have to be a bit careful. That’s probably the biggest challenge here.
Thomas has many years ahead of him in professional football, but he has already dipped his toes into coaching alongside his former Coventry team-mate James Maddison.
In the summer of 2017, the pair set up Future Sports, which puts on coaching camps for kids around Coventry.
“We didn’t set it up as a sort of retirement plan,” Thomas says. “We were just back in the summer and felt it would be nice to give a little something back because we both went to holiday camps and stuff like that.
“I’m 24 and he’s 21 so we just thought it would be better to set it up now while we’re playing just so we could help out in Coventry while we were back for the summer.
“It did quite well so we ended up setting up the development centre and it’s just going from there. It wasn’t really planned, but it just kind of took off and we rolled with it.”
It’s more or less been the story of Thomas’ career so far.
By Oliver Young-Myles