This is probably a name that many of you will never have heard of, but John Thomas was dubbed “the Gary Lineker of the lower leagues” by Big Ron Atkinson - so he must have been great.
Bolton Wanderers and Preston North End will evoke both positive and negative memories for the West Midlands-born striker. Thomas had two spells with both clubs, securing promotion in his second spell at Bolton only to rejoin Preston and break his leg - you guessed it - at Burnden Park.
Born in Wednesbury in 1958, the forward began his career with Everton but never made an appearance for The Toffees and was allowed to join Bolton in 1980 after loan spells with Tranmere Rovers and Halifax Town. He scored six goals in 22 league appearances across two seasons as he struggled to tie down a regular first-team place, and was allowed to leave on a free transfer in 1982.
New surroundings served Thomas well as he scored 20 goals in 44 league appearances in the 1982/83 season, winning the club’s player of the season before being sold on to Lincoln City for £22,000. But he again struggled for first team appearances, scoring 18 goals in 67 league appearances for The Imps across two seasons.
He then moved back to the north-west to join Preston for £15,000. His time at Deepdale started well on a personal note as he scored goals and won the club’s player of the season, but they finished next to bottom of the Football League and had to re-apply for they right to stay in the league. They succeeded and picked up in form the next campaign, with Thomas finishing as their leading scorer with 28 goals. Having notched up 38 goals in 78 games for Preston, he was re-signed by Bolton for £30,000 in 1987.
His second spell with The Trotters was much more successful than his first, finishing as top scorer as the club secured promotion from Division Four - despite getting sent off in the final game of the season with Wanderers needing a win for promotion. He again ended the season as top scorer as Bolton finished comfortably in mid-table in Division Three, and also won the Sherpa Vans Trophy in his two seasons back at Burnden Park.
But in 1989 he decided to move on again and joined his boyhood club West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer. This move saw his career stagnate as he managed just one goal in 19 league games for the Baggies, although he did bag a hat-trick in a League Cup game against Bradford City. After less than a season he was on the move again, as he returned to Preston for £50,000 in February 1990 - more than triple what they’d paid for him five years earlier.
There was plenty of hope with his return to the club, but unfortunately he suffered a broken leg upon his return to Burnden Park. He recovered but failed to reach the same heights as his previous spell at Deepdale, managing just six goals in 27 league appearances before joining fellow Division Three side Hartlepool United in March 1992.
This marked the decline of his career, managing just one goal in seven games before joining Halifax on a permanent basis this time, scoring once in 12 appearances for them. He finished his career playing for non-league Bamber Bridge.
Thomas enjoyed a solid career in which he scored near enough bang on a goal every three games, scoring a total of 123 goals in 365 league appearances.
He stuck around Bolton upon his retirement and ran a sports shop in the city, while his wife ran a flower shop in Horwich. He remained connected to the club too, having helped out with corporate dos and been involved with Bolton Wanderers Former Players Association, as well as taking part in Jussi Jaaskaleinen’s testimonial match.