Joe Thornton’s Non League Journey

Joe Thornton, whose career took him to Ossett Albion, Athersley Rec, Shaw Lane, Staveley and various other clubs

Fasten your seat-belts, Joe Thornton’s here.

Thornton provides an almost autobiographical epic blockbuster account (longer than a university dissertation) of a Non League career centred around his key moments and people.

During a career containing highly amusing anecdotes to very poignant times, Thornton, who started at Ossett Albion, celebrated magnificent triumphs with Shaw Lane Aquaforce, Athersley Rec and Staveley Miners Welfare and he proved to be an invaluable asset to all his clubs because of his ability to play in any position, including goalkeeper. FA Vase disappointments with Staveley and Shaw Lane have been major parts too.

The Handsworth assistant boss was the bane of many of his various manager’s lives, from Eric Gilchrist to Craig Elliott to Jas Colliver. But despite the negative aspects, he was and still is a well-liked and respected member of the football family.

In his Non League Yorkshire interview, Thornton explains why he has the upmost respect for Staveley chairman Terry Damms and he lifts the lid on the most controversial transfer in Barnsley Non League Football history when he moved across town from Athersley to sign for their bitter rivals Aquaforce in 2014.

Following Shane Kelsey’s lead, he also comes clean on one cover-up and refers several individuals to the ‘FA cold case squad’, including his own father ‘Tony No Ticket’ – Non League’s most notorious turnstile dodger.

This is Joe Thornton’s Non League Journey:


“I think I have been misunderstood throughout my career. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done some daft stuff and I was a bit of a rogue, but at any club I have played for I haven’t been a nuisance or disrespectful to anybody, I was at a bit wet behind the ears and did have childish reactions to some things. When you get older and wiser you don’t do it anymore and I put my arm round young players now and say ‘listen I did that, but do it way the way he said’. Some look and say ‘why should I, you didn’t’. But most of them listen to me.

“I don’t regret what I have done, but I do look back and think ‘um, I shouldn’t have said that’ or ‘done that’. I was bad on Facebook. I’d slag managers off on it. My dad would say ‘take that off noisybook’. Sometimes I’d turn up for training and people would say ‘what’s wrong’ and I’d say ‘well I’m on the bench at the weekend, there’s no point in training’. There’d be times when I had a bad day at work and I couldn’t bothered at training. Some people say I must have been like Ravel Morrison. Maybe I was, but I wish I had had a Stevie Istead attitude because he used to do everything right and everything correctly as he had a professional football background. I wish I had been three or four years younger at Shaw Lane because I would have learned so much off those types of people.

“With a lot of things I should have sat back, evaluated it and then said my piece. But it is about learning I do feel I have grown up and matured into a better person. I hope by telling my journey people will understand some of the decisions I have made over the years, whilst having a good laugh at some of the funnier moments.”

The Original ‘Mr Aquaforce’ 

“My junior club was Barugh Green and they were based at Shaw Lane. All the teams when Craig Wood came to Shaw Lane became known as Shaw Lane Aquaforce. Originally there were three teams. My dad Tony ran my age group, Dave Exley, who became secretary of Aquaforce, ran the team two years above which included his son Luke, and the older age group was run by someone called Gary Hall. So it started with three teams and took off from there. I think I have got to be the record appearance holder for Aquaforce! Surely I am! But that’s how it all started from the Junior Club perspective. My dad always said to Woody when he sees him ‘I started this club, remember that Craig’! Craig just laughs to be fair to him.”

Marc Roberts 

Thornton during his Penistone Church days

“I used to play centre-half with Mark which you’ll probably find a bit stupid, but let’s say I taught him everything he knows! He used to go win everything and I was the little bloke who went off at the end of the day completely clean! It meant I never had to have a shower! He made my life easy. Mark never actually got in the Ossett Albion first team. He went to play at Wakefield FC under Ronnie Glavin and that’s where he took off from. He went to Worksop, Buxton, FC Halifax and he obviously ended up at Barnsley and now he’s at Birmingham. 

“I was a year in front of him on the same college course and I also played with him at Penistone Church where his dad was the manager of the under 18s we played in. I even used to take him to College. I still keep in contact with him now, along with Mark Beevers, who played for Sheffield Wednesday and who’s now with Peterborough United and another kid I grew up with.”

Ossett Albion – Friends for Life 

Eric Gilchrist was manager of Ossett Albion for ten years and gave Joe Thornton his first chance

“I first played for Ossett Albion in the reserves on a Friday night at Wakefield City. My tutor at Barnsley College was Mark Ryan and he played for Ossett first team. He’d had a phone call to say they were short so me and Marc Roberts went through and played. The next thing I know, first team forms are thrown in front of me. So I signed and I was on the first team bench for the next game which was the next day. 

“I was only 16 or 17 so I was only subbing for the first team and then playing for the reserves. I got my main chance when Kyle Cook got injured and after that I was never away from the first team. 

“Eric was definitely one of the best managers I played for. He treated everyone differently, but for the right reasons. Eric knew how to keep me in check. He’d play me for a bit and then put me on the bench when I wasn’t expecting it. He did it for my own good and to learn the game. Obviously at the time you don’t realise why he made the decision. Sometimes you’d have Kelsey and Eric would leave him to it. I used to want to be like Kelsey sometimes because he was the life and soul of the party in the changing room and afterwards. He’s still the same now. We still talk now and we still have a laugh and tell stories. Ossett was perfect at that time because I could learn off Kyle Cook and when Kyle wasn’t play, I played and I had Kelsey in front of me. I just used to give him the ball and let him do whatever he wanted.

“I was very much a loveable rogue. I thought I was it. I was only 17 and we were getting a little bit of money, but it was like mortgage payments to me at the time. You see money differently when you’re 16 or 17 because you’re not used to it in large amounts. I felt like we were treated like kings and the money was gold pieces. It was basically a bit of beer money. 

“Some of the stories I can tell are unbelievable and because of some of the characters in the dressing room I learned a hell of a lot in those two or three years. Mark Ryan, Michael Senior, and Ryan White who I played with on a Sunday morning taught me a lot. We had people who could change a game like Shane Kelsey. Darren Utley took me under his wing as did Dunc Bray when he came in and they both looked after me. My career took off from there. I don’t want to sound harsh on the changing rooms I’ve been in because I have been in some brilliant ones, but for me that was the best. We had a fantastic mix of experience and young players coming through like Dave Syers, myself, Kyle Cook, Andy Cotton, Dominic Riordan. We fetched in a couple from Bradford like Damo Hopkins. We had Neil Bennett in nets to start with and then Lee Ashforth came in and it was brilliant. If I’ve missed anyone out I apologise, but there were so many great lads. We still go out now for a Chinese or Indian. Somebody will put in a chat ‘come on, let’s go out’. It might only be once a year, but those Ossett lads are mates for life.”

Ossett Albion Memories 

Joe Thornton was 17 when he made his Ossett Albion debut

“My most fondest memory is when I scored my first goal. It was up at Newcastle Blue Star at Kingston Park, the Newcastle Falcons ground. I was only 17 and we got a free kick about 25 yards out. Bear in mind that this was one of the first ever games that I started. Kelsey wanted to take it and Daz Utley said to him ‘let f****** romper hit this’. My nickname was romper stomper because I was the young ‘un with those bench suits on. Daz said to me ‘just let it fly f****** romper and I can remember that I hit it and it was like a bullet. It flew straight into the top corner and that was my best feeling in my Ossett days.

“But some tales are from when we were fighting with Salford which I think Kelsey caused. We had a melee at Halifax when they won got promoted. I was only young then so for instance with the Salford one which Kelsey spoke about, I went and got my back against a wall and I just watched it all. It was something that I had never seen before. When I grew up playing for Barugh Green and academies, I had never ever seen a brawl or fight, if you call it that, before. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was looking for the nearest fire exit because it was mental. You had Gaz Hamlet slinging that chair, Benno flying in with his goalie gloves on. I didn’t want to be any part of it. Salford’s centre-half was called ‘massive’ so he was a big lad and I was a 17-year-old lad learning my trade. I’m looking around and there’s my college tutor who would be teaching me on the Monday morning; he’s slinging punches. I remember Daz Utley even taking his knee strap off for the first time all season. He was flying in. 

“That was the first time I saw Eric go ballistic. But deep down I think was pleased we had stuck up for each other. I’m sure we had to go to Salford on a Tuesday not long after. That was a scary time because it could have escalated, but luckily nothing actually happened.

“The thing I find funny about it is a couple of years later when we all were still playing for Ossett and when we went on Ry White’s Stag Do to Ibiza. We’re all sat around the pool having a beer and who walks into our hotel? Gaz Hamlet. We’d not seen him for 18 months as he had left and when we sat down for a beer, the first thing that came up was when he picked that chair up and started slinging it at them during that scrap! 

Joe Thornton during his Ossett Albion days
Joe Thornton and Shane Kelsey celebrating a Ossett Albion goal against FC Halifax
Thornton in the left-back position for Ossett Albion

“There was one melee during my time with Shaw Lane, but nothing comes close to the Ossett one. That’s the most bonkers melee I have ever seen. The Shaw Lane one was when we had beaten Stafford who won the league that season, but had yet to lose until they played us so they took it badly. We beat them 2-0 and Adam Priestley scored an overhead kick. 

“We were in that little tunnel at Shaw Lane and there was me, my dad, Stevie Istead, Barry Hinchcliffe and Arty’s father against a lot of their bigger lads. Why it actually started was a storm in a teacup.

“We’ve all done it because when you lose you can get frustrated and kick the nearest thing, but one of the Stafford had kicked something and a glass or something smashed on the floor. I was the unused sub so I was walking in behind the first set of Stafford players and I heard it. 

“It was an accident, but Arty’s father’s comments poured petrol on the fire. Nobody seemed to know his name, everyone just called him ‘Arty’s father’. He went charging into their dressing room like a rutting stag and shouted at the big handy lad who had kicked the table or whatever it was ‘you’re a vandal, you’ll have to pay for that, that glass is Shaw Lane’s property’. That’s when it kicked off.

“Arty’s dad isn’t the biggest of fellas and you’re thinking ‘no, what are you doing. there’s not many of us in here, they’re all bigger than us, we’re going to get done in’. Stevie put his foot behind the door to stop anyone else coming in and to say ‘if we’re fighting, we’re fighting’. We looked down the corridor and there were blood thirsty and bigger lads than us. It was like something out of movie where the victims are stood waiting for the shark to eat them. I’m sure it was the captain Wayne Daniel; well he was ready to basically have us for his dinner.

“I haven’t got a fight in me so it was another ‘look for the fire exit moment’. My dad is not one to panic and he was as cool as a cucumber and his exact words were ‘Stevie, let go of that door, get out the way, let Lee Bennett in’. Lee Bennett was outside trying to get in because he wanted a scrap. Luckily it did calm down without Lee Bennett having to come in. I don’t know if Stafford paid for a replacement glass? 

“Going back to Ossett, there’s so many memories. The buses on the way home were always memorable and you wouldn’t get away with it now. It is mad what we could get away with then. After training we’d all stay in the bar and sometimes I wouldn’t be getting in while 11.30pm or 12 o’clock. Me and Jason Bentley used to car share and we’d go out for training at 6pm and we wouldn’t get back in until the early hours. It was crazy. I was there from 17 to 21 and they were my best years, I loved every second.”

First man of the match award during unplayable ‘appearance’ Pontefract Collieries 

“It was a game played the day after Boxing Day at Rainworth and either Simon Houghton or Daz Smith rang me during the week and said ‘do you fancy a game’? I was in-and-out at Ossett and I wasn’t in the squad for Ossett’s squad that day so I said to them. I got there and people like Rousey (Craig Rouse), Nick Handley, Adam White, Mark Lafferty were in the dressing room. I was getting changed and there was this tap on shoulder and either Simon or Daz says ‘you’re starting upfront with Rousey, but you’re not signed on so you’re someone else today’. I was stunned and I went into blur. All I could say was ‘right’. I’m 18 and I’m wanting to impress and I’d be chasing full-backs around the field. To this day, I don’t know whose name I played under, but I’m telling you now, I’m not lying, this was their best performance of their career!

“In this day and age with social media you wouldn’t get away with it. We drew 1-1 and Rousey scored. I was unplayable. Everything I touched turned to gold and I won my first ever man of the match trophy in men’s football. Just my luck really, I win my first man of the match award and it went down as someone else’s best performance ever.”

‘Tony No Ticket’

Thornton celebrating a goal with his dad ‘Tony No Ticket’. Picture:

“Some people are addicted to drink and drugs. My father Tony is addicted to getting into Non League grounds for nothing. We’ve tried rehab, but nothing has cured him! 

“I don’t know half of the time how he does it, but he’ll get into a ground for nothing by any means. When he’s on a coach he’ll run off the bus and pick a kit bag up and walk in. My dad says ‘it keeps me young’. He always has a grin on his face and he says ‘if I have to pay, I’ll pay’. 

“When I was 17 at Ossett he’d do it at places like Mossley and Newcastle Blue Star. Stewards would say ‘are you the manager mate’? He’d go ‘yeah I’m the manager’. Eric used to grin and say ‘let him in’. Maybe that’s why Eric used to put me on the bench a lot.

“It is at Shaw Lane where he really took his addiction to some extreme heights to get into games and when the lads started knowing what he gets up to. We were warming-up once somewhere and there was me, Stevie Istead, Stef Holt, Ian Deakin, Matt Thornhill and Lee Morris doing some passing. I said ‘look lads let’s have a look round this ground to see where my father is getting in’. Nobody knew what I was on about, but I remember Moz looking round and saying ‘look, he’s there big T’. He was scaling the fence in the corner of the ground. We burst out laughing and shouted ‘Big T’. He walked past us with his chest out right proud and he just winked at us like nothing was up. He certainly made a name for himself.

“Before a game, he’d walk round the ground and I’d say ‘where are you going’ and he’d say ‘just going to find the best spot son’. I always said ‘dad, it is only a fiver in’. But he’d say ‘I’ll put a fiver behind the bar for them or buy a badge, not a problem, but I want to get in for nowt, I like getting in for nowt’. Even at Worsbrough last season with Moz, we’d be stood on the sidelines and he’d say ‘how’s big T getting in today’? I’d say ‘wherever that fence is’. 

“When I was a player at Handsworth we were at Bottesford and one of the lads said ‘what’s tha father doing’? He thought I was joking when I said ‘getting in for nowt’. He’d just seen him take his shirt off and jump over the fence. Big T just loves getting for nowt! 

“He’s not got an issue with any club because he does it at every ground. You can’t write it can you! He’s even roped my brother (Matthew) into it. He’s scales the odd fence now and then.

“Maybe chairmen will be looking out for him. I’ll provide a photo of Big T on request for any worried chairmen out there! My only other bit of advice is to build some bigger walls or erect some larger fences so he’d need to bring a massive ladder!” 

Finally Getting to Play as Joe Thornton for Pontefract (2010)

Joe Thornton celebrates with Dean Twibey during his short-lived Ponte days

“I had come through at Ossett and made probably over 100 appearances, but I wanted a new taste of football and play somewhere else. 

“I was there only three or four months and looking back now as someone who is older and wiser, I went there with a chip on my shoulder and without the correct attitude or mindset. When you are 18 or 19-year-old no-one can tell you what to do.

“I knew some of the lads. Carl Fothergill used to work with my dad as a fireman so I knew Foth. Andrew Joburns was down there, Ry Sykes, Paul Haigh, Nick Handley, young Connor Rollinson who was only 17 at the time, Lee Garside, Jason Bentley, the Showman Ryan Poskitt, Luke Forgione Luke Smith so we had a decent side. These were local Barnsley lads playing for Ponte for Simon. Maybe I had gone thinking it was going to be like the Ossett changing room and maybe I thought it was my chance to be the idiot in the changing room. I still enjoyed it because I played regularly and Simon knew how to handle me. 

“It is a great club and they made everyone feel welcome, but maybe I left too early. I blame myself. We had some good games and the FA Cup game with Selby stands out as the TV cameras filmed us.”

Joining Staveley 

“We played Staveley with Ponte and we drew 3-3 and I had a good game. Everybody was saying Staveley were throwing money about and at the time I just wanted to play. When we played them they were passing it around for fun and they still do now, it must be the Terry Damms way. That’s a good title for a book, ‘The Terry Damms Way’! I remember saying to my dad ‘whoever finishes above Staveley will win this league’. I got a phone call from Luke Smith saying ‘Staveley want you, I know Billy Fox’. Billy phoned me and the next thing I know I signed for Staveley. It didn’t go down very well at Ponte because we were both near the top of the league. Looking back it was that comment to my dad that stuck in my mind because I thought if I could go to Staveley, I could help them win the league. There were a few bad comments and sour grapes from Ponte and when we played them there were negative comments from the stand. But basically I went to win the league and luckily I won the league (NCEL Division One 2011). It proved a few doubters wrong. Some people were jealous and were saying ‘you’ve only signed Joe Thornton so Ponte don’t win the league’. I sat on the bench a bit at Staveley, but I enjoyed it there.”

FA Vase Run to the Semi-Finals (2012)

“We had some great trips during that run. If you put ‘Joe Thornton Staveley bus’ in on Youtube, you’ll see the video of me doing my stand-up on the bus on the way back from one of the away trips during the run. You see me taking the mick out of the chairman, manager, all the players and they were very good times for me that year. I was in-and-out, but it felt right and my mum (Bev) was still here and I had just got together with the lady who is my wife now. My family would go to Staveley and everything was good. 

“Some of the journeys we went on in the Vase were amazing. I remember Willand Rovers away and we had just signed Dave Cockerill ‘Cockers’. He’s a big lad and he turned up with his beard. He won’t mind me saying it, but he doesn’t look like a footballer. Terry put a fantastic bus on. We had a table at the back and we were playing cards and things like that and we had all the NCEL officials on as Terry had invited them. We won 3-1 and Cockers scored a goal from the halfway line. Now he’s left-footed is Dave and he scored it with his right foot. On the bus Terry had got all the beers. They were virtually on tap. I did my comedy routine and my karaoke, I even took the mick out of the league officials! We eventually got to Cockers’ junction and he got off. As we pull away, we see Dave walking away and what he had done is got up off his seat and picked a full crate of strongbow. He must have lived nearby, but he was walking over the roundabout with it on his shoulder with his football bag. Terry looked round and said ‘where’s Dave going with all my beer’? It rounded off a brilliant day.

Joe Thornton enjoying his Staveley stint

“We should have won the FA Vase that year. We lost 3-2 on aggregate to Dunston after two legs. Some people say that when Simon Barraclough got sent off for elbowing a kid after Dunston had gone down to ten men was the turning point. I still think that at half-time I should have been on the field. We lost the first leg 1-0 and Simon Barraclough scored first in the first half of the second leg at home. They scored to make it 2-1 on aggregate, but then they had a kid sent off after 30 minutes. Chris Coy then scored for us to level it so we had a great chance because it was level and Dunston were down to ten men for the last 50 minutes. I always thought to myself because I was playing left-wing and would add some width, that if I got on the field that we could win. When you’re 50 minutes away from Wembley against ten men, you’ve got to win. Billy saw another side to it, and when I came on two minutes later Barra got sent off. So we had to go from 4-3-3 attacking to 4-4-1 defending. We left Ryan upfront on his own and Dammsy will tell you now he’s not the quickest. From the red card, it all went negative and it was disappointing and we lost to a late goal. I’m sure if we had got to Wembley, we’d have won the Vase. Ask Ian Deakin, Richard Patterson, Chris Fawcus, Chris Coy, Andrew Fox, Jordan Eagers, Tom Jones, Gavin Smith, that was our year. 

“The season petered out after the Dunston game. Everybody was tired, even the club. We had put so much in effort in to try and win the Vase. We had a fantastic team and everybody was about 26. We hardly ever changed the squad. During the pre-season there were no phone calls, we all just turned for the first training session. I loved every minute of my few years there.”

Terry Damms and Billy Fox

“Terry Damms, I’ll be forever in his debt. I cannot say a bad word about him. My mum thought very highly of Terry and she’d walk into the bar and Terry would be stood behind the bar with a glass of wine and a full bottle and he’d say ‘here you go Bev’. She used to sit there and watch the football with her wine. Half of the time Terry used to fetch her drinks over and say ‘here you go Bev, don’t worry about it’. Terry made everyone feel welcome and he made it a family club.

“When my mum passed away, on the Thursday night Billy phoned me and said ‘we’ve got Brighouse on Saturday, I’m not going to play you’. I said ‘I want to play’. On the day Terry just waited outside for me to arrive. Possibly for a while as I was late which is something I was always when I played for Staveley. I was five or ten minutes late and when I got out of the car emotion was running high, but I got it in my mind that I wanted to play for my mum. Terry gave me the biggest hug and to be honest it was too much and as once as he gave me that cuddle, I shouldn’t have played. When we kicked off I was just running about and trying to do everything. I so wanted to score and after about an hour I was flat out and Billy fetched me off. He could have fetched me off after 20 minutes. I was bombing around trying to tackle everybody, kick everybody. I was taking throw-ins, corners, everything. I’ll never forget them for what they did for me during that part of my life.

“I haven’t a bad word for anyone, even Billy. With Billy I can always say I feel that I should have played more, but Billy had his team and it was very successful. Although during my last season at Staveley I was flying and I’ve a couple of regrets.”

‘Prisoner Exchange’ with Scarborough

“Scarborough tried to sign me as they put seven days in on me. So Scarborough did that and Staveley retaliated by putting seven days in on Ollie Ryan their striker. The next game we played Scarborough away and I was on the bench. I knew they wanted me so I was a bit disappointed.

“Billy came to me at the end of the game and said ‘listen you can go in their changing room and talk to them’. I was like ‘what does that mean’? As I get up, it was a like prisoner exchange on a bridge from a movie as when I came out of the Staveley changing room, Ollie Ryan came out of the Scarborough changing room. There just wasn’t any guns or blindfolds used! But we switched places and I was sat in their changing room talking to Rudy Funk. 

“I so wanted to sign for them because of the fans and the atmosphere at their games. Rudy sold it all to me. He said ‘I can imagine you running down this wing and they’ll be cheering your name’. He made me feel a million dollars. I don’t know whether I got back on the bus with the lads and I had a few beers with them on the way home, but I phoned Rudy up and told him that I was staying with Staveley. I still potted on and enjoyed playing for Staveley, but I feel that in that moment in time of my career I should have gone there. They got 500 fans at every home game so I do regret it. Not signing for Scarborough is my biggest football regret. Maybe the travelling put me off? I don’t know. But I should have gone and played in front of that atmosphere.”

Playing for Craig Elliott for the First Time 

“I was still playing on a Sunday for Athersley, but during my last season with Staveley I wasn’t playing that much. A few new lads came in so I was only getting a few sniffs here and there. Craig phoned me out of the blue and suggested going to Ossett Town. I went up and I was a little fish in a big pond and obviously it was a step-up in leagues from Staveley.

“Craig did it all differently to what I was used to. Craig was always going to build up to the manager he is today at Boston United. He was ruthless. At training sessions if you were messing about, he’d shout at you. At the time you don’t realise, but Craig was a disciplinarian and what he said went.

“I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t fit. I was travelling to games with James Cotterill, Kelsey, Grant Darley and Daz Smith. The team on paper was fantastic. We had Keir Hanritty, Danny Patterson, that’s the first time I meet him.

“But I didn’t like to be told what to do when I was 23 or 24 and I remember my dad saying to me ‘come and stand with me, you look like you have all the weight of the world on your shoulders, you don’t look like you are enjoying it’. What people don’t know is that I was going through a break up with my girlfriend who is now my wife. At the time we went our separate ways. I had a young child so Ossett maybe came at the wrong time for me personally. I wanted to play for them, but my head wasn’t in it. With the way Craig is, you’ve got to be all in. If you’re not all in there, you’re not in at all. I wasn’t and I had to go back to my roots.”

Goals, Goals and Goals and Senior Cup glory with Athersley Rec

Joe with his brother Matty with the Sheffield Senior Cup

“Jason Dodsworth phoned me and said ‘we’ve got 12 games left, come and help us get promoted’. I scored with my first touch for them and all my demons went with just one kick of a football. I had been down at Ossett and when I scored that equaliser, all the lads ran at me and jumped on me. They knew I was having a hard time of it personally. That gave me that spark going into the last set of matches. We got promoted as well.

“Athersley knew how I played at that time which was upfront. I played upfront with good lads like Jason Bentley, Lee Bennett, Kieran Scargill, Danny Joynes, unbelievably talented lads. We had a fantastic team with Ry White being the captain and there was Kyle Cook, Tom Harban, Adam White. You had Jack Briscoe who had just been released by Barnsley. What a character he is. He’s a funny guy. Scott Alcock was one of the best defenders I ever played with and he never got the recognition he should have done. He wouldn’t leave Athersley. Young Dec Welford was around too. The nucleus was fantastic. Like Porky (Pete Goodlad) said to you we’d go to away games and they’d say ‘how have you got all these playing for you’? That team was something I needed at that time and it got my love of football back. I was flying too in the season after (13/14). I got 37 or 38 goals. Porkie, Jase and Sean Margison got the best out of me. I seemed to be everywhere and when that ball dropped into the box, I was there. But I did have a good strike-partner in Lee Bennett and he’s another one who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. He’s good in the air, he’s strong, he likes a tackle and he can see a pass. We complemented each other well. I’m sure he scored 20 odd goals that season and the next one to us maybe have been around ten goals. But I wouldn’t say if me and Lee didn’t score we didn’t win because it wasn’t like that. It was a typical Athersley side. All mates and who would fight for each other.

Joe Thornton pictured during his first spell with Athersley

“The Sheffield & Hallamshire Senior Cup final win over Frickley (2014) is a major highlight. We weren’t expected to win that night at Hillsborough. We were massive underdogs and I’m sure some bookies had us down for 4/1 or 5/1. But we were confident because we had a good team with players nobody had heard of before. Nobody had heard of your Lee Bennett’s and Kieran Scargill’s. They had only heard of Ry White, maybe me because I was the top goal-scorer. But I don’t think many people would have heard of us. 

“Things happened in the build-up like Porky’s dad Ged passing away not long before the Final. Porky is not one to mince his words and he did the best team-talk I have ever heard. It was nothing about football, but it was the best team-talk I ever had. That got fired us. We went out to warm-up and I remember the crowd building up and the Rec-In-Crew arriving. They followed us home and away and they are fantastic fans. The atmosphere was electric. When we were putting our tape on back in the dressing room, I remember Ry White booting the door open and his exact words were ‘these c**** are fighting over who’s going to lift this f****** trophy’. That got us all going.

“Because we were two leagues lower they might have looked past us, but on that day, we would have given any team a run for its money. As we were lining up and looking down the line and seeing who we were up against in the Frickley side. I didn’t who they were? I’d heard the names. Tackles were flying in during the five minutes and the thing with Athersley is; they respected everybody, but they earned that respect. We were also never out of a game. Porky still has that attitude now. Danny Joynes got the winner and them celebrations were fantastic. We finished at something like 7.30am the following the day. I live local to the Town and we all ended up walking back to my house. It was a fantastic night and these are memories that will stay with me forever.”

Specialist Emergency Goalkeeper 

‘Goalkeeper’ Joe Thornton after his heroic display in Athersley’s 2-0 win over Armthorpe

“Over the last seven years I have developed a reputation for being a useful goalkeeper in an emergency. Bizarrely the first time I went in goal was Athersley’s first game in the NCEL Premier Division on the first day of the (2013/14) season, obviously the season we won the Senior Cup.

“We went 1-0 up against Armthorpe, Kieran Scargill scored and then Darren Shirt, the goalie, got sent off. I had been in the nets on a Sunday morning for the Rec which I didn’t mind as I was playing cricket as well at the time. I’m like it now and I was like it then, when that goalkeeper is going off injured or getting sent off, my shirt is off, I’m ready. Daz went off and I was about to face a penalty. It wasn’t the best penalty, but I saved it. I can’t remember who took the penalty for Armthorpe, but part of me thinks it may have been Steven Garner? But Lee Bennett took the pressure off and we won 2-0 so I kept a clean sheet. That day was like a carnival atmosphere anyway as there was the sun out and it was Athersley’s first game in the Prem, but I was absolutely buzzing afterwards.

“I have probably played in goal nine or ten times since. I kept a clean sheet the first six or seven of those games which is fairly remarkable. I certainly did it a couple of times for Athersley and twice for Shaw Lane. 

Joe Thornton has proven to be a very able goalkeeper over his career

“The first was at Heanor when Ben Gathercole got injured. Craig didn’t want to me to go in the net and he went ‘can he play in the net’? Daz Smith went ‘watch him’. It was a big game as we had lost twice on the spin, to Worksop and Liversedge so if we had lost we may not have won the title that year. Fortunately we won 3-0.

“I went in goal for Nostell a few times, sometimes for a full match and I did one game for Worsbrough in goal last season. I was a good filler-in, that’s how I would put it. I know I have kept a few clean sheets, but I must admit that the defences have helped me out. I always say to the defence, ‘listen, don’t defend the net, defend the 18-yard-box because I’m not a natural goalkeeper, I don’t stand at natural angles’. To be fair in every game, the lads in front of me have been brilliant. They always took pressure off me. It does get nerve-wracking as you’re the last line of defence and you don’t want to let down your mates. But it is something I have enjoyed doing.”

Crossing the Town to sign for Aquaforce

Thornton running to the Athersley fans after his injury-time in the league game

“It could be the most controversial transfer there’s ever been in Barnsley. We’d won the Senior and at the end of the season we would go to Blackpool every year. I felt at home and felt nothing could tempt me away from Athersley. I was constantly telling the lads ‘I’m staying, I’m staying, don’t worry, I love it here’. I need to make this clear, I was staying. But I went out in Barnsley and (Craig Elliott’s Shaw Lane assistant) Daz Smith was out. I’ve known Daz for a while and he kind of said ‘what do you want to come to Shaw Lane’? I didn’t say a ridiculous number, but I plucked a number out of the sky. Craig Elliott phoned me the day after and said he could give me this and that and that I would be on contract. At the time I lived on my own and my house was only a five or ten minute walk from Shaw Lane. At that moment in time I couldn’t turn the offer down for personal reasons. When you’re on your own and you have a child, the money helps. But Athersley hated Shaw Lane and they didn’t see it like that at that moment in time. I lost a lot of mates. I used to go out in Barnsley and I used to come home and get upset because there’d be trouble, just because I had signed for Shaw Lane. 

“I knew Shaw Lane were going to go for the league, but I didn’t realise how much me moving there would upset people. I did it for my personal point of view. Two weeks before I was happy playing for Athersley, but when somebody dangles a carrot like that, I had to look at myself and my situation. I decided moving to Shaw Lane was better for myself. 

“All the Athersley lads were my mates. I had played for them on a Sunday for years and I had grown up with them and won loads of trophies. I once played in a cup final in goal against The Joker. They were my friends and they got me through some tough times. Part of me looking back, maybe I deserted them, but personally I had to do it.

“We played Athersley in the Sheffield Cup at the beginning of the (2014/15) season and it was still raw. There was a big crowd of around 800 people and the Athersley fans were flashing notes and I got some stick. I scored to make it 1-1 and I didn’t celebrate, I didn’t do anything because it didn’t feel right and I didn’t want to be there. I remember Ry White booting me and everybody hated me during that game. I didn’t realise until how much stick I would get until I got there. That’s when I got the feel of what I had done, mainly because it was the first time I had seen a lot of the lads. I still talked to Jason Bentley as I am godparent to his kids and he’s godparent to mine, but some of them distanced themselves from me. That’s fair enough, but I didn’t know until that game what I had created. 

Joe Thornton

“When we played them at home not long after in the league, I was on the bench. As I was warming-up I was getting aggro again. Beers cans were thrown at me. I remember thinking ‘if I score here, I don’t know what I’m going to do’. It wasn’t the frustration of wanting to score against Athersley, but the frustration built up because of the reaction to the move. I just wanted to say ‘you’re still my mates and I’ll have a beer with you’. We got a free kick and when I hit it I thought ‘that’s in’. My emotions took over and I slid in front of the Athersley fans who threw beer at me. I did because I got things off my chest, but it dug a deeper hole because they were meant to be my mates. They weren’t happy, but they didn’t realise what had been going had created mentally for me. I didn’t want to be hated. It was a good time as well because I got things off my chest and I had a beer with the Rec In Crew afterwards so for me it broke the ice and everyone was alright with me after that.”

Rain and Cold gets the better of Joe 

“I look back now and think ‘what the f*** was I doing’? We were playing Handsworth Parramore (in October 2014) and it was a top of the table clash. Moz would say now that I couldn’t get round Scott Maxfield, but I went over the other wing and James Cotterill booted me. I had been at work all day in the cold and rain. That night it was torrential rain so the conditions were terrible so I was like ‘I don’t need this’. At half-time Craig Elliott was doing the team-talk and telling me where to go from a corner and I popped my head out of the shower and at the same time Craig said ‘where’s Joe’. I was in the shower getting warm and I said ‘I’m coming off, I’m freezing’. That creates a bad impression because Craig has to be honest and say that I refused to come out for the second half. I shouldn’t have done it and Craig should have kicked me out of the club for showing disrespect.”

Craig Elliott 

Craig Elliott, who now manages Boston United in the National North, is a role model for managers says Joe Thornton

“When you’re older you realise why they do stuff. He would let me have my little rants and my say, but for me at that moment in time it became too professional, I just wanted to turn up and play. 

“He had a certain system, you had to do things a certain, you had to arrive early and I understand why now. I wanted to buy into it, but I don’t think I did. I can’t fault him for what he has done since. I tried to be like him when I went into Worsbrough and at Handsworth I will be trying to use the ideas Craig used. He was professional at everything he did. I think it is something that has rubbed off on me.

“He managed completely different to anyone in Non League Football and any manager should look at him and what he has done and use him as a role model.

“People say he signs all these players, but he never let it get to him. He was never fazed by a challenge and he never changed his approach. It is a ruthless approach, but it is the correct approach. If that I take anything away, it is that if you are going to manage, do it right.”

FA Vase Goal 

Joe Thornton scored the goal which put Shaw Lane ahead in the FA Vase quarter-final replay with Glossop in 2015

“The goal one against Glossop in the quarter-final replay, even though we lost sticks out. I scored to put us in front and there was maybe ten minutes to go and we should have won. Glossop equalised with three minutes to go and won in extra-time. We should have gone through to the semi-finals because we had a great team and we should have gone onto to win. The FA Vase hasn’t been nice to me over the years.”

NCEL Premier Division 2015 Title Win

Joe Thornton can be seen celebrating Shaw Lane’s title win

“My first career red card was in March 2015 when we lost 3-0 at our title rivals Worksop Town. 

“We were 3-0 down and Cotty got sent off. Two minutes later I was opening the door and Cotty went ‘as he subbed you off’. He couldn’t believe it when I said I had been sent off. I actually got sent off for a tackle on Jono Wafula who signed for us a few months later.

“We had lost our discipline because they were taking the mick out of us. After the game their manager said we’d choke and that comment spurred us on and we won quite a lot of matches in a short space of time to win the league with a game to spare.

“I look back at winning the title in high regard. Myself and my dad always say that it is the hardest league to get out of because at the time only one gets promoted.

“People say ‘you say bought the league’, but several other teams spent a lot of money that year and the other thing is that you have to get that team to gel. To be fair to Craig, he picked the same 16 for the majority of the season and bear in mind we also had a long FA Vase run. We had loads of fixture postponed for various reasons so it was only when we had a massive fixture backlog that he started signing a few bodies to ensure the squad was big enough to cope. I think that is where the accusation that Craig signs a lot of players comes from. If you look at the squad list he did, but if you look at the 16s, he picked the same squad nearly every week.

“They were good times and that’s when I started getting my personal life a little back together and I enjoyed my football again.”

One Game for Tadcaster before Shaw Lane’s SOS Call (2015/16)

Joe Thornton was man of the match during his one and only appearance for Tadcaster

“I spoke to Billy Miller in pre-season and he told me what he wanted from me as player. They offered me the same money as Aquaforce, but when I went to meet Tadcaster at the Holiday Inn, the Gore brothers came, everybody came. Even the whole management team and physio. They was seven people from Tadcaster and me around this table. I was like ‘is this all for me’? They sold the club to me. Everything felt right and I thought the players we were signing like Adam Baker, Jimmy Beadle that I could win the league two years on the trot. I was playing and starting in pre-season upfront with young David Brown and young Calum Ward. I was flying. I wasn’t scoring, but I felt sharp. 

Matt Outram tackles Tadcaster’s Joe Thornton

“The first game of the league was against Maltby. We won 6-3 and I scored two. The way Billy wanted to play was pass-pass-pass and it was perfect for me. 

“The NCEL season started a week before the NPL season started and I was happy. I never thought about leaving, but I got a phone call from Lee Morris during the week and he said ‘Luke O’Brien is injured, do you want to come and play left-back for us’. I said no at first and I never thought Craig would take me back, but it was closer to home and Lee Morris sorted it all for me. We had Tiverton away and Gav Allott, Lee Bennett and Adam Priestley had just signed. I walked in the changing rooms and all the lads burst out laughing saying ‘what are you doing here’? I laughed and said ‘I’m answering the SOS for Craig’. Craig laughed. I enjoyed playing left-back and I had a good run at it.

“When Luke came back, I found myself on the bench. Even then I felt alright because we had a good changing room and a good atmosphere. The key thing was that it was on the doorstep and it seemed right to go back.

“Tadcaster didn’t get upset about things. They even paid me my wages which I didn’t think they would. They let me keep my gear and I go running in it now and then if I’m stuck for a top. You’re very well looked after at Tadcaster. I remember looking at my bank and seeing the money paid in and thinking to myself ‘well that’s a good club’. That year I left, they won the league so I was right about Billy. I do sometimes think what might have been if I stayed.”

Back to Athersley Rec and then Lee Morris phones…

Joe Thornton for Athersley during his brief return. Picture:

“I had patched things up with Athersley and I played a few times for them under dual-contract. When I had not played as much and felt a little down, I used to go back there. I didn’t use them and I do think I played some of my better football with them. But I had been on the bench a little bit at Shaw Lane and it felt good to go back and play with the lads like Ry White. 

“Then in February time, Lee got the Goole job and he signed a couple of Barnsley lads so when he rang, I said I’d go and play for him. They were in a relegation battle so there was something to play for. I enjoyed it and there were other lads like Nathan Joynes and we got a good run together at the right time and we stayed up.

“We played Shaw Lane in the second to last game of the season. It was a midweek game and it finished 3-3. It didn’t finish off Shaw Lane’s title hopes, but it took destiny out of their hands and they missed out to Stafford on the final day. Shaw Lane held my NPL registration so even though I was playing for Athersley, it wasn’t straight-forward. Lee was the player/assistant manager of Shaw Lane before he got the Goole so he transferred himself over so because of the rules I had to wait 28 days and there were only something like 35 days left of the season. Basically the clubs came to a gentlemen’s agreement and I couldn’t play against Shaw Lane. But Lee decided to ruffle Shaw Lane up a bit and put me on the bench. He had no intention of putting me on the pitch and I told him I wasn’t going on either. You have to remember I was working for Aquaforce Plumbing, Craig Wood’s company at the time. It was all mind games. I remember Craig Elliott’s face when I started warming-up and I remember him shouting at Lee ‘you’re not fetching him on’. So they were having this debate on the side. Nick Guest scored to get the draw and it was a big result as we were fighting relegation so emotions did get the better of me. I did run down the touchline and celebrate in front of Craig. But I always play on emotions and looking back it was the wrong thing to do.”

Lee Morris

Lee Morris is big friends with Joe Thornton
This is the way to Wembley Joe! Lee Morris runs away from Joe Thornton after scoring the winner for Shaw Lane Aquaforce in the FA Vase fifth round win over Flackwell

“When we first went training at Shaw Lane, I said to Grant Darley ‘who’s that’? It was red hot and Moz had a vest on and some tight shorts on. But we hit it off. On the field, every-time I had that ball I knew where he was every-time. He knew where I was going to be. 

“It grew from there and he’s still my friend now. We’d enjoy a beer after a Shaw Lane game and we’d go to the Commercial and we’d make our way round somewhere. I was still living on my own so we’d finish at the ground at 6pm and I wouldn’t get home until 10pm. Me and Moz would do a pub crawl in our Shaw Lane tracksuits. We bounced off each other and it was the same when I went to Worsbrough and he gave me my first chance in coaching which I’m forever grateful for.

“I did go back to Shaw Lane after Goole, but when Moz went to Frickley I went there to be reunited with him for a few months.”

One year with Handsworth before fall-out 

“From Frickley, Handsworth was my next club. Initially Mick Godber was in charge and then in the summer (2017). Jas Colliver took over. I’ve known Jas for a while as he played for us at Staveley. When he was the manager at Handsworth, I treated him like a team-mate and I shouldn’t have. I blame myself because I should have treated him with more respect.

“I know I was a little bit of a rogue and I played the game on the edge, I know that and it was an FA Cup game with FC United where it all kicked off. We battered them in the first game when Pat Lindley scored late-on to take it to a replay which I started. They must have had an off day on the Saturday because in the replay they were passing it around us for fun. We couldn’t get near them. But we had some chances and I felt I had the beating of a kid and Jas said something probably tactical from the side and out of instinct I just said ‘oh f*** off’. This was the 44th minute and he fetched me off. Don’t get me wrong, I shouldn’t have said it, but I didn’t like that he took me off in front of over 600 fans. He could have waited until half-time and I was raging. Their left-back even said ‘what are you going off for? You’ve been their best player’. 

“I’d not stopped boiling the next day and Jas rang me and told me to stay away from training and the squad. I was on contract and fair play to Pete Whitehead, Steve Holmes and Jas they honoured my contract. Ossett Albion were willing to take me and I spoke to them, but I refused to go. I used to go to every match whether it was home or away and I played the long game for a couple of weeks. A few of the lads were saying ‘get Joe back’ and the game before Harrogate Railway he asked me to go and meet him at Oliver’s Mount. He said he had handled it wrong and it was the first time where he had a player versus a manager scenario in his managerial career. I told him I had treated him as a player rather than a manager so I was wrong. So he invited me back to training and I was on the bench for the Railway game. With ten minutes left he threw me on and I just thought ‘here’s a second chance, get my head down’. The ball fell to me and I scored to make it 4-2. All the lads jumped on me because they knew I didn’t want to leave. I always speak to Jas now to be fair so there’s no hard feelings.

“I wasn’t fit when I started playing again for Handsworth and eventually Jason Dodsworth phoned me so I went to Nostell to play for him and Simon Houghton. I had maybe a year or so there before going to Handsworth. Russ Eagle made me captain and I enjoyed it, but after about a month or so into the season I joined Moz at Worsbrough. I was playing and helping him on the management side of things.”

Retirement and Appointment as Handsworth’s assistant boss

New assistant manager Joe Thornton was captain of Handsworth under Russ Eagle at the start of last season. Picture: Ken Allesbrook

“It could have happened when Luke Forgione stepped down as Russ’ assistant. There was talk of it and I did meet with Russ about being just the assistant manager to him. I kind of panicked because I thought ‘well I still want to play and turn into a fat guy or slob’. I also felt a degree of loyalty to Worsbrough and Moz because I wanted them to stay up and we had also got the quarter-finals of the Sheffield Cup. We obviously got to the semis in the end. Russ was great and he said ‘if you want to play, go play’.

“When the season was cut short, I had Russ Eagle ringing me and I was like ‘what does Russ want’? He said the offer was still on the table and I thought that it was an opportunity that wouldn’t come around very often at a club like Handsworth. They have shown me photos of the ground and the facilities that are going to be fantastic in a few months.

“I’ll still knock the ball around in training, but I felt it was the way I wanted to go. Some people may be surprised I’m packing in playing at 31. I haven’t fallen out with playing, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should be. You should be bouncing on a Saturday morning about playing football. I was bouncing about the changing room talk before a game. I was more bothered about doing set-pieces and getting my management head which Moz gave me the chance to do. I loved it and when Russ rang I thought ‘I want a bit more of this’. 

“I could have stayed at Worsbrough, but I thought the chance with Handsworth with the facilities I couldn’t turn it down now. Everybody has said I’ll get on with Russ. Even though I only played with him briefly, I did enjoy it. He’s a top manager and top bloke. I thought if I didn’t take it, I might go out of the game at 34 or 35 and nobody will remember me. I feel I have a lot to give and I want to stand at the side of Russ and learn the art of management. Who knows what might happen. I might enjoy or I might think after six months that this isn’t for me. I do think I’ll be good at it.

“I just hope Russ doesn’t go back on his word as my boots are in the bin now I’m done playing! I said to my missus ‘here put them in the bin’.”

Joe Thornton was interviewed by James Grayson

If you have enjoyed this interview and the Non League Journey interview series, please watch the video at the bottom of the page and consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page.

NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams so when the green light to return is given, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.

We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.

Like most organisations, we have been affected financially by the Coronavirus and we have incurred losses which we cannot recover. We have not been hit as badly as other organisations, but we do need raise £2000 to put us back at the level we were at in mid-March and enable us to make a difference once again to our players’ lives in the future, without having financial worries. As each day goes on, a substantial number of our players become further isolated so we need to be ‘ready for action’ when restrictions are lifted.

Any amount raised above £2000 will be put towards new projects (when the world returns to normal) designed to further benefit people with disabilities and learning difficulties. You can learn more about the organisation HERE and on our Facebook page.

Watch the video below to see highlights from our three years as an organisation. The video was produced for our players at the end of March to remind them of good memories from the last three years.

One thought on “Joe Thornton’s Non League Journey

  1. Ive known Joe and some of the players he mentioned and also seen some of the games he mentioned.It was a great read and cant wait to see Joe and other players when grass roots football evidently starts.Hope Joe does as well as a managers assistant with Russ as he did as a player. Every body STAY SAFE

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