Not quite having had the dream first season in England after having to navigate her away around niggly injuries, the flu and a pandemic that’s put the freeze on football, we caught up with Martha Thomas to talk about her career so far.
Born in Malmesbury (we had to Google it too), Thomas was quick to pick up football, a passion she could pursue thanks to a football-loving family and two older brothers who were as enamoured with the beautiful game, as she explains.
“I had two older brothers so as soon as I could walk, I was kicking a ball in the back garden with them or with them or playing with them and their friends down the park. When I was old enough, about five, I played for my local youth team, Dorchester town – there was no girls team so I played with the boys, Dorchester Magpies until I moved to Florida.”
Even moving stateside wasn’t enough to cool the Premier League interest in the Thomas household and early weekend starts to follow all the action from across the pond were the norm.
“My love and passion for the game came from my background of growing up and living in England: my dad and both my brothers had a love for the Premier League so every Saturday and Sunday morning we’d turn the tv on and watch the games. Sometimes that was as early as 6 or 7am but we’d still follow, so my passion came from my family’s love of the game.”
The style typically associated with North American footballers is a physical one that focuses more on athleticism than other aspects of the game, yet the 23-year-old has a rounded-out game with more technical skills. For this she attributes to the area of Florida she grew up in, with many of her peers coming from Central and South America, mixing into the style of football she was learning to play.
“Growing up where I did in Florida, there was a strong Hispanic culture so a lot of my coaches and teammates were Hispanic so it was a lot of technical background as opposed to when you think of Americans and how they play.”
She continued, “So my background from England and watching English football but growing up with a more Hispanic style of football and being in America… all three probably helped to turn me into the football I am now.”
On to the next
Not to be confused with the historically dominant Tar Heels that represent the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Thomas played for the 49ers; the team of UNC – Charlotte. And although the attacker flourished during her four years at university, she was asked to have a greater role on the pitch to elevate the whole mid-conference team, not least taking ownership of goalscoring.
She explained having to change roles early in her collegiate career, “Growing up I was always a #10 and always played that attacking midfield role. When I got brought into Charlotte my head coach said I want to see you down the middle, because I can see you as a number nine. To be honest, I think he just needed someone to fill that position so he tested me out there – whether he saw me as being versatile at the time or not, it really paid off because for the rest of the four years I played the nine and when I went to France and now at West Ham.”
Whether luck or a stroke of genius, Thomas finished her four-year spell as a 49er with 47 goals in 78 appearances – the all-time goalscoring record for the team.
As well as finding the back of the net more often than not, the striker was given the captaincy in her penultimate season and lead the team for two years, although she concedes even without the armband, she was always a leader on the pitch.
“I became a captain in my third year and I really did like it. I was also the captain growing up with my youth team so I had a little bit of experience with that and it was an honour to become the captain as a junior – it doesn’t happen often, usually it’s seniors that are given the captain’s armband. It was a bit of pressure but it also feels like it wasn’t at the same time because I always lead by example on the pitch and I think that was one of the attributes he saw in me and that’s why he wanted to make me captain. I always played the leadership role so even when I didn’t have the captaincy, I always had it,” she said.
The shining star for the 49ers, Thomas’ performances had played her into a high-ranking position in the NWSL draft with the Brit expected to go late in the first round or early in the second. But in her last game for Charlotte, disaster struck when she tore her ACL.
“The plan was to finish my four years in university and do well enough to put my name out there for the NWSL and to be honest, I did do that. I didn’t play in a top top conference – I was mid-conference so I knew I would have to have done a lot to put myself out there. So, it was really frustrating because I tore my ACL in my final game, it was the conference tournament final, it was the last game I played in.”
She continued, “It was frustrating, and it cut the ties I had, at the time I was speaking to Shelley Kerr and I was back and forth with a few NWSL teams about entering my name in the draft. I was also in contact with the USA under-23 coach who was keen on bringing me into camp and I felt like it [the injury] was going to close a lot of doors for me. But I worked hard and did really well with my rehab and took time to make sure I came back strong.”
With ACL injuries potentially career ending, Thomas admits she didn’t let herself worry too much about her career being over before it had begun but the logistics of taking those first few post-college steps had become a mess. The attacker put together the best plan for her come back, ensuring she’d be ready for the next phase of her career, post injury.
“I think in the moment it happened I was wondering if it was going to be the end for me because I didn’t have anything to go into. It was the last game of my college season, so it wasn’t like I was already on a team when I did it and knew I was going to come back to that team. I was out on my own, but my college did a really good job of helping me come back even though I couldn’t play for them again. So I knew I had to start fresh somewhere which was really difficult but I knew it was what I wanted to do so I set myself up with a good surgeon and a good rehab plan so I knew that when the opportunity did come knocking I’d be ready.”
Professionalism comes knocking
Having recovered from her ACL injury and feeling no ill-effects, Thomas was offered the chance to move to Le Havre and play in the second tier in France. Although accustomed to upping sticks and moving around the world, the move would come with its own challenges but the chance to play was too good for the striker to turn down, as she explains.
“When I got the opperunity to play in France, I knew I’d be away from my family and not that close to any of my relatives in England so it was a bit of nerve-wracking experience. But at the same time, I was really excited – I’ve always been keen on seeing new places. So, the chance to play football in another country and learn a new language, and have it open the professional game that I’d been interested in. I think it helped a lot that a lot of the girls on the team spoke English, we had a lot of Americans and I think the year I came we had five other British girls come in so the team was very English based other than the coach and a few other people (as well as the whole town) speaking French.”
Thomas’ spell at HAC was always likely to be a short one, the attacker needing to get up to speed again following her ACL injury and with a ready and willing agent, they engineered a move to the WSL.
“Once I started getting interest from Kerr and the US U23s – going to that tournament really opened doors for me – I had a few agents reaching out asking if I was being represented because they thought I could be moving up in the game. The under-23 really put my name on the radar and that’s when I felt like it was time to get an agent and luckily my agent had good contacts with the league. So, I complied the clips of my matches from college and Le Havre and he was the that used his contacts to send it out to WSL teams and luckily Matt [Beard] was interested.”
As for having Matt Beard as a manager?
“I was really excited to play under him, everyone with interest in the women’s game knows who Matt Beard is: the success he had at Liverpool and how he went off to the NWSL with Boston. So, it was definitely a great opperunity for me to work under someone with such a great reputation and experience.”
The belief from Beard has been paramount in Thomas continuing to believe in herself and push on to be a better player every day.
“The moment I got there, it was one of the first times… other than my college coach, that I really felt like a manager had a lot of faith in me and a lot of trust in my ability. So for Matt, from the beginning, to give me loads of confidence in myself as a player; he looked me straight in the eyes and he believed in me and that I could be one of the best strikers in the league. To have that in my first year, to have that support with your manager behind you, it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Although already looking like one of the league’s most exciting players, Thomas has been sidelined more than once this season, adding to a greater injury problem at West Ham, and for the attacker, it’s the nature of her injuries that has been the most aggravating.
“It’s been very frustrating because it’s been such small niggles that have been drawn out. It’s one thing to come in and have a hard tackle and you’ve rolled your ankle or something but for my injuries to be boot and bone related, I’ve had some bone stress fractures that I think have come from wearing metal studs. Which is frustrating because from the weather we’ve had it’s was hard not to wear metal studs so definitely, from that aspect of feeling like the injuries came out of nowhere and not what you’d think of as ‘proper’ injuries it was definitely hard to wrap my head around.”
Between the injuries, flu and pandemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Thomas has let her head drop, but that’s not been the case.
“I’d feel like I’d get back into a grove and something would happen and I’d get back into a grove again an something else would happen and now there’s a pandemic, so it’s been frustrating but every time I’ve had a set back I’ve managed to come back from it.”
And with football off indefinitely, keeping a positive mind has been vital for the 23-year-old who accepts the rough with the smooth.
“As a footballer you know there’s going to be so many ups and downs, there’s never, or rarely ever a steady ride in someone’s career so the main thing for me is to keep that positive feeling, to keep that confidence despite being out injured or out in a pandemic. I think a lot of footballers have that character in them that reminds them what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and how they can push forward from it,” she said.
With the world on hold and everyone inside for their own safety, Thomas has been finding new way to keep herself busy.
“I was trying to find way to keep busy and my gran mentioned Words with Friends, so we did a bit of that. I’ve also been doing some painting, a bit of reading and doing a PT course online to get my certification so that’s kept me busy as well.”
But who’s been winning on Words with Friends?
“She’s quite good on it,” she laughed, “and she’s got a few years on my from experience of playing Scrabble but it’s a good way of keeping contact with relatives and a fun way to keep them entertained as I’m sure they hate being stuck inside as much as we do.”
As well as losing to her gran at Words with Friends (sorry Martha!), she’s been taking part in the Hammers at Home initiative set up by West Ham to keep young Irons busy during lockdown.
“I was on a recent one for Hammers at Home it’s a good way to keep young kids entertained and busy because it’s a tough time for them as well so it’s a great that West Ham are doing that. I just did a post of putting a rainbow in the window to show support for the NHS which obviously loads of people around the UK are doing and you get rewards from it so it gives kids a little bit of incentive and motivation during a really tough time.”
In contact with Shelley Kerr for a few years before making her international bow for Scotland, there was a sense of “finally!” when Thomas eventually linked up with the squad and pulled on the blue shirt.
“Back last year at the end of last year, Shelley invited me to a training camp and I was really keen and it felt like a long time coming as I’ve been in contact for three or four years now; since my college days. So, I felt like that was a long time coming to finally be able to get the chance and go out and meet the girls and meet her.”
She continued, “Being in that team environment, I just really loved it and I got along with the girls really well and I felt like that was going to be a really good fit for me and I saw myself being able to go far with Scotland.”
With the chance to play for Scotland, England and the USA, Thomas is honest about wrestling with her decision when it came to declaring her allegiances.
“Everything just felt perfect. Obviously it was a tough time for me to sit there – and people probably see it as a great opportunity to have various countries to be able to play for a, but at the same time it was a bit nerve wracking: how do you know if you’re going to make the right or wrong decision? For me it just felt like the right thing to do so I just went with my gut and with the debut I had, clearly everything worked out and hopefully it will continue to work out in the future. And obviously I have a lot of passion to play for Scotland with my mum and the whole side of her family being Scottish it felt like the perfect chance to be able to do that.”
But could the debut have gone any better?
“Probably not. I never expected for it to have gone that way, to score two goals on my international debut and have my mum and dad and gran in the crowd as well and share that moment with me was really special,” she admitted.
As for the future for Thomas? The sky is the limit, the striker is fast ticking things off of her bucket list.
“I want to achieve everything I can,” she explains, “it’s been my dream for a very long time to play professionally I’ve done that. It was my dream for a long time to represent my country and now I’ve done that too, so I just really want to kick on with it and I want to try and be one of the best strikers in the world.”
“The biggest thing for me is to just keep playing it’s what I love to do and I hope to be able to stay healthy and play for many, many years and help take Scotland to the tournaments like the Euros and the next World Cup. And help West Ham archive all we want to achieve, winning trophies and challenging titles. Just to help the teams that I’m on progress and stay healthy as a player.”
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