The Story of Thorn Athletic is a simple but dramatic one, underlined by a robust friendship and desire to achieve things through a common determination. It was early July 1999 when a group of school friends from St Cuthbert’s High School approached Mark McGee, a young sports reporter at the local Johnstone newspaper, with a view to starting up a football team.
Mutual friend Joseph Smith mooted the idea to Mark on behalf of his friends and after days of thought and brainstorming meeting between many of the would-be players, it was decided to tentatively proceed with the establishment of a nameless team.
With only weeks to the start of the youth football season in late August 1999 there was much work to do to get things off the ground. But the one thing that never failed to surprise everyone was the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm of this group of young lads determined to build their own team.
With so much groundwork to be done to enter the Paisley and District League, organise training, get strips and fundraise, it perhaps went unnoticed that the players, who had by this time arranged themselves into what could loosely be called a ‘team’ had talent and enthusiasm is equal abundance.
A first training session on the red blaze to the rear of St Cuthbert’s High School left everyone with much to ponder. Could we actually get a team on the park from the resources at our disposal?
Not much thought went into naming the team Thorn Athletic. Only now, after everything that has happened, do we know its significance. In hindsight there must surely have been other factors of fate involved, coincidence could not have thrown together such a script.
I remember euphoria (or was it relief?) when Thorn Athletic officially gained entry to the Paisley and District League. And at that meeting in Renfrew Cricket Club when the team turned from an idea into a reality, there was much scoffing and chortling around the room from the many ‘seasoned’ managers that a 19-year-old boy was going to manage an U17 team. I just laugh at the ignorance of this now.
So a borrowed set of strips from Johnstone Burgh appeared, help came on board in the form of Jim McKnight (a parent) and Martin Love (a friend) and our first game was organised against a highly respected Gleniffer Thistle team at a park near Glasgow Airport. And wouldn’t you know….we won! It could hardly have been a more incredible start.
However, the competitive season that followed was largely forgettable due to poor results and the problems encountered as we struggled to make our way. But for the record, the influence of Joseph Smith, Paul Young, James McKnight, David Elliott and the much-anticipated – but belated – arrivals of Stuart Robertson and Kevin McGoldrick provided enough food for thought and so a second season seemed inevitable.
It would be incredible if I was to go any further without mentioning the simultanous building of morale and team spirit that was going on between the people above off the park, mostly on a social level! By this point their ‘pet project’ football team was attracting interest from outside and better players were heard to be interested in joining what was quickly turning into a team with cult status among all those who knew it.
A footnote in history must go to the now derelict Rileys snooker club in Johnstone, where the path of Thorn Athletic was plotted among friends and poured over through endless hours of conversation. If such things existed, Rileys would be on the birth certificate for Thorn Athletic. It was that important. It was a place we all met at least 2 or 3 new friends – and they are still with us to this day.
Of course it would be stupid to suggest that everything was perfect in the brave new world of Thorn Athletic. Far from it. With everyone so keen to succeed, it was hard to control the emotions and turbulent off-field goings on were a regular occurrence. Strangely, they seemed to bring us closer together. A bit like glue.
Perhaps we all stuck together because we knew the squad which took us into the second season was good enough to do something. And so it proved to be the case. We started to win more games than we were losing, much more. We grew in confidence, we were more organised, we strated to realise what we were doing – and it was brilliant.
That season we reached – and won – two cup finals. The two matches against Lennox and Clarkston at Seedhill Playing Fields had everything and were fully-charged with emotions. Without detailing the reasons why, take a moment now to think back to your own memories of those two momentous victories. And the celebrations that followed.
We went through our second season with several exciting new signings and almost injury-free. What followed on was nothing short of amazing.
There is just too much to detail about that 10 months in the club’s history but in relation to where we had started so many years before, it was remarkable. A glorious treble followed and the name Thorn Athletic became well-known around the West of Scotland.
We scored goals for fun, humiliated our nearest rivals, knocked premier league teams out of cup competitions on a weekly basis and took on junior teams so we could take the mickey. We were a team on fire. At our peak. It was a culmination of years of hard work and made up for all the dark days – of which there were many.
On the back of that, we lost several players as local junior side’s pillaged the squad for the cream of our talent. And believe me, we had plenty of top drawer players. I suppose you could say we were a victim of our own success. We were too good.
Our final season at U21 level looked like a tough one on paper. Our squad was ravaged due to our success but we wanted to see it out. At that point it was decided the team would fold at the end of that season – no matter what happened.
In that final year we went close to winning the league and would have been promoted to the Premier League had we been carrying on.
The demise of Thorn Athletic’s youth side took its toll on all those who had participated during the six successful seasons. Sadly Saturday afternoons just were not the same. No matter where the ex-players or committee went in search of solace, nothing seemed quite as good as being part of a successful Thorn.
Amid the time spent in the Thorn Inn reminiscing about past glories it became clear that not everyone who had hoped for life outside the Thorn to bring new-found sporting glories and targets were content – let alone those who ran the team. It was then that jungle drums formed and began embryonic reports of a revival. Once again there was a stir in Sparta! Could the Thorn rise. By god it could.
By this time reports had reached the far corners of the universe and the names of players and new committee lined up to take their place making this once great club, great again! The inaugural meeting was held, the decision made and the ball started rolling. WE WERE BACK.
The team entered a league, secured new training facilities, turned to sponsors old and new for help and set about the task of putting a strong team on the park. Of course the demonic eyes of selfish junior clubs turned their eyes to proceedings hell bent on wrecking the revival. But they could not stop the flow.
A lengthy pre-season followed and defeat on the first day of the season was merely stage fright. On we rolled with victory after victory and although we struggled to scale the heights of silky football on many occasions, we were a winning Thorn again. And how good it felt.
Progress in the league and cups looked steady until the body blow of losing captain Willie Armour to those prying junior eyes and the defeat to local rivals Elderslie. Many feared derailment and a finale to the season that could only spell misery, but gladly that was not to be.
The league was secured comfortably in the end – without a physical defeat – and St Laurences were sent back to Greenock safe in the knowledge they can’t beat every team they want to kick off the park.
Busier was to follow, with Whitley Bay and the presentation night wedged in between a potentially tricky semi-final against Alex Ferguson’s Govan footsoldiers Harmony Row. The Glasgow side were dismissed but sadly Drumchapel in the final proved to be a game too far for the revived Thorn.
That defeat was merely a footnote in a season of setting out some stability, getting into the groove and more impressively boosting the cabinet with some more silverware.