“I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to be remembered that day. If I didn’t score a hat-trick, then nobody would remember me. It was nice to leave a legacy.”
James Thomas had a lump in his throat as he reminisced on the pinnacle moment of his footballing career. A career that was soon to be curtailed by injury before he embarked on his next chapter as an ambulance driver for the NHS.
A hero on and off the pitch, Thomas now produces acts of heroism away from mainstream attention, but his hat-trick on the final day of the 2002/03 season still resonates with those of a Swansea City persuasion.
Thomas worked under the fabled Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers and shared a changing room with Premier League winners such as Tim Sherwood, Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer. He scored in his only league start for Rovers against Bolton Wanderers in the Lancashire derby in September 2000. Yet his proudest moment was played out at Vetch Field, the ground he once cheered his beloved Swans from the stands as a boyhood supporter.
Swansea was etched into his DNA and his deep-rooted connection to the club compounded his misery when they faced the unenviable task of escaping a relegation dogfight in the fourth-tier.
“I used to go down to Vetch Field and watch the games in the north bank with my friends,” Thomas says. “Swansea has always been in my heart, so it was difficult fighting relegation. I’m not saying it meant more to me, but it was the team that I supported, and it was my hometown club.Embed from Getty Images
“The other players were from other cities and could get away from it all. I would’ve had to have carried that burden with the fans on the streets for the rest of my life.”
Only victory would rescue Swansea from plummeting out of the Football League with a crucial win at Rochdale providing them with a slither of hope. Three points separated them from Carlisle United, who were directly above them, although Swansea boasted a superior goal difference.
Roughly 10,000 covered Vetch Field in a sea of white on May 3, 2003. Although the tension was palpable, Swansea supporters did their very best to show their poker face to opponents Hull City. That tension was relieved inside eight minutes when Thomas scored the first of his three goals from the penalty spot, but Swansea capitulated, conceding twice before the half-hour mark. Thomas levelled from the spot once again on the cusp of half-time and Lenny Johnrose sent the home crowd into complete delirium when his header completed a remarkable turnaround after the restart.
Vetch Field held its breath. An equaliser from the visitors would be soul crushing and a deathly silence sporadically fell upon the ground. That was until Thomas unleashed a venomous volley over the gloves of a hapless Alan Fettis on the hour-mark.
“It was unforgettable, I’ll never forget that feeling.” Thomas gleefully recalls. “I’d scored a couple of important goals leading up to the final game but that hat-trick, especially my long-range lob at the end was what dreams are made of.
“We managed to stay up and I just felt a massive released of emotion. The pressure had been lifted and it’s something that will stay with me forever.”
Roberto Martinez, who was at the heart of midfield that day, would later lay down the foundations for future success. Brendan Rodgers had placed them within touching distance of becoming the first Welsh club to win promotion to the Premier League by masterfully hauling them to the 2011 Championship play-off final.Embed from Getty Images
Thomas was reduced to the role of spectator when the Swans graced the hallowed Wembley turf in May 2011. A hat-trick from Scott Sinclair, including two penalties, accompanied by a solitary strike from Stephen Dobbie, inspired Swansea to a 4-2 win over Reading to propel them to the promised land.
The similarities between the Hull and Reading games were all too uncanny for Thomas.
“There was an element of disappointment because I would’ve loved to have been involved in that journey,” Thomas admits. “But the similarities between the games against Hull and Reading are incredible really.
“Sinclair with a hat-trick, like myself against Hull, and to win 4-2 in such dramatic circumstances makes it rather fitting for a fairy tale!”