The vast majority of Mansfield Town fans will, at one time or another, have dreamed of what it would be like to run out of the tunnel at One Call Stadium as a player.
For one former season ticket holder, that dream has become a reality – and every now and then he still has to pinch himself just to check he’s not imagining it.
As recently as the Conference title-winning season of 2012-13, box-to-box midfielder Jack Thomas was watching his heroes plot a path towards last-day glory against Wrexham. From Alan Marriott’s crucial saves, to Adam Murray’s tough tackling, to Matt Green’s clinical goalscoring, he saw it all from his vantage point up in the Quarry Lane End.
Little did he know then that, within a year, he would have progressed from the youth team ranks to make his professional debut in Mansfield’s 3-0 victory over Rochdale in April 2014, albeit only coming on for the dying embers of the game.
Even so, that mattered little to Mansfield Woodhouse’s Thomas, who, at 19, still has much of his career stretched out in front of him after signing his first pro deal at 16 and penning a two-year extension to his current contract in March.
As someone who grew up playing his football for Woodhouse Colts and for the Peafield Lane and Manor Schools, he was very proud to make his professional bow for his hometown club, however fleeting it may have been – and was thrilled his family were present to watch on.
“It has to be one of the best days of my career so far,” explains Thomas, who wears the number 20 shirt in the Stags’ squad.
“It was an unbelievable feeling and one I had wanted for such a long time. It felt like it wasn’t really happening to me.
“It was only for two minutes, at a point in the season where we didn’t have anything left to play for and were cruising at 3-0 up, but I didn’t care about that – I was just delighted to get on. When I was getting ready to take the field I actually put my shirt on the wrong way round because I was so nervous and had to take it off and put it on again!
“It made it all the more special that my family were there to see me do it because if it hadn’t have been for them then I wouldn’t have made it this far. They have always been very supportive and taxied me around to games when I have needed it.
“My mum (Lindsey), dad (Andrew), granddad (Cyril) and eldest brother Luke, who played a bit for Rainworth before he settled down, have all been great in that regard. My other brother Josh has also watched and previously played a bit, but he’s the worst out of us three – I’m sure he’ll love me for saying that!”
But it could have turned out quite differently for Thomas, whose talents were coveted in other parts of Nottinghamshire at a time when he was making a decision on his footballing future.
Notts County sent a scout to watch the youngster playing locally and he was subsequently invited along to Meadow Lane for a trial. Success there earned him a two-year scholarship with the Magpies and the chance to build towards senior football in Nottingham.
It was not to be, though, as within ‘two or three weeks’ Thomas had decided it was not for him and, thanks to the efforts of his mum, he was able to sign on for the Stags, meaning Notts’ loss has been Mansfield’s gain.
He adds: “Sometimes you just get feelings in life that it isn’t quite right and in the case of Notts County I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t right for me – and it has proved to be a good decision to come here instead.
“I had known Mark Hemingray through Football in the Community and I got my mum to ring him up to let him know I was interested. Thankfully he said he was happy to have me and it’s worked out pretty well.”
So far, Thomas has featured in 29 games for Mansfield, a large percentage of which have come either side of the 2015 summer break. He finished last season in sizzling form to be considered one of the brightest young talents in League Two, as a series of eye-catching, high-octane displays had the fans purring and the scouts flocking to North Nottinghamshire.
This season, Thomas has enjoyed a further decent run in the side and, when not starting, has appeared as a regular substitute as he continues to learn his trade at senior level.
“I remember the game when I first came into the side last season (a February 1-1 home draw with Northampton),” he recalls.
“I sat in the dressing room after the game and felt like I was now ready to play at this level, where I hadn’t been a few months earlier.
“I had a spell on loan at Hednesford and that helped me hugely because I was getting regular football, which I needed, at a decent standard and in a physical environment where the tackles came in.
“Winning the game against Tranmere last season and knowing we were safe was a big moment, as was scoring my first senior goal against Portsmouth. I got the ball from Junior Brown and thought ‘why not’ and
as soon as I hit it I knew it was in.
“I don’t think the celebration was the best because I lost it for a few seconds! I hope to score many more goals, although it’s not quite as easy now as when I was younger when I used to get about 40 in a season for Woodhouse Colts!”
If those were highs, then Thomas’ recent spell on the bench has been one of his first troughs in the senior set-up, but not one he hasn’t been expecting to come along at some point.
The youngster, who scored in the 2-0 triumph at Stevenage in September, is well aware that the life of a professional player can sometimes be a bumpy ride.
He admits: “It has been frustrating because I am never one who wants to sit on the bench – I always want to play. But I do realise that I’m still only 19 and we have a stronger squad than last season.
“The good thing under the manager is that I know he will give me a chance at some point and when it comes along it is up to me to take it. He has been unbelievable to me, not just now but when he was in charge of the youth team, pushing me to make it all the way through. I want to be influential as a player like he was.”
Mansfield’s better start to the season than last has come as no real surprise to Thomas, whose emergence was one of the few bright spots of an otherwise disappointing 2014-15.
“I think we have better players than last year and people who really want to play for the team,” he says.
“I’m not calling all the lads from last year, but there were some who didn’t seem that interested to be here, which was really frustrating to me.
“I’ve been so impressed with the current bunch of players, but if I had to pick out one, it would be Adam Chapman. I think he gets the team playing with his vision and ability on the ball.
“The other thing is that he is really good with the youngsters. He always tries to help them and acts as a mentor. He tells me what I am doing wrong and what right.”
Thomas’ other footballing love is Liverpool FC, whom he says he has been supporting ever since he saw John Arne Riise score spectacularly in a win against Manchester United. He revealed: “People think it’s because there are others in my family who follow them that I do, but it’s not and it was only after that match I got into them.
“I’ve been up to Anfield and seen them play Valencia in a friendly, but I haven’t been up for a while, although my dad and I keep talking about doing it because it is such a great atmosphere.
“I would say Coutinho has to be my favourite player among the current team and it has to be Steven Gerrard for my all-time favourite, doesn’t it? I’ve always tried to learn things from him and I would love to meet him one day.”
With time still very much on his side, who knows, meeting the Reds’ idol could yet still happen for the ambitious and driven Thomas, who wants to help Mansfield mount a promotion charge as the 2015-16 season unfolds.
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that sitting alongside the likes of Krystian Pearce, Nicky Hunt and Brian Jensen in the Stags’ dressing room seemed unimaginable – and now he does it almost every day.