When in July 2021 Martha Thomas joined Manchester United from West Ham, it’s fair to say that her new club’s fan base was underwhelmed by the signing. They did not have a problem with Thomas, but she was part of a cohort that were not considered the world-class talent needed to boost their bid for Champions League football, unlike the exiting Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
It was somewhat inevitable that the now Tottenham striker would underwhelm in Manchester – not because it was expected, how she would fit in was unknown, but because she was not really given a chance to flourish. The Scotland forward made 38 league appearances and scored six goals in her two seasons under Marc Skinner but started just nine games in her first season and once in her second. Unable to build any consistency, she struggled.
So her exit did not come as a surprise but at her new club she is showing what happens if you properly cultivate a player. The Women’s Super League player of the month for October has hit the ground running in north London, scoring six times in the club’s first four league games.
The 27-year-old puts her upswing in form down to “playing under someone that I know believes in me”. She adds: “That’s important, that’s when I play my best football. Playing in my actual position. I’m just sort of on a roll – hopefully I keep it up.”
As much as it is praise for her treatment at Spurs, it is an indictment of how she was handled at United. The best managers will ensure every squad member feels valued and involved regardless of the number of minutes they play. Speak to the England manager, Sarina Wiegman, widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the game, and the emphasis is on the squad developing and preparing the starting XI and the “finishers” to win or lose together, with everyone having played their role, and everyone valued.
Both the regular starters and the more fringe players in the England setup say the clarity about what is expected of them and the team is critical.
Thomas left the north-west with United having finished second in the league, securing Champions League football for the first time, and should have been going out on a high, but instead she had lost her love of the game. “I wasn’t enjoying my football,” she said this month. “I needed just to enjoy it again, and I needed to find my smile again on the pitch. Personally, it was a really tough season for me, mentally, physically. I felt quite drained.
“It was hard because the team was doing quite well, so I was happy for the girls around me. But when it came to the summer, I knew what the best decision for me would be.”
Thomas’s journey to the WSL has been an unconventional one. The Wiltshire-born forward moved back and forth between England and the United States for her father’s work, eventually settling in Florida when she was six. She played college football for the Charlotte 49ers at the University of North Carolina and was voted the Conference USA freshman of the year in her first season.
By the time she finished university Thomas was the school’s all-time leading goalscorer with 47 goals and had been named the team’s most valuable player in each of the four years she was there. Only an anterior cruciate ligament injury, suffered in her final college game, would prevent her from entering the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League draft. After she recovered from the debilitating knee injury, she joined the French side Le Havre before leaving for West Ham in 2019.
Under Robert Vilahamn, who has relied heavily on the forward with Bethany England injured, she is finding the form that made her such a formidable college striker.
“If you give a good, trusted player a chance to play, you can see what she’s really made of,” the Tottenham manager has said. “She’s a good character – pressing for 90 minutes – but she’s also really sharp when she gets the chances. If you give a good player the trust to play and self-confidence, you can see what she’s really made of.
“Those national team players who are on the bench in the biggest clubs, sometimes you can find that in them if you give them the trust. Grace Clinton is the same; give them trust and they shine.”
Thomas is yet to score this month but has looked a threat in each of Tottenham’s 1-1 draws with Everton, Liverpool and Leicester. Up next are tricky games against Manchester City on Sunday, her former side Manchester United after the international break and then back-to-back games against Arsenal in the league and League Cup. Make her mark in any of those fixtures and she could prove as important to the title race as she increasingly is to Spurs.