While still a teenager, Matt Thornhill was playing in the Championship and seemed destined for a career at the top end of football. Now 26, the former Nottingham Forest midfielder finds himself at a club that didn't exist back then and one he'd never heard of before he signed last season.
Thornhill, who has recently held the captain's armband at Shaw Lane Aquaforce, is at the eighth level of English football, mainly because of a severe injury. After bagging three goals in three games for the Ducks in recent weeks and completing 90 minutes regularly, it seems as though he's on the way back. He's a believer that anything is possible in football and hasn't yet ruled out making a return to professional leagues one day.
Thornton admitted to the Chronicle: "I've obviously had a few setbacks in my career. "The injury at Hibs (Scottish club Hibernian) was to my pubic bone and the pain just got worse and worse. The physios there told me it could be weeks or months. Mine turned out to be months and then the new manager got rid of me.
"I had to train on my own but that's behind me now. You look at someone like Jamie Vardy playing for England. He played at this level so anything can happen in football. "I really enjoy playing for Shaw Lane. It helps that we have got a good bunch of lads here. Woody (owner Craig Wood) knows where he wants to go and they have the right manager in Craig Elliott. He's been very good at man-managing me."
Thornhill played 38 times for Forest, including in a 2008 1-0 win over Barnsley, and also spent time on loan with Brighton and Hove Albion before moving to Hibs. But it was in 2012 when the Nottinghamshire-based Thornhill had to drop into non-league football with Buxton. There he met Wath's Lee Morris who, in his later role as Aquaforce player-assistant manager, helped to convince Thornhill to sign for a club he'd never heard of two years later. He played a part in last season's promotion-winning team who fired Aquaforce to the Evo-Stik League and the status of Barnsley's highest ever non-league club.
Now, the in-form Thornhill, who is a stay-at-home dad to his two children, feels the Ducks will keep progressing and he would be happy to be the goal-scoring driving force from midfield. He added: "Ironically the goals have come when I've dropped back into a defensive midfield role which is a bit weird. I've always got into the box but you need players like Lee Morris and Gavin Allott to win the knockdowns. I've never been captain before at any level but I'm enjoying it."
Aquaforce manager Craig Elliott has been impressed with Thornhill's response to getting the armband. The Ducks boss said: "Since I made him captain he's scored in every game. He's not the most vocal player but his performances have been brilliant. You can be a captain in different ways and he's doing it through his performances. "With Anton Foster and Rhys Meynell out, he was the choice for captain as he's one of the longest-serving players."
Thornhill kept up his scoring streak as the Ducks ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at Gresley on Saturday. Allott and Morris were also on target while Ian Deakin saved a penalty as Aquaforce made it five games unbeaten.
Elliott, who said this season was going to be a step into the unknown, is becoming more encouraged every week. He said: "It was probably our best performance of the season on Saturday. We should have won by more really but it was a good win for us. We have not had a full squad at all this season and there were a lot of new teams and long trips so to be where we are (fifth) is very encouraging."
Former Barnsley FC defender Neil Austin is set to return from injury early next week but Elliott has now ruled out making a move for ex-Red Martin Devaney. The manager said: "That's broken down. "We have got a load of forwards and I didn't want Martin to not be in the squad."