'So Roy Keane's on 50 grand a week. Mind you, I was on 50 grand a week until the police found my printing machine!' - Mickey Thomas
Getting 18 months in jail over a counterfeit currency scam wasn't the lowest point of Mickey Thomas's long and controversy laden career. That came when he discovered his cell-mate had killed two people - then cut off their heads. The rest of his sentence seemed like a doddle.
'The first place I went, Walton prison in Liverpool, was tough, but after that I had it quite comfortable inside', says the ex-Welsh international who was sent down in 1993. 'I made sure I had the best of everything: whatever I wanted to drink, plenty of days at home and, towards the end, I even had my own car.' Thomas's life behind bars was so cushy that the News of the World filled a front page with a photo of him swigging from a champagne bottle and a story warning that the picture 'will enrage every law-abiding Briton'.
Enraging people was Thomas's speciality - mainly football managers. 'People should remember me, the amount of trouble I caused'. They do, they do. 'The Welsh George Best' still gets mobbed when he goes to games, hosts a popular radio phone-in and packs in hundreds for after-dinner speeches at £750 a time. (Sample joke: 'Roy Keane's on 50 grand a week. Mind you, so was I until the police found my printing machine.')
Even fans too young to have seen Thomas in action for the Uniteds of Manchester and Leeds, Chelsea, Everton and the rest know of his exploits, and have seen that wonderful free-kick which helped Fourth Division Wrexham knock Arsenal, the league champions, out of the FA Cup in 1992. His indiscretions also include the indignity of being stabbed in the bum by his former brother-in law as he shagged the brother-in-law's missus in a car up a country lane in 1992. Ironically, the same reputation which deterred many managers is now his greatest asset. 'My name helps me all the time. It's my notoriety that does it,' he admits.
Thomas was unlucky to receive a custodial sentence, especially one of 18 months, in 1993 for passing dud £10 and £20 notes to trainees at Wrexham, his club at the time. But he was lucky that, unlike other celebrities who have been banged up, most of the wardens liked and looked after the long-haired winger, and his jokes and dressing room tales ensured the other inmates - and the guards - were friendly.
Judge Gareth Edwards had condemned the player's self-image as a 'flash and daring adventurer'. Thomas still seethes at a day in court which began with him joking with reporters - 'anyone got change of a tenner for the phone?' - and ended with him being taken away in a prison van.
'The judge made an example of me', he says. 'He was enjoying it: a full house, with all the media there. If I'd been anyone else, I probably wouldn't have gone to jail.'
Now 47 - he played until he was 41 - Thomas is hardly short of work as a pundit, radio host and raconteur. 'I've had a great life out of football. I played 22 years professionally and never had to beg for a club. I had all the big clubs after me. Despite all the off-field stuff, I had respect.'
Thomas's industry, flair and eye for goal meant some manager was always ready to sign him, regardless of his disciplinary baggage. Most lived to regret it. Ron Atkinson couldn't believe it when he announced he was quitting Old Trafford. 'Ron said, "Why do you want to leave? Nobody wants to leave Man Utd. Stay and we can win things."' Howard Kendall, by contrast, ended Thomas's subsequent spell at Goodison after three months when he refused to play for the reserves.
A few managers did know how to handle him. John Neal at Chelsea was one, and Howard Wilkinson, who plucked him from Shrewsbury at the age of 35 to help Leeds's promotion bid, another.
Perhaps his non-conformism explains why such a talented and hard-working player won very little: a Third Division championship with Wrexham and the Second Division title at Stamford Bridge. 'Winning things is probably nice but it doesn't make you a better player.' But, pushed, he admits that 'though I don't wish I'd buckled down and accepted discipline a bit better, I do regret not staying longer at Man Utd, Everton or Chelsea, especially United, who won the Cup twice in the four years after I left.'
Yet he also explains with perverse pride how he quit the club because 'I couldn't handle the pressure - 60,000 at Old Trafford is a lot of people to please - and because, as a United player, your life's not your own'. He took solace in alcohol. 'I'd open a bottle of wine on a Friday night and sit up drinking until three in the morning to calm my nerves for next day's match. It helped me relax and get to sleep but didn't affect my performance as I was so fit.' Thomas is not bitter about his life - except for his treatment by the judge. He produces his Century Radio season ticket for Old Trafford's press box. 'This', he says, 'makes me feel important again.'