Welsh Winger Welcomed!

Welsh Winger Welcomed!

Rovers have finally made their first signing of the January Transfer Window, by announcing the arrival of Huddersfield Town winger, Sorba Thomas, who makes the trip across the Pennines until the end of the 2022-23 season, on a loan deal.

The English-born Wales international – who is known by Rovers’ Head of Recruitment and ex-Wales FA National Talent ID Manager, Gus Williams – arrives at Ewood Park hoping to ignite a spark and some versatility to Rovers’ attack, which has been one of the least potent, despite the side occupying a spot in the playoff places.

Thomas, who turned 24 on Wednesday – the day of his link to East Lancashire – started his career on the books of West Ham, yet was deemed surplus to requirements at the ‘Academy of Football’ and at just 16 was forced to consider his options, telling BBC Sport: “It hit me deeply. It was the first-time I was told I wasn’t good enough.”

The attacker was offered a footballing lifeline, by National League side, Boreham Wood upon his release from The Hammers, which saw Thomas head west to sign for The Wood’s academy in an attempt to build a path back into the professional game.

Whilst playing in the non-league side’s academy, Thomas combined his training whilst working shifts at JD Sports and later, as a scaffolder, which he was encouraged to do via Boreham Wood’s sport education programme, which enabled him to take a bricklaying course. Despite the hectic working life, Thomas remained determined – alongside encouragement from friends and family – to reach turn professional and his development between 2017-2019 saw him break into the Boreham Wood first-team and begin to showcase his talents in non-league football.

After being available as an unused substitute at times in 2016-17, The Wood went onto finish 7th in Thomas’ first season in the senior squad, as he ended 2017-18 with three league appearances and two in the playoffs, as Boreham Wood lost in the Wembley final to Tranmere Rovers, 2-1, with Thomas making a seven-minute cameo. 2018-19 saw the right-footer promoted to the senior squad, as despite four assists in 34 games in all competitions, he couldn’t help Boreham Wood make successive playoff finals, as they finished in the bottom-half of the table. Now-20 and cemented into the first-team frame at Meadow Park, another season of regular first-team football awaited Thomas throughout the eventually curtailed 2019-20 campaign, as the attacker notched five goals in 34 games, as Boreham Wood again tasted a 1-0 defeat in the playoffs, this time at the semi-final stage against eventually Wembley winners, Harrogate Town.

The 6”1’ winger went into 2020-21 targeting success with Boreham Wood after two heartbreaking playoff defeats, yet, despite starting the season well with three goals and one assist in 13 games in all competitions, Thomas ended the campaign three tiers higher than where he started it, as in January 2021, Huddersfield Town secured his signature on an initial three-year deal for an undisclosed fee, as Boreham Wood reportedly received a club record fee. After initially linking up with Huddersfield’s B team, Thomas was soon in the first-team in February, as he ended the season with seven Town games under his belt, as the Terriers just survived relegation under Carlos Corberán.

2021-22 is when Thomas caught the eye with some dazzling displays as the Yorkshire club made it all the way to the Championship playoff final after finishing 4th, before losing to Nottingham Forest, 2-1; Thomas’ second Wembley defeat of his career. Despite the heartbreak, the attacker stood out as one of the league’s top attacking performers, as he notched three goals and 16 assists in 51 games in all competitions, finishing joint 3rd in the Championship assist rankings, with 12 per WhoScored.com, as well as leading the division with 335 crosses – 34 more than runner-up, Jed Wallace – per FBRef. The winger proved crucial to the Terriers’ efforts which saw them defy many people’s pre-season predictions to secure a playoff berth and end the season at Wembley.

Thomas’s fine first full season in the Championship was further outlined by the stats, as FB Ref ranked the winger as the 5th most creative player in the division, playing part in 20 ‘Goal-Creating Actions’ – (who offensive actions directly leading to the goal) – behind Fulham duo, Harry Wilson (30) and Aleksandar Mitrović (24), Bournemouth’s Jaidon Anthony (24), Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson, Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke and Queens Park Rangers’ Chris Willock, who all had 22, and finally, Reading’s John Swift’s 21, per FBRef. It wasn’t just the statisticians who were impressed with Thomas’ display in the second-tier as he received praise from fans for his quick feet, pace and ability to deliver a quality ball into the box, whether that being from a set-piece or open play. Whilst Huddersfield were denied a return to the Premier League, the did manage to secure their most influential attacker for the long-term, after Thomas accepted a new contract until 2026, during the summer.

Despite a fantastic first season in the Championship, 2022-23 has seen Huddersfield Town’s downturn in form coincide with Thomas’ reduction in output, proving the importance and impact that Thomas held within the Terriers’ side. Although Huddersfield Town are currently flirting with relegation, sat in 22nd place, the Welshman is leading the Huddersfield Town side in assists, after producing a return of six assists from 23 league games. His decisiveness and quick-minded nature also sees him currently ranked 3rd in the division for crosses, with 223. This is a rather dazzling stat when comparing them to the entire Rovers squad, who have 315 – ironically, the lowest in the Championship.

Alongside a fine rise in club football came international recognition from Wales – the nation of his mother. In an interesting turn of fate, Thomas was scheduled to face Y Dreigiau’s C team, whilst part of the England C setup in March 2020, but the game was interrupted by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Resultantly, the Welsh FA quickly moved to secure the winger’s talents after a fine start to 2021-22, as he was selected in Wales’ 2022 World Cup qualifying squad prior to games versus Czech Republic, in which he made his debut off the bench, and Estonia, the latter of whom he played 90 against. Despite failing to notch whilst wearing the red of Wales, Thomas’ impressive performances throughout 2021-22 saw him called-up for the Welsh’s first World Cup campaign in 64 years. The attacker went onto make his World Cup debut by featuring in Wales’ opening game as a late substitute in their 1-1 draw vs USA, as Wales failed to make it out of a group that also contained Iran and England.

Rovers Director of Football, Gregg Broughton offered his thoughts behind the acquisition of Thomas, after welcoming the winger into the building:

“The January window will usually present two alternatives: players coming out of contract who are long-term options or loans who we feel can make a short-term impact.

“One of the key focuses for this window was on players who can change a game, either in the opening stages or if the scoreline is close late on. Sorba is a game changer. His delivery and chance creation is excellent, both from open play and set-pieces, and he also has the pace to stretch a game.

“He was a key player in the Huddersfield team who played at Wembley in May and he comes to Rovers having already played 25 games this season.”

After a fairly productive first-half of the campaign in Yorkshire, the Rovers coaching staff and fans alike will be hoping Thomas can reproduce the form he showed in 2022-23, to help the Blues consolidate the playoff spot they currently occupy.

Croeso, Sorba!