JOHN Thomas experienced the best and worst times of his career at Burnden Park.

The former Wanderers striker enjoyed two of his most successful years in football in his second spell at the club, helping Phil Neal’s side win promotion and the Sherpa Van Trophy.

Goalscorer Thomas, who scored 44 goals in 110 appearances, remembers his time at Bolton fondly, so much so he still lives in the town, running a successful sports wholesale business and helping wife Lesley run her flower shop in Horwich.

But his Wanderers memories are tinged with sadness because it was at the very ground that brought him so much happiness that he suffered a career-defining injury.

JT broke his leg on his return to Burnden Park in 1990, in only his third game for new club Preston — an injury that he never properly recovered from.

“It was a nasty tackle in the first two minutes and I never really recovered,” said the man Ron Atkinson dubbed the Gary Lineker of the lower divisions.

“I was out for 12 months and it took another 12 months to get back to full fitness.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Tony Philliskirk held my hand as I was coming off. I was 33 and it was just the wrong time.

“I’ve seen it on the video since but I had to have the sound off because I don’t want to hear the noise — it made a right crack.

“I suppose you could say I had my best times and worst times at Burnden Park, but there were definitely more good ones.”

Wednesbury-born Thomas first joined Bolton from Everton in 1980 on the recommendation of Brian Kidd, who had also just arrived from Goodison Park. When Brian left Everton he gave me his number and said if I ever needed anything give him a call,” he explained.

“I was having talks with Hereford and I rang Brian to see what he thought. He said ‘Don’t do anything yet, I’ll call you back’.

“He called me back and said ‘Bolton want you’, I signed a couple of days later.

“I made my debut at Blackburn on New Years Day 1981. It was a full house and a great atmosphere but we got beat 2-1.

“I only ended up playing eight games that season and we finished near the bottom.

“Stan Anderson was sacked and George Mulhall took over. I’d struggled with injuries and hardly played, and ended up joining Chester on a free transfer.”

Before leaving, JT ensured his place in Wanderers’ history books by scoring the club’s 5,000th League goal against Grimsby.

Success at Chester was followed by an unhappy spell at Lincoln, but when Kidd became Tommy Booth’s assistant at Preston, the forward was heading back to the North West.

Thomas, now aged 51, enjoyed great success on North End’s plastic pitch, grabbing 28 goals in their promotion-winning season in a side which included Sam Allardyce and Mick Bennett.

On the back of his success at Deepdale, Neal paid £30,000 to bring him back to Bolton, who had just been relegated to Division Four, in July 1987.

“I didn’t want to leave Preston but I didn’t mind coming back,” he said. “I’d enjoyed my first stay at Bolton even though I didn’t play very much. The manager told me the club wanted to get promoted at the first attempt and that’s what we did.

“We had a good squad and a great team spirit. At the start of the season, Gary Henshaw and Dean Crombie both joined from Chester, along with Jeff Chandler and me.

“I played up front with Trevor Morgan. Dave Felgate was a good goalkeeper and second to Neville Southall in the Welsh squad. Mark Came, who was my room-mate, had a lot of clubs watching him, including some of the big boys, but unfortunately broke his leg at Chester. We were a good side.

“My first game back was against Crewe when a young David Platt scored the equaliser.

“I scored 28 goals for a second season in a row and we were back in the Third Division — but it was touch and go.

“We went into the last game of the season at Wrexham needing to win and Scunthorpe to beat Torquay to go up. But, if we drew, Scunthorpe would have gone up.

“ Trevor Morgan and I had gone to Burnley in midweek to watch them against Scunthorpe. Burnley needed to win, which they did, to send it into the last game of the season. The Wrexham game itself was a strange one, especially for me. Wrexham had a player sent off and, from the free kick, the ball got headed out and Robbie Savage scored from the edge of the area with a half volley.

“Then, with 10 minutes to go, I was sent off for a second booking. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life — I was so nervous.

“But we held on for a 1-0 win and the celebrations began. It was a great day. There were Bolton fans everywhere in the ground and Dave Sutton, who was injured at the time, was in the away end getting the fans going.

“I’d borrowed a pair of boots off Phil Neal and I gave them to a fan at the final whistle — but he wanted them back.

“Apparently he’d worn them for a big European game with Liverpool and ended up putting a piece in the Bolton Evening News asking for them back.”

There was more glory for JT and Wanderers the following season when they thrashed Torquay 4-1 in the Sherpa Van Trophy.

He said: “It’s everybody’s dream to play at Wembley and luckily I had the chance of playing there.

“Julian Darby put us in front and we just went on from there. Jeff Chandler and Trevor Morgan also scored, and of course there was Dean Crombie’s wonder goal.

“I remember it really well because I nearly nicked it. I’d started the move and carried on running, when Dean chipped the goalkeeper I was trying like mad to get a touch to it before it went in but the ball just beat me — another 10 yards I would’ve definitely got it.

“That was my last game for Bolton but I’d had a great time — promotion in the first year and winning the Sherpa Van the next.”

Spells at hometown club West Brom, Preston — where he broke his leg — Hartlepool, Halifax and at non-league Bamber Bridge followed before Thomas hung up his boots after 15 years in the game.

But it was while at Bolton that JT, a carpenter by trade, first began to carve out a future career in sports retail.

“I was selling things while I was playing,” explained the father-of-three.

“I was always wheeling and dealing — I’d buy 10 tracksuits and sell them to the lads.

“While I was at Bolton, Reebok used to use us as guinea pigs with new boots and we’d have to fill in forms about their comfort.

“I made some good contacts then and kept them, and now I sell sportswear for a living.

“I just built the business up gradually and I’ve been doing it for 16 years now. While I was playing I had two stalls on a market in the Midlands — the West Brom fans used to sing a song about it.

“My wife, Lesley, has a flower shop in Horwich and I help out there and do a bit of delivering.”

Thomas is still no stranger at Wanderers, where he helps out on the corporate side on matchdays and is involved with Bolton Wanderers Former Players Association, where he is on the committee and helps organise various fundraising events.

Anyone at Jussi Jaaskelainen’s pre-season testimonial celebration would have seen JT back in a Whites’ shirt in the Legends match.

Indeed, nearly 30 years on from his first appearance for the club, you just can’t keep him away.