Ex-Portsmouth, Everton, QPR and England star Dave Thomas: I'm blind and have a guide dog, so what? My golf handicap is nine and I still play the piano

On a blustery Tuesday afternoon, Dave Thomas tees off at Barnard Castle Golf Club, accompanied, as ever, by guide dog Hannah.

Thursday, 10th February 2022, 6:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 10th February 2022, 6:47 pm

A cherished handicap of nine is maintained through twice-weekly visits to his local course, even on the most bitter of County Durham days.

Although registered blind, there is a cheery defiance about the former Pompey, Everton and England winger, whose flashes of self-deprecating humour centre on his cruel condition.

In the winter, the biting cold reduces Thomas’ golf course occupation to nine holes, yet that represents a rare concession as he meets life’s challenges with a steely refusal to compromise – and a chuckle.

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‘If anybody says “Do you want a game of golf?” and asks when I want to play, I say to them: “Any night you like”,’ the 71-year-old told The News.

‘It’s my little joke, I always play at night time now. It makes no flippin’ difference to me, does it! That’s just my sense of humour.

‘I am registered blind. Not totally blind, I’m what they call severely visually impaired.

‘When you see a guide dog owner, everyone thinks they are completely blind, well they’re not. Around 96 per cent of them are like me, with only four per cent totally blind.

Former Pompey player Dave Thomas with his guide dog Hannah. Dave is registered blind

‘It doesn’t affect my golf because I can see the ball on the ground, naturally you keep your head still and don't lift it until after the shot.

‘When it goes into the air, I can't pick it up, so I have to ask a friend with me where it’s gone.

‘I’m not too bad on the putting green because it goes slow and I can follow it. My guide dog Hannah is so well trained, she lies down next to the green and never goes on it.

‘Although she does help line me up for the shot sometimes! There’s my humour again, you’ve got to keep smiling.

Dave Thomas made 33 appearances for Pompey after joining in the summer of 1982

‘In life, whatever is thrown at us, we have to cope. I am the first-ever professional footballer to get a guide dog, but it doesn’t stop me doing anything, I like to be busy.

‘I lost a very, very good friend of mine two weeks ago, Kenny Close, who dropped dead on the first tee at the age of 68. They tried a defibrillator too, but couldn’t revive him.

‘I used to play golf with him, such a popular man and completely unexpected. It’s so unnecessary and really hurt me.

‘It goes to show that we’re all getting older and that’s what life can do. You get on with it, though.’

Dave Thomas commentating for Capital Gold radio station with Peter Hood at Fratton Park

Thomas remains Burnley’s youngest debutant, making his Football League bow at the age of 16 against Everton in May 1967.

The winger went on to amass eight England caps and star for QPR, Everton, Wolves, Vancouver Whitecaps and Middlesbrough.

Then, in the summer of 1982, he switched to Division Three Pompey, where he made 33 appearances and served as youth and reserve-team coach during a four-year spell.

During retirement in Prinsted, West Sussex, he became a professional gardener, before employed as a PE teacher at Bishop Luffa School in Chichester, where he coached future Pompey and Crystal Palace right-back Joel Ward.

Thomas also spent several years working on radio station Capital Gold alongside Peter Hood, reporting on Pompey games across the country.

However, at the age of 50, deterioration in his eyesight began to concern.

Dave Thomas played for England, Burnley, QPR, Everton, Middlesbrough and Pompey, yet is now registered blind

‘My father had a good innings, he lived until 98, but was eventually totally blind through glaucoma,’ Thomas added.

‘In 2000, he saw a consultant about his eyes. My father was asked if he had any children – if he did, then we should get our eyes tested. Apparently the condition can be hereditary.

‘To this day my brother Melvin, who is 10 years younger, is okay. Whereas after initially visiting a Chichester optician, I discovered that, like dad, I had a severe case of glaucoma.

‘I had to reapply for my driving licence, which involved going to an independent optician in Emsworth rather than the hospital. I passed, which allowed me to continue driving for another three years.

‘Then, in 2008, I was scheduled for my latest eyesight test. About two weeks later, a letter from the DVLA arrived in the post. I had failed – and my life changed drastically.

‘I was so mad, they couldn’t do that to me, to my job. I got into my car – I know I shouldn’t have – and drove to the school to tell them.

‘The biggest issue with my job was I could no longer drive the school minibus, I couldn’t take them to football matches any more.

‘The school were absolutely fantastic, they backed me all the way. People were amazing. I absolutely loved my 20 years as a teacher at Bishop Luffa.

‘After losing my licence, whenever we had an away football fixture in the league or cup, I’d get in touch with the opposition PE teacher and say “I’m so, so sorry, I have a major problem here, would you mind coming to me?”.

‘Do you know what, every teacher agreed to switch the match to our place so we wouldn’t have to drive. Unbelievable, not one let me down, ever, I never missed a match with those kids. That was so kind.

‘The school secretary, Linda Green, didn’t live far from me and sometimes drove me to school. She had to be in at 9am, but, as I wasn’t full-time, there were days I needed to get there for 11am.

‘On such occasions, I’d catch the bus on the main road in Southbourne. I got on with it, it altered my life massively but you have to remain positive.

‘I take everything in my stride. Even when I was playing football, if I had a bad game, I could just wipe it out of my head, there’s always the next one.

‘In sport, not just football, you have lots of highs and lows, it’s how we exist. When I lost my licence, the mental side of being a sportsman definitely helped me cope.

‘I have always been what I consider to be very, very steady. I’ve looked after what I have got and had a great family life.’

Indeed, Thomas and wife Brenda mark 50 years of marriage this year.

They left West Sussex to return to their native north-east in 2010, relocating to the village of Lartington, a few miles from his childhood home in West Auckland.

Meanwhile, with Thomas’ eyesight continuing to diminish, he underwent three operations on his left eye, before opting to go private, with Everton Former Players’ Foundation footing the bill.

Then, in 2015, he was matched with Golden Labrador Hannah by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association – his ‘lifeline’.

Thomas said: ‘Even now, if someone sees me, I look normal, but I can’t explain how I feel.

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‘My central vision is still there, but I don’t have anything peripheral. I am like a horse with blinkers.

‘I can see my TV, but if I put my hands to the left, to the right or above, I can't see them, it’s like tunnel vision.

‘I’m very conscious of my fitness and run every day. I carry a little white symbol cane to make people aware that I’m either a conductor of an orchestra or I’m blind!

‘Anyhow, on New Year’s Day 2021, my usual route at the bottom of the park was pretty wet, so I ran at the top.

‘I never saw this overhanging branch and knocked myself out, there was blood all over the place. It was positioned above me, so out of my vision, and I ran straight into it.

‘I remember when I truly realised I had a problem and required a guide dog. We were at Epsom Downs Racecourse attending The Oaks, with my daughter Helen living in the area.

‘I walked through a tunnel to watch the start of the race and told my wife I had to turn back. You can imagine the amount of people there, I just couldn’t continue moving forward, it felt like I was walking into them.

‘I went into a marquee, sat down and had a glass of wine. That was the start of me processing the necessity of getting a guide dog. I had to give in, I needed help.

‘I had to wait three years to get Hannah. It costs £55,000 for each guide dog from the day they start training at the age of six months. She is now aged seven and wonderful, I couldn’t be without her. She’s my lifeline.

‘When I go for my eye test every six months, they look at what’s called the field of vision. I have everything black on the outside and a little bit of white in the middle of both eyes.

‘If I go totally blind, what can I do? I can’t do anything. I’ve got my dog and I will always have a dog, hopefully until the day I die, that’s what they're there for.

‘My eyesight isn’t getting better, it's stable at the moment, but will always deteriorate because I’m getting older. I just get on with it.’

Thomas’ lifelong passion for gardening is undiminished, growing vegetables, such as potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, while lavender is also particularly prevalent outside their Lartington home.

The spacious back garden houses a putting green, with a chipping area positioned 150 yards from the green for him to indulge in another great hobby.

His ambition remains to appear on BBC’s Gardeners’ World, with a chance encounter with Percy Thrower in Terry Venables’ London club some 50 years ago still treasured.

In addition, Thomas is a keen pianist, once a day playing the piano gifted to him by his wife’s uncle, maintaining a hobby which began as a child attending lessons.

His piano tuner is Gavin Atkins, a blind man from Darlington who attends appointments with his guide dog, and once correctly named the make of Thomas’ piano while taking it apart.

And, of course, the former England man continues to retain a deep affection for football.

He added: ‘People see me on the golf course and think “Blimey, he plays golf and has a flippin’ guide dog”. But you should never presume someone’s disability.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover. If someone has a blue badge and gets out of their car, don’t guess what’s wrong with them. You don’t have to be in a wheelchair or have one leg to be disabled.

‘A few years ago, before I had my guide dog, I had just registered blind and was getting on a plane for a holiday in Majorca, so asked for assistance.

‘Someone from the airline kindly came forward and was taking me and Brenda to the plane ahead of the rest of the queue, when I heard this comment behind me.

‘This smart alec said: “What are you doing, where are you going? What’s wrong with you?”.

‘I was very calm, went into my wallet and brought out a card from West Sussex County Council which explained my condition and replied “Would you like to read that?”. He didn’t know what to say.

‘My wife thinks I look abnormal, but I think I’m normal!

‘And, should I go totally blind, I will still play golf twice a week. After all, I’ll have a guide dog to line me up for shots, won’t I.

‘I’m joking!’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Dave Thomas (right) and QPR team-mate Frank McLintock on the golf course in March 1974. Picture: Robert Stiggins/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dave Thomas picture at his home in Prinstead, West Sussex, in August 2003, before his eyesight deteriorated and he had to rely on a guide dog. Picture: Mike Scaddan