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FA cup magic Conor Thomas jumps at chance to take on Manchester City up Cheltenham hill

Aged 17, he had just made his full debut for Coventry City when his agent rang with some unexpected news.

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Thomas encountered a young Raheem Sterling during his time with the Liverpool reserves. Photo: PA

Thomas encountered a young Raheem Sterling during his time with the Liverpool reserves. Photo: PA

Thomas encountered a young Raheem Sterling during his time with the Liverpool reserves. Photo: PA

Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of the phone call that changed the course of Conor Thomas's career.

Aged 17, he had just made his full debut for Coventry City when his agent rang with some unexpected news and a simple instruction. "He told me to pack my bags," Thomas recalls. "I was going to Liverpool."

There had been no suggestion that Liverpool were interested, no whispers that they were even aware of his progress. "I knew straight away that it didn't feel right," says Thomas, who faces Manchester City with Cheltenham Town today.

"I just wasn't ready. I was still a kid. I had to drive up that night. I didn't even have time to think about it, and then that was it - I was living in a hotel in Liverpool."

The loan was described by the Liverpool Echo as a "surprise" move. And no one was more surprised than Thomas himself. "I was literally shocked," he says.

Plunged into a new environment, without family and friends, it is perhaps no surprise it did not work out as planned. Thomas enjoyed playing for the Liverpool reserves, where he came across a young Raheem Sterling, but injuries did not help his cause and, above all, he just wanted to be at home.

"It was a big life move. When I heard I was coming back to Coventry, my reaction was how my reaction should have been when I got the move to Liverpool. I couldn't stop smiling, but I thought, 'I shouldn't be feeling like this.' "

That loan spell, however strange, gave him a brief glimpse of life at the highest level, which is partly why he is so excited for the visit of City.

"When it was drawn, I was literally celebrating at home," he says. "How often am I going to have the opportunity to play against these players and see how good they are in the flesh? It is a chance to test yourself against the best."

The tie provides a reunion with Sterling. "I was in the reserve team and Sterling would have been 16," says Thomas. "You could see he had something really special."

A decade later, the game has changed. Such a sudden move, for such a young player, would not happen these days, but if it did, there would be various staff to guide the development of a talent such as Thomas, an England U-17 and U-18 international.

He has since embraced his adventurous side, when he joined a club in India, signing for Kolkata side ATK, then managed by Teddy Sheringham, in 2017.

The season in India provided a sense of perspective. "There are images in my head, things I will never forget. There was a time when I went for a walk and there was a single mum, with three young kids, in this dirty lake. She was scooping water into the kids' mouths to get them to drink. That happened very early on. I saw how it really was another world."

The plan was always to stay for only one year, though, and Thomas signed for Cheltenham in May 2018. He has played nearly 100 matches since then, although none of them as glamorous as today's meeting with City.

Cheltenham are sixth in League Two, only four points off the top, and their Whaddon Road home should provide an unusual challenge for Pep Guardiola's side. On Tuesday, in a game against Newport, the wind and slight slope resulted in Newport goalkeeper Tom King scoring from a goal-kick. According to the Guinness World Records, it was the longest goal scored in a competitive football match.

Could those conditions work in Cheltenham's favour against City? "I am sure City can play uphill and against the wind and they still wouldn't be bad," says Thomas. "But we will take any advantage we can get."

Cheltenham v Manchester City, Live, BBC1, 5.30

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