Recently appointed as Harrogate Town’s new assistant manager, Paul Thirlwell’s next challenge in football will be helping boss Simon Weaver mastermind the club’s progression up the footballing ladder.
And, as someone who has played the game at the very top level during a career that spans 19 years and counting, he has all the experience necessary to aid the men from the CNG Stadium in their quest to escape National League North.
A member of Sheffield Wednesday’s youth academy until the age of 16, Thirlwell signed YTS forms with Sunderland after leaving Hillsborough and burst on to the scene as a 20-year-old in December 1999 when he was named man of the match on his Premiership debut.
Starring in the centre of the park in a stunning 4-1 victory over title-chasing Chelsea at the Stadium of Light, the Washington-born midfielder couldn’t have wished for a better start to life in the top flight.
“When I look back at it all, that game against Chelsea is the highlight of my career,” Thirlwell reflected.
“We were up against a team that was full of top class players like Gianfranco Zola and Marcel Desailly and we were 4-0 up by half-time, it was just one of those days where everything clicked.
“It was incredible really, getting man of the match in my first game in the Premier League and it kind of left me wondering what all the fuss was about.
“I was up against Dennis Wise in the centre of midfield and this is a senior pro who knows all the tricks, but I just remember really enjoying the challenge.”
As enjoyable as his first taste of the big time may have been, Thirlwell was soon brought back down to earth when he found himself dropped from the squad for Sunderland’s next fixture.
“Obviously I was disappointed, but Peter Reid had only played me the week before because Kevin Ball was injured,” he added.
“Bally was the club captain, so he was always going to come straight back in, so I accepted that and to be honest, I was still just really pleased that I’d given a good account of myself when I had the chance. I was confident that my time would come.”
Thirlwell’s time did eventually come, but with the likes of Don Hutchison, Claudio Reyna, Gavin McCann and Alex Rae ahead of him in the pecking order, he never quite managed to nail down a regular starting place in the Black Cats’ midfield.
Despite this, he still played more than 40 times for the club in the Premiership, and crossed swords with some of the biggest names in the game.
“I played against some very good players, but there are a few who really stand out,” Thirlwell contined.
“Being a central midfielder, going up against Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane are experiences that stick in the memory.
“Vieira was so big and powerful with a huge stride, and Roy Keane was, well, Roy Keane. Say no more.
“In terms of footballing ability, the one who was just different class was Paul Scholes.
“You just could not get anywhere near him. To be honest, he was so good that he made you feel like you didn’t even deserve to be on the same pitch as him.”
Thirlwell’s time in a red and white shirt coincided with the goal-laden spell that Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn enjoyed at Sunderland, and the 37-year-old described the pair as a “joy” to play alongside.
“They formed an unbelievable partnership,” he said of the duo, who scored nearly 200 goals between them in a five-year spell from 1997-2002, including 44 in the 1999/2000 season alone.
“It was quite special really. I’m not sure how, but Kev and Quinny just always seemed to know where each other would be. At times they were unplayable.
“Kev scored more goals, but people underestimated how good Niall Quinn was as a footballer. He was a big guy and a threat in the air, but he also offered much more than that.
“It was great to play alongside those guys in a really good team that finished seventh in the Premiership, two seasons in a row.”
A series of “niggly” injuries meant that Thirlwell’s Sunderland career never really progressed the way that he hoped it would, and in 2004 he departed Wearside for Sheffield United.
“Obviously I wish I had played more games in the Premier League, and for Sunderland, but there aren’t too many people can say they’ve done what I’ve done in the game,” he added.
“I grew up watching Sunderland at Roker Park as a season ticket holder, so to play for the club that I supported was a dream come true for me.
“I really enjoyed it and also learned an awful lot.
“I played under Peter Reid and Neil Warnock, who are big characters, and I picked up a great deal from those two in particular.
“They’re a bit old school in their ways I suppose, but they were brilliant at getting the very best out of players and excellent when it came to man-management.
“They maybe didn’t do everything on the training ground, but they knew how to motivate a side and get lads to give them their all.
“I’ve taken little bits from all the gaffers I’ve worked under into my own coaching style, but Reid and Warnock are probably the two who have had the biggest influence on me.”