How the man who turned Rotherham around after child sex abuse scandal almost became Sheffield United footballer

Growing up in Meersbrook, like most young lads in Sheffield, Ian Thomas dreamed of becoming a footballer.

Born into a family of steel workers, Ian signed for his beloved Sheffield United at the age of just nine.

Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

The dream looked like it could be turned into a reality when he had trials for Southampton alongside a young Alan Shearer.

And at the age of just 14, he signed his first schoolboy contract with the Blades.

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Ian said: “My brothers used to play football with me when I was a toddler. We used to make a pitch in our living room unbeknown to my mum and we would move the sofa forward and play with a tennis ball.

Ian Thomas, pictured second from the right on the back row, with Sheffield United.

Ian Thomas, pictured second from the right on the back row, with Sheffield United.

“I developed a passion for football and a friend of mine was training with Junior Blades at Norfolk Park so I went along with him at the age of nine.”

Ian said he started off as a midfielder but admitted a lack of stamina led to him converting to a centre forward.

He added: “When I was 13, a Southampton scout scouted me and five others and asked us to go down and that’s where I met Alan Shearer.

“But when I got back to Sheffield, Sheffield United offered me a schoolboy contract and it was the proudest momey of my life – it was in the Green ‘Un as well.”

Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

But a back injury at the age of 16, ended any dreams of breaking into professional football and he left Newfield Comprehensive School with three O-Levels.

He said: “I put sport before studies despite my parents saying I needed to have a back-up plan, I put everything into it.

“But I was very numerical, had a good memory and I thought maybe a career in finance would be good but I wanted to do some good in some way.”

After being dealt the blow that football was not his career, Ian was left with the tough decision of either returning to his parents’ native Jamaica or move to London.

Ian Thomas speaks to the media after the end of one of the Rotherham CSE trials.. Picture: Andrew Roe

Ian Thomas speaks to the media after the end of one of the Rotherham CSE trials.. Picture: Andrew Roe

He started as an accounts assistant with the NSPCC in 1986 before spending four years working in finance in two London boroughs.

Ian said: “I always wanted to do something that would do some good. I was good at numbers so I thought joining the NSPCC would be the best of  both worlds.”

But the dad-of-three admitted he developed a strong desire to help children when he started at Base 51 Counselling Service in Nottingham, only to leave for something entirely different.

He added: “I was on holiday with my brother and we got chatting and decided to open our own record shop. I’ve always had been into music and we were aware record sales were doing tremendously well in Sheffield.”

The duo ran Dance Records, on Abbeydale Road, before moving to Pinstone Street as well as Record Shack at Park Hill flats.

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Ian said: “At the time I had a young family, I had a mortgage and there was a need to get some money so I lost interest in it.”

His next role came as senior finance officer in Derby City Council before moving to Trafford as principal accountant for social services and housing in 1999.

It was there he worked on a project to help provide accommodation to those fleeing the war in Kosovo.

Ian said: “It brought a tear to my eyes when I saw a litle girl with a bullet wound in her face and it made me want to help people even more.

“Around the same time my brother had a couple of children who were failed by the care system so when I saw the system from that perspective, that fuelled a desire in me to work with improving the lives of vulnerable people all the more.”

He moved onto become the assistant director of social care and housing before becoming strategic director for children and young people nearer home at Derbyshire County Council.

After three years, he was approached to take on ‘the most difficult job in Britain’ – sorting out what he labelled as the ‘toxic’ mess that was Rotherham’s children’s services following the child sexual exploitation scandal in the town.

He took over as the interim director of children’s services on January 1, 2015, succedding Joyce Thacker, who left the council after the publication of the damning Jay Report, which outlined ‘blatant failures’ by council and police leaders who turned a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham between 1997 and 2003.

Ian, now, 49, said: “It was alright having a plan but if I got it wrong I would have been finished at 46 with a family to try and support. People weren’t queueing around the corner for it.”

But the plan paid off and Government-appointed commissioners left Rotherham in September 2018 and Ofsted assessed the borough council’s children’s services as ‘good.’

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Ian was made a Commander of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours for his work in Rotherham.

He said: “It was a big shock and surprise when I recieved the letter from the Cabinet Office. My first thought was for my parents who came over from Jamaica.

“But it’s a reflection of the hard work of many who I have worked for, or worked with and the victims who have shown such courage and bravery.”

He left his role in Rotherham last year to take over Lewisham Council as chief executive. 

But after just seven months he left to become chief executive of Kingston-upon-Thames Council last month.

He now lives in London but said the Steel City will always be close to his heart.

Ian added: “I live in London but I’ve still got lots of family and friends in Sheffield and I’m a proud Sheffielder.

“I’m proud of where I come from – it’s my city and I tell people from London that all the time. I often joke with Londoners that they never go further north than Watford.”