At around 6.15pm on Saturday night, a thousand bucks was dropped on the bar at the Hotel Waterloo in Wellington.
No doubt, the free booze disappeared quickly. The punters were making the most of an establishment promise to sink a grand if the All Whites – who were playing Peru in their FIFA World Cup qualifier just a ten-minute stagger away at Westpac Stadium – were able to win, or draw.
Though he wasn’t the sole reason for the world 122nd-ranked New Zealand’s ability to notch up a 0-0 score with 10th-ranked Peru, the Hotel Waterloo drinkers – and all Kiwi football fans – have a 22-year-old kid from Te Puke – who currently wears braces – to thank for it.
Alongside West Ham defender, and New Zealand skipper, Winston Reid, Thomas, who plies his trade at Dutch club PEC Zwolle, was the All Whites’ stand-out performer.
He’s also a key attacking threat for the creation of the away goal New Zealand needs in Lima next Thursday afternoon [NZT].
“He was probably one of the best players on the pitch,” Reid told Newsroom, of Thomas.
“He works – he works hard – and he’s got a good amount of quality there. He can do some moves where he can just shimmy to the left and shimmy to the right and get away from his opponent.”
“I don’t want to single him out, but [Thomas] just has so much heart,” All Whites coach Anthony Hudson adds.
“As well as his quality, he has so much heart and fight and spirit. That’s what got him that chance – that fight and that spirit. He wanted to drive and win.”
Thomas created almost all of New Zealand’s chances in the tense encounter, often combining well down the left flank with Deklan Wynne, while remaining an industrious presence tracking back.
That’s the heart and fight part of the best athlete to come out of Te Puke since five-test All Black flanker Tanerau Latimer. The bloke never stopped trying.
The quality part was on show in the 86th minute when Thomas launched a right-footed Exocet that missed the Peruvian left post by the smallest of margins.
Had it gone in, Thomas would have scored one of the finest goals in All Whites history – and New Zealand may have notched their greatest ever upset.
“As soon as I hit it, [I knew] I hit it well,” Thomas says, of his dramatic late chance.
“I was a bit annoyed it just skimmed the post and obviously scoring that goal would have changed the complexion of the game, and over the two legs. It was unlucky it didn’t go in, but that’s just how it happens.”
Though he has now notched up 16 international caps, Thomas’ performance was really his big unveiling to the wider Kiwi sporting public as one of this country’s serious football stars.
The Te Puke Kid has played more than 100 games for PEC Zwolle since he signed as an 18-year-old in 2013 – and established himself as one of the true young stars of the Eredivisie.
As long ago as last January, PEC Zwolle coach Ron Jans compared Thomas to storied Dutch superstar Arjen Robben. Amongst his other claims to fame, Jans signed Uruguayan maestro Luis Suarez to his first European contract. The guy knows his onions.
“If he plays [at PEC Zwolle] for ten years, there is probably something wrong,” Jans told the New Zealand Herald back then.
Though he’s clearly a massive part of the All Whites’ plans over the next decade, Thomas is a pretty humble character who was hardly patting himself on the back in a post-match press scrum.
“It was an okay game,” he says of his performance. “We should have scored – we had them under the pump in the last fifteen minutes.
“It’s a bit of mixed emotions in the dressing rooms right now, but it’s a positive and we can work from that.”
Make no mistake; this wasn’t the greatest All Whites performance of all time. There were mistakes, lapses and a lack of true penetration that, outside Thomas’s dramatic chance, made sure the All Whites never really threatened the back of the net.
But consider the discrepancy in world rankings. Consider the immense pressure on Peru, a proud football nation who haven’t made the World Cup since 1982.
Consider the fact the All Whites had never beaten, and only managed two other draws, in 13 previous clashes with South American opposition. You’ve also got to acknowledge that Chris Wood – easily New Zealand’s biggest goal threat – only got twenty minutes on the field last night due to injury concerns.
Hudson has already said Wood will start in Lima and Thomas, who has been friends with him since the two played together at Waikato FC as teens, says the Burnley striker’s role will be crucial if they are to make history in South America.
“Woodsy is obviously a massive player,” he says. “He’s got a big role in this team. You want the biggest players and the best players to play the game for your best chance to win.
“I think it’s very important for him to play, and I think everyone knows that.”
Hudson said that he would have taken a nil-all draw if he was offered it before the game. Thomas disagreed with his gaffer: “I don’t think so – we’re a confident team.”
“You’ve seen that in this game, and you saw in the last ten or fifteen minutes that we were pushing on them. It was there for a good bit of time – there were chances we could have got. We’re taking this as a confidence boost.”
Though he doesn’t look like a bloke you’d expect to see taking advantage of an open bar in Wellington, Thomas, in all his braced up glory could be well responsible for wetting some more Kiwi football whistles this week.
And you know it’ll taste like nectar if he does.