Farewell Captain Crags

In May 2000, when Northern Irish defender Stephen Craigan was released by Motherwell, following only twenty six appearances since his debut in 1997, not many people would have an inclination of what he would go on to achieve at the club. Sunday will be his 379th and last appearance in Claret and Amber, marking the end of an era.

Farewell Captain Crags
Stephen Craigan being recognised for his efforts at his testimonial last summer

After being shown the door in 2000, Craigan reacted in the best possible manner. After signing for second division Partick Thistle, he led them to consecutive promotions and then a respectable tenth place finish in their first season in the top flight, as well as winning his first international cap along the way. This was enough to persuade then Motherwell manager Terry Butcher to bring him back to Fir Park. Craigan’s return coincided with a massive upturn of fortunes for Motherwell, having only escaped relegation through default the previous season as Falkirk’s stadium did not meet league requirements, Craigan led Motherwell to a credible top half finish in his first season, a season in which the club also managed to ease their financial troubles by exiting administration. The club captain will certainly be able to look back at his achievements with Motherwell fondly. He can boast two cup finals appearances, six top half finishes and three European campaigns, with his fourteen appearances in continental competition a record yet to be beaten by a Motherwell player.

Craigan has played under no fewer than nine managers at Fir Park, the majority of who would consider him a star pupil, Jim Gannon aside. Gannon’s short spell in charge between July and December 2009 had the potential to abruptly end Craigan’s Motherwell career. Craigan was openly criticised by Gannon after his first game in charge and spent a large part of his spell on the sidelines, with youngsters Shaun Hutchinson and Steven Saunders often preferred. Initially Gannon’s plan appeared to have worked as the side were only defeated once in the opening round of fixtures, keeping six clean sheets en route. However, the youngsters were unable to maintain this form and the goals against column began to increase. Perhaps saving Craigan’s Motherwell career, Gannon was sacked just before the turn of the year and replaced with Craig Brown. The former Scotland manager instantly reinstated Craigan into the team and it reaped benefits, as the side only conceded two goals in eleven games, going on a fine unbeaten run. Similarly, a dreadful run the previous season came to a halt upon Craigan’s return from a lengthy period out. For what he may have lacked in technical ability, he more than made up from in drive, attitude, commitment and desire. His attitude was epitomised by his old fashioned approach to the game, Craigan would never be found wearing under armour, gloves, a snood, white boots or even a short sleeved shirt. The Fir Park faithful were highly endeared to his personality.

Goals have never been a regular thing in Craigan’s career, with his seven career goals for Motherwell averaging one in over fifty games, but he could certainly pick a time to score one of his rare goals. Headed openers in the 3-2 League Cup semi-final victory against Hearts in 2005 and the 3-0 Scottish Cup semi-final victory against St. Johnstone in 2011 were certainly vital goals. Not many Motherwell players, especially in the modern era can claim to have scored goals to take them to a cup final- twice. It’s not only the Motherwell fans who Craigan has gained the respect of, as was visible at his testimonial last summer, as a number of Northern Ireland fans made the trip over to look him play his only other club side Partick Thistle. Craigan won fifty four caps with his country, an achievement heightened by the fact that players of the calibre of Aaron Hughes of Fulham and Jonny Evans of Manchester United were available in his position. Victories against both England and Spain would have to battle it out for Craigan’s finest international moment.

Club captain was a role that seemed destined for the Newtonards born defender, although he had to wait his turn to receive it. Despite being widely expected to take over from both Scott Leitch and the late Phil O’Donnell when the armband became vacant, Craigan had to wait until the summer of 2008 when he officially became club captain, replacing Paul Quinn. Such has been his influence overall, particularly in the four years since, there will be a massive void when Craigan leaves the pitch for the final time on Sunday. Thanks for the memories “Crags”, you’ll always be one of our own.