Position: Centre Half
Date of birth: 29 October 1976
Place of birth: Newtownards
Stephen Craigan played for County Down in the 1992 Milk Cup tournament. Since then, he has gone on to become an integral part of the Northern Ireland side and is currently Motherwell’s most capped player at international level.
A boyhood Glentoran fan, Craigan started his career in Scotland with Motherwell in 1995 when the young Ulsterman was signed by Alex McLeish. However, after only twenty-two appearances, he was released on a free transfer. He signed for Scottish Second Division club Partick Thistle in 2000 and helped them back to the Scottish Premier League, making 103 appearances. After his contract expired in 2003, he returned to Motherwell, who were now managed by former England international Terry Butcher.
Craigan has played a central part in Motherwell’s steady progress in the SPL and was rewarded for his performances with a call-up to the Northern Ireland national team.
Arguably, his most impressive display in a Northern Ireland jersey came in their stunning 1 – 0 win over England at Windsor Park on September 7, 2005 where he was up against the likes of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen amongst others. A key figure in the Northern Irish defence, he helped his side to wins over Spain and Sweden among others, as well as a draw against Portugal.
Stephen Craigan puts much of his success down to his experience of representing County Down at the Milk Cup. Recently, we spoke to Stephen and asked him a few questions about County Down and the Milk Cup competition itself…
In which team and what year/s did you play?
1992. I was only Under 15 but the team played in the Under 16 section. At that time there was just the one county age group as opposed to two now. Our mentors back then were Jim McCloskey and Davy Taylor, two good men who knew their football inside out.
What club side were you playing for when you were selected?
How did you do at the trials?
I must have done OK because I got selected! Because it was the first year of the county teams it wouldn’t have been as in-depth or maybe even as organised as it is now. That’s not being disrespectful to the guys who were in charge, it was more experimental then as it was the first time county teams had competed. It was professional nonetheless.
How did the team fare in the tournament?
It was all structured differently then and would be hard to compare it with how the competition looks nowadays. I know we beat my current team Motherwell 2-1 in our opening game, got through our group, but got beaten 3-2 by Middlesbrough in the quarter final. We entered the Plate and we lost to County Armagh in the semi finals of that. It was a disappointing end because against Middlesborough the Referee wasn’t great, and against Armagh, I think we were feeling a little sorry for ourselves.
What memories do you have of the Milk Cup and the north coast?
In 1992 most of the teams stayed in Portrush which was great because the place was always busy and boredom never set in, with something always going on. I remember going to the matches in the flexibus and we always sang and danced on arrival to show the opposition we were right up for it and ready to get stuck in. The other teams must have thought we were nuts but it was brilliant to be involved in something that meant everything to us as young players.
Do you remember who you roomed with?
I haven’t got a clue! But I think it might have been Alastair McCombe who played for Bangor, Glentoran and Ards. I was friendly with him at the time so it was probably him.
Describe your footballing journey after the Milk Cup to the present day…
The word journey is the right word to use because it’s been an incredible journey for me. Having left school at 16 with dreams of being a football player, watching lots of players my age go across the water to Rangers, Leeds, Man U, Southhampton etc, I thought my chance had gone but I still prayed it hadn’t.
Attending Castlereagh College and then getting a trial at Motherwell and being successful, all happened by the time I was nearly 18, and I moved to Scotland in September 1994. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Leaving home not knowing if you would ever live with your Mum and Dad again was difficult. But I knew if I wanted to fulfil my dream, it had to be done.
After playing for the youth teams and reserves at Motherwell, I made my 1st team Debut in September 1997 against St Johnstone, thanks to Alex McLeish who was Motherwell’s manager at the time. Between then and June 2000 I made about 25 appearances in total before I was released and joined Partick Thistle in the 2nd Division in Scotland. Looking back now, I realise that this was a testing time for me and if I hadn’t got my head down, worked hard and been determined to get back up the leagues, I might not have been telling this story.
Partick Thistle are a team based in Glasgow in the shadows of the Old Firm. They had a good support but were languishing much too low down the league’s for a club with such status. I had an incredible time there winning the 2nd Division, 1st Division, gaining promotion back to the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and managing to stay up in the SPL against all the odds.
But my time had come to an end there when Terry Butcher, ex-England and Rangers captain signed me back to Motherwell. During my time at Partick Thistle I managed to do the one thing I never imagined would ever happen. I made my international debut against Finland in 2003. One cap would have been enough for me but I’ve since had the opportunity to play many more times.
I’ve been at Motherwell from 2003 until now in a time which has included 3 cup semi final appearances and a Scottish Cup Final appearance against Rangers, the score doesn’t matter, we came second and that’s all that counts!!!. I’ve now played over 200 games for Motherwell and am currently the club’s most capped player in history with 33 caps (30 of which have came at Motherwell) – something that makes me very proud.
On the international front to say it’s been amazing is an understatement. Like I said, 33 caps and counting! Beating England, Spain, Sweden, played against Portugal, Denmark, Uruguay, Germany and many more it sends shivers down my spine thinking about it. It brings it home to me and should do to anyone reading this. Aim for the top in no matter what you do because it’s amazing what you can achieve. With the help and support of my fiancée Elaine, my Mum, Dad and brothers Paul and Gary, I’ve achieved more than I thought I ever would or could. I’m living a dream but I’ve made it reality because I wanted it, go for it!
Greatest achievement in football to date?
Being a professional footballer is my biggest achievement. I’ve had many people knock me and question me and to this day, some people still do. That’s what drives me on – to prove them wrong and to show what I’m all about. Yes, it’s hard work sometimes, and yes, it does get to you, but it’s become part of life now. I just get on with it and focus on me, not anyone else. Playing wise, beating England and Spain will live in my memory forever and no matter what people think of me or say about me, that can never be taken away. In Finland in August 2006, I got the chance to captain my country (if only for 30 minutes). My jersey from that game hangs proudly on my wall with the saying, DREAMS BECOMING REALITY. Enough said.
Who’s the best player you have played with?
Aaron Hughes is a great player, he’s got everything a top player needs and he’s definitely the best player I’ve played with. The fact that he is such a great guy probably also helps, but the amount of times he’s covered my backside during big games makes him a wonderful player!
And against? I’ve had the privilege of playing against some great players, from Sir David (Healy) in training, to Henrik Larsson, Ibrahimovic, Raul, Owen, Hartson, Ballack and Mutu. The best to be honest has to be Wayne Rooney. Maybe on the night against England in September 2005 he wasn’t on his game. But for potential and ability he is right up there with the best. I wouldn’t fancy playing against him on one of his good days. I’d be lucky to last 20 minutes!
What advice would you give to those representing County Down at the Milk Cup?
Do the very best you can and do that in every training session, game and trial. That means preparing yourself right before each session, and living and eating the best you can to give you the energy to perform. At the Milk Cup itself, take in the atmosphere, the crowd and everything that goes with it because that’s how it is in the professional game. If you enjoy it all, then you have what it takes to be a footballer. For some players, this might be as good as it gets, so enjoy it and have no regrets. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, because through sheer hard work and determination you can achieve what you want.
How much of an impact did the competition have on you?
It made me realize even more that I wanted to be a professional footballer and made me more determined to succeed. It wet my appetite and I wanted more. To be honest, I never thought I would have achieved some of the things I have, so it shows what’s possible.
What does it feel like playing in front of 50,000 plus fans in the SPL?
I guess by plus you mean the referee!! It’s always wonderful to play in front of big crowds in big stadiums. In the bigger games on a personal level you can make your mark. People judge you on those games so it’s important not to be too nervous or intimidated. I enjoy the challenge and the plaudits that come with it, especially when you have a good game or get a positive result. As a player, the Old Firm games are the ones you look forward to most.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself we don’t already know?
In 1993, the second year of the county teams, when I was still eligible to play for County Down, I played for Hearts instead which didn’t go down too well with some committee members!! Step forward Mr Hugh Bonner and Mr Sam Robinson!!!! One of the managers at the time, the late Jim McCloskey fought my corner because he knew how much it meant to me. It’s something I will never forget about him. It’s a decision I regret now, but at the time I thought I might have had a chance to go to Hearts. As a young and ambitious player I thought it was the right thing to do.
Describe your Milk Cup experience in one word…
Former County Down Milk Cup PRO Barry Greene spoke to Stephen Craigan in November 2007.