Stephen Craigan is the latest member of the Motherwell FC Hall of Fame.
The club stalwart will formally be inducted at our event on Saturday 13 November. Limited tickets remain available.
Motherwell have had real success with players from Northern Ireland in recent history.
Whether it was the infectious work rate and goals of Stuart Elliott, the physicality and industry of Colin O’Neill or the reflexes and distribution of Trevor Carson, the province has provided a rich source of talent.
However, none come close to matching the achievements of Newtownards-born central defender Craigan.
Crags’ Motherwell career had an unusual start. He was part of a youth team playing for Castlereagh College in a tournament in Ayr back in early 1994. The then Motherwell recruitment chief John Park was in attendance and was impressed not only by Craigan, but over half a dozen of his teammates.
After a recommendation to Tommy McLean, they were all invited to Scotland to play in a trial match. Craigan couldn’t join them though, with a pre-booked family holiday getting very much in the way.
However, Park thought enough of him to invite him back over again on his own shortly after, where he would take part in a bounce game at Fir Park, with the youths and reserves taking on the first team.
The fresh-faced, but enthusiastic, Craigan would be put through his paces when he was asked to directly mark Motherwell’s Republic of Ireland international striker Tommy Coyne, who had just returned from a successful World Cup in the United States with Jack Charlton’s side. No pressure.
He made an impression, and the newly appointed Alex McLeish saw enough to offer him, along with fellow countrymen David Williamson and Roy Essandoh, contracts to be Motherwell players.
His first season at ‘Well was very much about learning the ropes as a professional footballer, and he was farmed out to Junior side Carluke Rovers, with who the club had a formal tie with at that time through 1991 Scottish Cup hero Jim Griffin. His second season was also spent serving an apprenticeship, this time with Blantyre Victoria.
He had gained enough experience to then start to force his way into the Motherwell side, and he made his full debut against St Johnstone at Fir Park in August 1997.
Unbeknown to the young Craigan at the time, his dad had made the trip over to Scotland and was in the main stand to watch his son lock horns with fellow countryman George O’Boyle. Although it was to be a proud day for the Craigan family, a Roddy Grant goal midway through the second half spoiled the party.
He would go on to make 14 other appearances in a season that was, generally, a struggle for the Steelmen as McLeish had to navigate with the breaking up of that successful team that had challenged for the league title in the mid-1990s.
He didn’t feature much more for Alex McLeish until his departure in early 1998, when Finn Harri Kampman took the reigns in what was a very left-field appointment by the Motherwell board, who were monitoring his progress ever since he plotted MyPa 47’s infamous victory over ‘Well several years earlier. Sadly, Kampman had other ideas and game time was again limited, with the Steelmen doing their best to avoid the drop.
With the John Boyle era sweeping into Fir Park in the autumn of that year, Billy Davies was appointed as the spending on players began to increase dramatically. The expectations at the club, and the money to back it up, had risen exponentially with a raft of big names including Andy Goram, John Spencer, Ged Brannan, Don Goodman and others all arriving from England.
Space and opportunities were limited and Craigan found himself coming to the end of his contract and the realisation that if he was to make it as a professional player, he would have to end his Motherwell dream after six years at Fir Park.
John Lambie, enjoying an Indian summer with his beloved Partick Thistle, offered him a lifeline and it was to prove an inspired choice. The Jags had sunk to the depths of the third tier and the Thistle board had brought their legendary boss back for a third spell.
The club had only just managed to save itself from extinction through the ‘Save the Jags’ campaign, run by the Thistle fans to protect their club. On an incredibly low budget, Lambie performed miracles to get them into the Scottish Premier League in 2002 via back-to-back promotions, having rebuilt the team by signing the likes of Craigan, Martin Hardie, Danny Lennon, Scott Paterson and Alex Burns, as well as bringing through youth players such as Alan Archibald and goalkeeper Kenny Arthur.
Not only did they make a successful return to the top flight, but they also thrived too and finished a respectable 10th ahead of Dundee United in 11th and a then administration-hit Motherwell, who despite the flourishing of young talent like James McFadden, Stephen Pearson and others, finished in last place, only to be spared relegation by Falkirk’s uncompliant stadium.
He had also made his full international debut for Northern Ireland, winning his first cap under then-boss Sammy McIlory’s side against Finland in a friendly match at Windsor Park in February 2003, quickly followed by his second and third against Armenia and Greece respectively.
Craigan, who had formed the backbone of that successful Thistle team playing 121 matches in red and yellow, consolidated his status as a bona fide Premier League player.
He then had to make another big career call, which was to return to Fir Park, together with Jags teammate Burns and experienced stopper Gordon Marshall, on a free transfer, joining Terry Butcher’s revival plans.
It was to prove a masterstroke by Butcher, as those experienced heads together with the likes of Scott Leitch, Derek Adams, Martyn Corrigan and Phil O’Donnell complimented the immerging talent like David Clarkson, Paul Quinn, Stephen Pearson and Scott McDonald. ‘Well would finish in the top half of the table for the first time in four seasons, with Craigan, a virtual ever-present, forming a solid defensive partnership with David Partridge, Martyn Corrigan and Steven Hammell.
Butcher’s side would kick on again the following year with one of the most memorable in the modern era, with the club again finishing in the top, reaching the League Cup Final after an incredible semi-final 3-2 win over Hearts at Easter Road, which also included Craigan’s first-ever ‘Well goal, and deciding the fate of the league championship with a famous and dramatic 2-1 win over Celtic at Fir Park to prevent Martin O’Neill’s Celtic lifting the title on Motherwell’s home soil.
The now experienced defender was taking his club form into the Northern Ireland group and was involved in famous wins over England in 2005 and Spain in 2006, marshalling Michael Owen and Raul when both were at the height of their powers.
The defender would go on to be a mainstay under almost every ‘Well boss he worked with, including playing a starring role in Mark McGhee’s hugely entertaining 2007/08 side that overcame the unspeakable tragedy of Phil O’Donnell’s death to finish third and return the team to European football for the first time in 12 years.
He had the honour of following O’Donnell as club captain, and helped the Steelmen to more success with consecutive top six finishes, regular outings in European football and a Scottish Cup final in 2011, when he was again a semi-final scorer against St Johnstone before the Steelmen were edged out at the last hurdle at Hampden.
He was rewarded with a testimonial in July 2011 against his only other senior club, Partick Thistle, when he scored the only goal of the match in a 1-0 win at Fir Park.
It was fitting his last season as a player in claret and amber came in 2011/12, with Motherwell finishing in third spot under Stuart McCall and the skipper leaving a departing present of a UEFA Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos. He had also earned a further 51 caps for Northern Ireland whilst playing for the Steelmen, taking his total haul to 54, a now Motherwell record that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
He retired to take up a full-time role in what was becoming a blossoming media career that has carried him across the BBC, ESPN, BT Sport and Premier Sports and is rightly considered amongst the best and most knowledgeable pundits in the game.
However, it would not be the end of his love affair with the Steelmen and in the summer of 2015, he returned to the club in the capacity of the club’s Under 20s manager. Craigan’s contribution again was immense, as his professionalism and skills as a coach were demonstrated by the nurturing of talent that would go on to earn the club millions of pounds in transfer fees.
His side that not only competed at the top end of the league each season, but the pinnacle was the club’s first, and to date only, Scottish FA Youth Cup success, when the Fir Parkers ran riot, beating Hearts 5-2 at a rainy Hampden in the spring of 2016.
Chris Cadden, Allan Campbell, Jake Hastie, David Turnbull and James Scott were all mainstays in his side. They all went on to play an important role in the firs -team and earned the club almost £5m in transfer fees. It was hard to believe Craigan could match his contribution as a player whilst on the coaching staff, but he did.
With the squad having been promoted and broken up, Craigan decided to concentrate fully on his media career again and left the club with an enhanced reputation in December 2018, three-and-a-half sterling years after returning.
Over 375 games for Motherwell as a player spanning 15 years, a distinguished club captain, a record number of international appearances whilst at Fir Park, 14 games in Europe, appearances at two major cup finals and a cup-winning youth coach who was responsible for the cultivation of some of the most exciting young talent of their generation. That alone would easily grant Stephen Craigan legendary status at Fir Park, but for ‘Well fans it is much more than that. His passion and commitment on the field was clear, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and the fans loved him for it.
Anything he ever lacked in ability, and he was a far greater player than people, including himself, give him credit for, he more than made up for with sheer hard work and determination.
That’s something all fans across the world would expect, but at a working-class club, with working-class values supported by a largely working-class fanbase, it’s essential. Although he wasn’t born in this country or even grew up supporting the Steelmen, the fans will always class him as one of us, and Fir Park will always be home.
Our Hall of Fame will welcome its new inductees in a special event in November.
Taking place at the Bothwell Bridge Hotel on Saturday 13 November, the event will induct the classes of both 2020 and 2021.
The event is priced at £60 for adults and £30 for children aged under 12. Limited tickets are available.
We will induct both the 2020 and 2021 intake at the event.
Buy your tickets online here now.
Current Hall of Famers include George Stevenson, Willie Pettigrew, Phil O’Donnell, Ally Maxwell and James McFadden.
The delayed 2020 class, who will also be inducted on the night, includes John Hunter, Andy Paton, Joe Wark, Davie Cooper and Steven Hammell.