It's a widely held belief in football that players should never go back to their former clubs, the thinking being that it can often be difficult to recapture former glories, or win over fans that didn't quite take to you the first time around. Disproving that theory is defender Stephen Craigan who, having left the club at the turn of the millennium, returned to be a far better player than the one whom Billy Davies let go several years earlier.
Born in Newtonards, Stevie was part of a triple swoop of promising Irishmen (Davie Williamson and Roy Essandoh the others) by then Motherwell boss Alex McLeish. Like several 'Well youngsters at the time Stevie was farmed out to local junior side Blantyre Vics where the defender enjoyed a fine season and settled into life in Scotland.
It wasn't long before the centre-half made the breakthrough into the first team at Fir Park and Craigan made his senior debut for the Dossers in a 1-0 home defeat to St. Johnstone in September 1997, becoming a regular in the first team squad thereafter.
Unfortunately Stephen struggled to fully establish himself in the 'Well side over the course of the next three years. His top team run-outs came in fits and starts and he managed in total just 26 league and cup appearances, the majority as substitute, in that first spell with the club. His cause wasn't helped of course by a club that seemed to be in a constant state of turmoil. By the time he left in the summer of 2000 Craigan had already served under Alex McLeish, Harri Kampman and Billy Davies.
The decision by Billy Davies to release Stephen proved to be the making of the man. Quickly snapped up by John Lambie's Partick Thistle his time in the west end of Glasgow was to prove a very productive period indeed.
Under the influence of Lambie, Craigan formed a formidable partnership with Scott Paterson and Alan Archibald as Thistle steamrollered their way to the Second Division Title. Crags played in every league game bar one, and was hugely influential in guiding the Jags to promotion. His second season with the Jags went much the same as the first and once more Thistle found themselves popping the champagne corks as they celebrated winning the league and earning back-to-back promotions. Just two years after leaving Motherwell for the Second Division, Craigan had made it back to the top flight.
Thistle's first season back in the Premier League was again a very successful one. A solid campaign saw them finish safely in tenth position. This was in no small part to the efforts of Craigan and team mates such as Alan Archibald, Scott Paterson, Martin Hardie and Alex Burns. The 2002'03 season also saw Stevie make his international debut as he came on as a sub in Northern Ireland's 1-0 defeat to Finland. He quickly followed this up by gaining caps against Armenia and Greece before the season was out.
Thistle's barnstorming run however was about to come to an end as manager John Lambie retired from the game and several influential players, Craigan and Alex Burns among them moved on to pastures new. Tempted by the opportunity to work with Terry Butcher and security of a longer deal the two former Motherwell men returned to Fir Park in a move that infuriated the duo's former employers.
Craigan couldn't have hoped for a better first season back as he helped 'Well to a top six finish, improved the defence considerably, established himself as a regular in the Northern Ireland team and ran away with the Motherwell supporters' Player of the Year award.
His second season, although not as convincing as his first, was still very solid and in the absence of Scott Leitch, Crags was handed the captain's armband on several occasions. Unusually for him, there was also four goals (five if you include a friendly match goal against St. Mirren) to talk of, with a Semi Final header against Hearts the most vital of his strikes.
The 2005'06 season brought with it a new challenge for Stephen, that being to form a successful new central-defensive partnership in the absence of the departed David Partridge. It's fair to say that initially things didn't go well as the defence leaked goal after goal.
There was also a slightly undesirable scenario where Craigan very visibly declined the club captaincy in a match against Hearts which raised some eyebrows amongst supporters.
The capture of Brian McLean from Rangers, sparked something of a revival defensively for the team as the two found themselves to be a sound pairing and it also brought about an upturn in Craigan's form.
Ironically one of Stephen's best performances in 2005'06 came not for Motherwell but for Northern Ireland in a hugely memorable 1-0 win over England in the World Cup Qualifiers at Windsor Park in September 2005 with Craigan turning in an inspired display that kept the likes of Rooney and Owen in check. The 2005'06 season also saw Stephen claim the honour of being Motherwell's most capped player a record he will surely hold for years to come.
Last season was peculiarly similar to that of the previous campaign for Craigan. As with the 2005'06 season there were more defensive woes for the Dossers, questionable club form from the Irishman, inspirational international form and another new central-defensive partner, Mark Reynolds.
December brought an early Christmas present for Craigan when Maurice Malpas offered the Irishman a contract extension at the club. The defender duly signed keeping him at Fir Park until the summer of 2010 at least.
The 2006'07 season saw Stephen become comfortable as team captain, in the absence of Phil O'Donnell, and his international career has continued to go from strength to strength helping the Ulstermen to wins over Spain and Sweden and a shut-out away to Denmark. Towards the end of the season he was named as runner-up to David Healy as Northern Ireland's Football Writers International Personality of the Season.
The arrival of Mark McGhee lead many 'Well fans to ponder whether the new manager would look to build a new central defensive partnership, particularly given his interest in signing his old player Adam Virgo. But when the season started Stephen was in his usual place alongside Mark Reynolds, and there he has remained helping Motherwell to the lofty heights of third place and a UEFA Cup place,
Such has been the level of performance from Craigan that manager Mark McGhee insisted the Ulsterman was deserving of improved terms and in February 2008 a new improved contract was signed by the defender.
Some niggling injuries saw Stephen miss a couple of SPL matches and internationals for his country in the autumn of 2008. Crags attempted play through the injury but he was eventually forced to succumb to the injury and spent some two months on the sidelines before returning to full fitness.
His return coincided with a major upturn in Motherwell's fortunes that saw the Steelmen rise from joint bottom to sixth place on the back of a nine match unbeaten run showing just how important the Ulsterman is in the 'Well defence.
Awarded a testimonial season in recognition of his service to the club following the departure of Mark McGhee in the summer of 2009 to Aberdeen; it was the influential Craigan who the club turned to to take charge of pre-season training whilst a new manager was sought.
With Jim Gannon starting with a clean slate, Stephen has found himself challenged to meet his new manager's demands but has responded in the fashion expected by Jim Gannon and started every match thus far in the 09'10 campaign.
Last edited by Paddy
on 2009 Jun 12, 14:54, edited 1 time in total.