A career of proving the doubters wrong
IN the autumn of 1995, Bryan Robson informed a dismayed Craig Hignett that his days at Middlesbrough were drawing to a close. A brand new stadium. Promotion to the Premier League. Nick Barmby signed for megabucks, Juninho on the way. The scouser’s face simply didn’t fit the flashy new blueprint.
Yet, by the time he left for Aberdeen three years later, 40,000 fans had signed a petition begging the club not to flog a man dearer to Boro hearts than any of the glitzy foreign signings.
They loved his down-to-earth personality. His underrated playmaking that created even more goals than he scored. His telepathic partnership with fellow shorties Nick Barmby and Juninho, collectively nicknamed the Midget Gems. They loved his goals, all 48 of them, particularly the one that christened the River- side on the opening day of the 1995-96 season.
Most of all, though, they loved his affinity with the people of Teesside, his work ethic and his refusal to be drummed out by the big names.
In 1997, following relegation from the Premier League, Hignett even took a pay cut to remain at the Riverside, in stark contrast to fly-by-night mercenaries like Fabrizio Ravanelli, who spent most of his Boro career trying to engineer a move abroad.
Juninho called him a ‘wonderful’ player. Emerson agreed.“He had really great qualities,” said Robson. “Enthusiasm, an eye for a pass, some lovely skills. And he was a wonderful character in the dressing room. He proved me wrong so many times.”
The former England skipper wasn’t the only one. Born in Huyton, the Merseyside suburb that spawned the likes of Steven Gerrard, Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan, Hignett spent his teenage years on the books at Liverpool.
Yet his dreams were shattered when, in 1988, Reds boss Kenny Dalglish earmarked the young striker for the scrapheap.
“He didn’t even tell me himself,” recalled Hignett. “The lads were just called in and an official said only one kid was being kept on. When it’s your local club, and such a great club, that’s hard to take. From that moment on, I thought ‘I’ll show you’.”
He did, though the path was laborious. A stuttering start at Crewe, followed by a spell on loan at Non-League Stafford Rangers alongside a young Stan Collymore.
Yet the teachings of Dario Gradi – hailed by Hignett as “the man who taught me how to play football” – gradually took hold. By 1992, he’d scored 57 goals in 150 games, forcing the club to repel bids on a weekly basis.
“Craig was an inspiration for the likes of me,” said Neil Lennon, Hignett’s midfield partner in the 1991-92 campaign. “He was the star man, scoring for fun and linked with all sorts of clubs.
“We had both been rejected by big clubs but had kept on fighting, believing in our ability. Crewe was our chance to prove people wrong,to prove we could make it to the top.
“Craig showed you have to be patient and keep grafting. Bids kept getting rejected, but he kept going, kept proving his worth. Then, Boro offered £500,000 and off he went.”
Though he won two promotions and reached the final of both domestic cups, Hignett’s best years didn’t end on Teesside.
Though Aberdeen was a disaster – Hignett, going through a divorce and missing his children, lasted only 13 games – he scored 35 goals in 66 appearances for Barnsley, then aged 32. He won promotion to the top flight and a League Cup with Blackburn.
He even had time for a return to Crewe before retiring in 2007. “He’s not the same player he was but he’s still sharper than he realises,” said Gradi.
“He sees passes that shouldn’t exist and has a marvellous touch. He’s very perceptive. He anticipates the ball and has moved it on almost before it arrives.
“He’s a good influence on the other players,. Everybody here respects him and he’s prepared to have his say. He’s not frightened of me either – I don’t think he ever was!”
That influence and dressing room banter has served Hignett well. Since retirement, the 46year-old has worked as a media pundit, set up coaching schools and become one of the afterdinner circuit’s most sought-after speakers, renowned for tales of rooming with Gazza at Boro!
Then, as an assistant at Hartlepool and Boro, he was the light-hearted yin to the Colin Cooper and Aitor Karanka’s more dour yang.
“Craig is a very funny guy and you need somebody like him on the training ground,” said former Boro striker Emmanuel Ledesma.
“When you are not confident or you are in a bad moment, he gives everyone a real boost.
“Craig is always joking and smiling, so he makes everyone else smile as well. It was a great appointment because he gave everyone confidence.”
Hignett’s return to Boro would end on a sour note, however, as ‘personal differences’ with Karanka resulted in a parting of the ways in December 2014.
But, when Ronnie Moore left Hartlepool in February, Pools made Hignett – who still lives in the North East – their first choice.
“He has the skills, the experience and the drive,” said chairman Gary Coxall. “We’re delighted he’s here.”
Now, having been told the Pools job is a hiding to nothing, Hignett will again be desperate to prove the doubters wrong.