A ca­reer of prov­ing the doubters wrong

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.