Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Nations Cup: Stephen Craigan is Northern Ireland's own version of Braveheart

Stephen Craigan is Northern Ireland's Mr Consistent. Rarely does he put a foot wrong at the heart of defence.

He may be 34 now, with gifted young bucks like Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart determined to grab his place, but it's hard to imagine him not playing alongside captain Aaron Hughes at the back.

Craigan and Hughes have provided the platform for Northern Ireland's finest moments in recent years and there is no evidence to suggest the solid partnership should be broken up just yet.

Fulham star Hughes is a high class defender while Motherwell's Craigan, like a fine wine, has got better with age and has become an excellent performer for his country.

Having been in the Northern Ireland squad for the best part of the last decade, Craigan has experienced much at international level.

The Carling Nations tournament, involving Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, which will be played over the next few months at the Aviva stadium in Dublin, however, is something new and Craigan is relishing the prospect.

He said: “It will be better to play in an event like this rather than meaningless friendlies because with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Republic playing each other there will be that competitive edge. The organisers should be commended for trying something different.

“It's years since we played in the Republic or against the Republic. That in itself is an exciting prospect. I would think we will take a lot of fans to Dublin. We can show on and off the pitch how far we have come.”

For Craigan, Northern Ireland's first match in the competition against Scotland on February 9 will take on special significance.

The new dad, who dotes on his beautiful baby girl Chloe, could be in for a bit of stick if Craig Levein's side emerge triumphant.

The Comber man says: “It's interesting for me because my wife is Scottish, I've been playing in Scotland for many years and I have a little daughter who is going to grow up speaking in a Scottish accent.

“Our assistant manager at Motherwell Kenny Black is in Craig Levein's backroom team with Scotland and there will be a bit of banter before and after the match, so I'd like to win the game for a lot of reasons.

“There will be other SPL players in our squad from the Old Firm and I know they'll be really up for the Scottish game as they won't want to lose to their club mates.

“We played Scotland a few years ago at Hampden and that was a nice moment because my wife was there and my mum and dad were over from Northern Ireland. We drew that one 0-0 so hopefully we'll beat them this time.”

Craigan, who has won 52 caps, has shown a real flair for punditry when off the pitch and in a studio. You would think when he eventually retires television executives would be keen to make more use of this articulate, knowledgable figure.

The good news for the Green and White Army is he has no plans to quit, adding that nothing gives him a bigger thrill than putting on the green shirt of his country.

“I love it as much as ever,” he adds. “We've had some great nights over the years and made huge strides. There is a fantastic spirit amongst the lads, it really is like a club team with everyone enjoying meeting up. As well as the spirit I believe there is real quality in the squad.

“The future is looking bright for Northern Ireland because we have good young players coming through. I'm just glad to still be involved.

“It's great to be playing with guys like Aaron who are playing in the Premier League week in week out. Aaron is a wonderful player and a wonderful man. He represents our country superbly.”

The same could be said of his defensive partner.

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