Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Stephen Craigan: How I kept Ibrahimovic quiet...and helped superstar Raul retire

Ask a Northern Ireland fan for their favourite memory of Stephen Craigan and many will recall the night he had Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his pocket at Windsor Park during a famous 2-1 victory.

Ibrahimovic, now with Paris St Germain having played with mighty European clubs Ajax, Barcelona, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus, wasn't the only striker with a big reputation to lose out to an inspired Craigan on famous nights in Belfast.

England's Wayne Rooney and Spanish icon Raul were others to feel the full force of Craigan's desire in a green shirt.

Recalling those epic battles, Craigan says: “I always try to get as much information on an opponent as I can and where Ibrahimovic was concerned he always looked to me as if he was a bit moody. He didn't like being put under pressure or being tackled. As big and strong as he is, he didn't like the physical side of the game so I tried to test him out.

“If you are playing against a better player you have to close the gap somehow and my idea was to try and force him into a game he didn't want to be in. I was very surprised at how easily it worked at Windsor, when we won 2-1.

“We went to play the return game in Sweden and I did the same again and he didn't seem to be up for the challenge that time either which surprised me because he really was and is a top, top player, and we earned a 1-1 draw.

Once you get a sense that you are on top of a particular opponent you can intimidate them in a way.”

On Rooney, who Craigan controlled in Northern Ireland's 1-0 win against England at Windsor seven years ago, the former Motherwell ace said: “Rooney was only a kid at the time and he was a little bit hot-headed but he was still a quality player. I think as the years have gone by he has learnt a lot.”

One of Craigan's favourite matches was when Northern Ireland beat Spain 3-2 in 2006 thanks to a David Healy hat-trick.

Craigan was up against the great Raul and ended up taking home a special souvenir.

“Playing against Raul was a big one for me. He was a great player. I don't think Raul ever played again for Spain after we beat them 3-2 in Belfast. I swapped jerseys with him after the match so my claim to fame is that I retired Raul.”

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