Stephen Craigan put his heart and soul into playing for Northern Ireland. Passion and commitment for his country burst out of his green shirt during 54 international appearances.
He loved nothing more than turning out in front of a packed house at Windsor Park and was part of a team that enjoyed memorable victories over England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark and almost qualified for the Euro 2008 finals.
Now ahead of his brilliant new column on Scottish football, starting in tomorrow's Belfast Telegraph, the recently retired Craigan has revealed just why playing for Northern Ireland meant everything to him.
“I always felt lucky to do it. Every time I played I wanted to do well enough in the game to earn another appearance for Northern Ireland. That was a big driving force for me,” said 35-year-old Craigan, who hung up the boots in the summer after a fine career in the SPL with Motherwell.
“I always felt that I was playing for my family. I was also playing for the fans. It's a wonderful feeling to stand at Windsor Park and feel you are representing every single person in that ground. If that doesn't motivate you, then you need a reality check. In football terms I lived for playing for Northern Ireland.”
And Craigan played extremely well, with his expert reading of the game and organisational abilities allied to an outstanding partnership with Aaron Hughes, helping Northern Ireland record some wonderful results in the mid-noughties.
“It was like a renaissance of Northern Ireland football and I take a lot of pride and feel privileged to have played in that period. But for a few results we could have qualified for a major championships which would have been fantastic,” said Craigan.
One key reason for not making it to the Euro 2008 finals was the then manager Nigel Worthington's decision to drop the reliable Craigan for a double header in Latvia and Iceland. Both games were lost and so was the chance to reach a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.
A philosophical Craigan says: “There was nobody more disappointed than me in Latvia or in Iceland, but we'll never know if we'd have won had I played. I don't think we should look back and think “if only”. I'm not one for having regrets.”
True to form Craigan, now a highly respected TV pundit, has no regrets about finishing playing at 35 as he gets to spend more time with his wife Elaine and young daughter Chloe, as well as his mum Yvonne in Comber and brothers Paul and Gary, though every day he admits missing his late father John, who sadly died earlier this year.
“When I played I did it for my dad, my mum and my brothers and of course for my wife and Chloe. To be honest when my dad died I didn't feel the same way about playing,” revealed Craigan, who this week is in Lilleshall acting as assistant to Northern Ireland under-19 coach Stephen Robinson.
“Near the end of my career I just wasn't enjoying it like in the past. I still did everything right in terms of training and build up but if we lost it became harder to take. There were lots of ups and downs on the mental side and I'm glad I took the decision to quit. Anyway I'd achieved everything I'd hoped to. The only thing I miss is winning games.
“Family time is crucial. I asked my wife the other day had I changed since I stopped playing and she said I had and that I wasn't up and down as much and was more on the one level. I'm more relaxed now and feel like a better person.”