Stephen Craigan: Why going head-to-head with Chris Sutton gets me all fired up
Ahead of the launch of his new Scottish football column, set to appear in the Belfast Telegraph every Saturday, ex-Northern Ireland ace Stephen Craigan on punditry fame, his colleagues, and Michael O'Neill's international reign
Stephen Craigan was a highly-respected defender in Scottish football at Partick Thistle and Motherwell for the best part of two decades. Later he was a successful coach at youth-team level and was even caretaker boss of the Fir Park outfit on two occasions. He also won 54 caps for Northern Ireland, starring in famous victories over England and Spain.
Perhaps it tells us something about the modern game and a lot about the superb job he is doing in his current role that the 42-year-old has become more renowned as a pundit than when he was a footballer.
Craigan is part of BT Sport's outstanding team covering the Scottish game. Alongside presenter Darrell Currie and the likes of Rangers legend Ally McCoist and former Celtic hero Chris Sutton, the Comber native has helped take punditry north of Hadrian's Wall to new levels in terms of insight, entertainment, wit and wisdom. There's been plenty of controversy too.
From tomorrow, Craigan will bring his astute and perceptive opinions to the Belfast Telegraph in a brilliant, brand new weekly column on Scottish football, offering his expert views on Celtic, Rangers and everything in between.
"Scottish football is in a fascinating place at the moment. Celtic and Rangers are going toe-to-toe for the title and in the respective managers Neil Lennon and Steven Gerrard you have two huge names and big characters," said Craigan.
"Beyond them from third to 12th it is the most competitive top flight in Scotland that I can remember because everyone feels they can get a result against each other."
Craigan the player was hard, fair and totally committed. As a pundit he's the same, though with his new-found fame comes criticism.
"I don't see myself as a famous person but it would be fair to say I'd be more recognisable as a pundit than I was as a player," he admitted. "I think part of that may be to do with the position I played. People don't really remember defenders. They remember goalscoring midfielders or centre forwards. I went under the radar as a player, which is fine, but when you come into the media industry it can be different.
"When people disagree with my views I do get criticism, especially with social media the way it is now, but you have to deal with that. I don't make comments for the sake of it to wind people up. I am honest in my opinion and call things the way I see them.
"To me, being a pundit is great fun. People say managing is the next best thing to playing. I would say punditry is. You get to enjoy yourself, watch football, talk football and it's a profession. You also get a different insight into the game.
"In the majority of games, I have no interest in who wins or loses. The result won't affect my life. As a pundit it's nice to work on a game, come home at night, close the door and have a Chinese and not have to worry about what happened in the game.
"Of course you still analyse your performance, like I did as a player, but for me preparation is key. If you do your research it helps because if you give an opinion you want to have facts and stats that can back it up."
So what about his relationship with McCoist and Sutton, who he has locked horns with many a time?
"We want people to watch Scottish football, so when you get chemistry and a rapport with people - and, yes, a rivalry - it helps," explained Craigan. "We aren't told to have opposite opinions but, by the same token, if you do disagree with someone, you stand up for your view. Guys like Ally and Chris were obviously big names as players and had higher profiles than me, but in a studio or commentary box that doesn't matter. You have to fight your corner, and I do that.
"They do keep you on your toes as you have no idea what they are going to say or what angle they will come from. I'm not saying we are all best mates but it's a privilege working beside them."
Husband to Elaine and dad to nine-year-old Chloe, Craigan's life is in Scotland these days having left Northern Ireland 25 years ago.
He remains a proud Ulsterman though, and maintains a huge interest in Northern Ireland's football fortunes.
"What Northern Ireland have done under Michael O'Neill has been great to see," said Craigan. "I'm just glad Michael is still with us because somewhere along the line I can't help thinking someone will come knocking on his door.
"He's a great figurehead for Northern Ireland and has taken interest in everything from the youth to the senior team, and the results have been excellent.
"Since Michael took over, Scotland have had six managers, which tells you a lot about both countries. I just hope Michael continues to be the Northern Ireland manager for years to come."