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The Non-League Football Paper

Craig Harrison Big Interview: Career-ending injury made me bitter… but now I want to reach the top as a manager

Pic: Mark Fletcher/Shutter Press

THE last thing a 30-year-old Craig Harrison wanted to do was get back into football. Nearly five years earlier, his playing career that boasted promotion to the Premier League with Middlesbrough had come to an abrupt end.

Playing in a reserve match for Crystal Palace against Reading, the left-back suffered a horrific leg break. Compound fractures to both the tibia and fibula in his left leg changed his life.

It took him two years to go and watch a live game of football again, and even then it was only because he was dragged along to watch England at Old Trafford by father-in-law Les.

Harrison admits he didn’t handle the disappointment of losing his career well and he’s since spoken openly about the depression that engulfed him.

He bought property in Spain and renovated property in England that he sold on while football, certainly football management, stayed off his radar.

“At the time I thought I was happy,” Harrison says. “And I was, personally. But until I got back into football and got a taste of it, I then realised I wasn’t as happy as I thought I was. There was still something missing out of my life.

“I make no bones about it, previously it was the last thing I wanted to do. Between the age of 26 and 30 I could have probably spoken quite passionately about it as something I didn’t want to do.

Unjust

“I just felt a bit sorry for myself and that I’d been given a bum deal really. I’d worked hard; I’d got the opportunity. As a player I always prepared as best I could and I was very lucky to play a handful of games in the Premier League and a lot of games in the Championship.

“I just felt sorry for myself, and I was a bit bitter. But that’s what drives me on as much as anything now. That feeling of unjustness and not being able to have a long career. So I’m going to do everything I can to have the best and longest career in football management.”

His route back happened by coincidence when wife Danielle booked a band for a surprise 30th birthday.

Playing guitar was former Wrexham player Gareth Owen. At the time he was player-manager at Welsh Premier League side Airbus UK and on the hunt for an assistant-manager. In a drunken conversation, he offered Harrison the job.

“Gareth’s a bit older than me, but I’d played against him when I was on loan at Preston and he was at Wrexham,” Harrison says. “So we knew each other through football circles and we got talking.

“He said, probably more out of courtesy, ‘I’m looking for a new assistant – do you want to be involved with football?’ To be honest it was a common courtesy conversation. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’ve moved on from that’.

“A couple of weeks later I saw in the local paper they still hadn’t filled the post. My other half persuaded me to give Gareth a text to see what was going on. He said he was still looking so we had a chat and he offered it to me. I took it. That was in December. By the end of the season Gareth had moved on and they gave me the manager’s job.”

Harrison says returning to the game was immediately like putting back on an old pair of slippers. He admits his over-enthusiasm upset people at first, and it took him a while to get used to dealing with part-time footballers who had to juggle playing with work and family.

Desperate to make up for lost time he started his coaching badges – he now holds his UEFA Pro Licence – and in December 2011 was headhunted by TNS.

What followed was more than half-a-decade of dominance as the Saints won six Welsh Premier League titles in a row, lifted the Welsh Cup four times and scooped a hat-trick of Welsh League Cups.

Last season they set a world record, previously held by Dutch giants Ajax, for the number of wins in a country’s top flight division – 27 victories back to back.

Harrison has also experienced managing in UEFA Champions League qualifiers, taking his side around Europe each summer in quest of the Holy Grail.

“The time I spent at TNS is priceless, absolutely priceless,” he says. “From a learning curve as a coach and manager and as a person as well. There were that many different scenarios and problems, a diversity of teams and games in different countries, it’s been priceless.

Work ethic

“For a football education it was unbelievable. I will be forever indebted and grateful for the success I had at TNS. But it was the right time, the right place, to move into the English system and try to be as successful as I can here.

Craig Harrison, right, in his playing days for Crystal Palace

“I’ve still got the same drive and desire as I had the day I moved into the TNS job. I want to be the best I can be, full stop. I want to manage at the highest level I can manage. I will get to where I get to, but what will never happen is a lack of hard work and desire and doing everything I can to be that manager. That’s all I ask from my players, too.

“Everyone’s got levels and finds that level. That level is controlled by ability, a bit of a luck, but the one thing that will never be thrown in my direction is that I could have maybe worked harder.”

The work ethic that pursued relentless success has moved back to the north-east. Harrison has been linked to a number of jobs, including Wrexham, over the years but National League new boys Hartlepool United ticked all the boxes, both on and off the pitch.

Brought up in Gateshead and a player at Boro alongside Paul Gascoigne, Juninho and Fabrizio Ravenelli, he knows what makes the area tick and what Pools fans expect.

“I understand it’s these people’s lives,” he says. “They spend their hard-earned money, they work very hard during the week to maybe find a bit of solace at the weekend with football. They’ve been through a tough time.

“But there’s one thing for sure that I think will help us, and I understand that. I’ve been brought up in a working-class family where my dad used to take me to watch Newcastle. That was when they weren’t great, so I like to think I know what people want as a bare minimum.

“I think people will forgive mistakes if everyone’s giving their lot.” Already he’s signed promotion know-how in former Cambridge United attacker Ryan Donaldson and winger Jack Munns, a title winner with Cheltenham Town.

Ex-Southport and Chester midfielder Luke George brings the sterner side of the National League and former England Under-21 keeper Scott Loach boasts real pedigree. The latest arrival is left-back Blair Adams, who was also at Cambridge United last season.

Harrison knows the doom and gloom of last season’s relegation from the Football League needs to lift quickly and he’s confident it will.

“It’s getting that positive mental attitude back again,” he says. “Probably for the last four or five years, Hartlepool have been at the bottom end of League Two. They’ve just survived and done enough. But now it’s roles reversed. We’ll be in a position where we are one of the favourites in the league.

Determined

“You’ve got to embrace that because if not it can consume you. It’s something we really need to do as quickly as we can. With the players we’ve got coming in, and the players we’ve already got, we have a lot of experience there.

“It’s not going to be about ability. It’s not going to be about application. It’s really a case of how we move things forward and get a positive mindset as soon as possible.”

The training ground, Harrison says, is where the most important hard work will be done in an environment he has promised to make enjoyable for his squad as he aims to replicate the values that made TNS a success.

Naturally, Hartlepool fans will want that instantly. Harrison is not naïve enough to think it will come easy and he acknowledges there will be times when harsh words will be said or they have to take a point from a long midweek trip and be happy.

But with his infectious personality and drive to be the best he can be, he wants to take his new club along with him.

“We’re coming up to the first day of pre-season and it will probably be the first, and most important, thing I say to the players,” Harrison says.

TNS celebrate a Champions League goal during Harrison’s time in charge

“If we’re all pulling in the same direction and on the bus together, then it’s amazing how far that can get you. The rest of the stuff gives you small marginal gains and all that added together is brilliant. But the bulk of it will be that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, everyone knows which way we’re going and is 100 per cent committed.

“If you’re not then you’ll go by the wayside and we’ll move on. I think it’s important from the top end to the bottom, including the supporters, everyone is hungry to win football games and give everything they’ve got.

“Like I said, you’ll be amazed how far it takes you.”

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