Two years of Harrison

Two years ago today, Craig Harrison took over the reigns at Park Hall Stadium.

However, Harrison had never considered football management until a chance meeting at a surprise birthday party.

Back in 2007, when The Saints were still managed by Ken McKenna, the former Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Preston North End defender was thrown a surprise 30th birthday – and the entertainment was provided by a band fronted by former Wrexham midfielder Gareth Owen.

The Easy Street musician was the manager of Airbus UK Broughton at the time and had been looking for an assistant manager ever since the departure of his trusted sidekick, Alan Bickerstaffe.

Craig Harrison, now the successful Director of Football at The New Saints, recalls the chance meeting: “It’s really funny how Gareth and I met.

“There was a surprise party organised to celebrate my 30th and his band was booked to come along and play. We had a brief chat on the night and that is when I heard about the vacancy.

“I mulled over what he had said to me for a couple of weeks and then got in touch. He offered me the role and I straight away started watching their performances.

“Since retiring from football I had always wanted to get back into the game and Gareth’s offer was the perfect opportunity for me.

“With Gareth being a former professional I had a great deal of respect for him and because we have similar backgrounds we both seemed to have the same ideas about how to take Airbus forward.”

Gateshead born Harrison, now 36, celebrates two years at TNS this month having joined the club in December 2011. In that time he has guided the Park Hall-based club to two Welsh Premier League titles and the Welsh Cup.

But it is a long way from where it all started.

The six foot tall defender signed YTS forms with Middlesbrough as a 16-year-old and was given his first team debut two years later by then manager, and England legend, Bryan Robson.

By the time Harrison broke into the side there was a huge buzz on Teesside, with the attraction of Robson and the generosity of Chairman Steve Gibson, resulting in the arrival of the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho.

However, despite making an instant impact on the club’s fortunes, Harrison’s career was to become a mix of unforgettable moments and horrendous injuries.

He recalls: “I had broken into the first team at Middlesbrough and everything was going well until I suffered a burst appendix and was out of the game for 18 months.

“To be honest I was lucky to be alive as it was a really horrible injury – I ended up spending seven or eight weeks in hospital.

“By the time I had recovered and was ready to fight for my place Middlesbrough had signed German international left back Christian Ziege.

“To be fair to Bryan Robson, he told me I was second choice and would feature in the cup games and when Ziege was unavailable, but at this stage of my career I was 21-years-old and had already made 30 or 40 first team appearances so I decided it was best for me to drop down a division and join Crystal Palace.”

Before joining the Eagles, where he would go on to play under Trevor Francis, Steve Bruce and Ian Dowie, he enjoyed a brief loan spell when David Moyes took him to Preston North End. But after impressing during seven appearances for the North West club, Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith splashed £200,000 to take Harrison to Selhurst Park.

“I enjoyed my time at Palace and during my first season I played in almost every game,” he added.

“At the start of my second season in London, Steve Bruce took over from Smith and things continued to go well, until, in January 2002, I suffered a double compound fracture and never played football again.

“It was a similar injury to the one that ended David Busst’s career – it was a horrific injury that required blood transfusions, skin graft and about 20 or so screws to fix me up.

“It was a really complex operation and it didn’t go to plan and I had to have a second one – it was at this point that I knew my football career was over.

“The surgeon just turned around to me and said I would not be playing competitive football ever again.”

But despite having his childhood dreams torn away at the tender age of 25, Harrison prefers to look back at the good times in life and has since being trying to coach what he has learned to good effect by firstly guiding The Wingmakers up the division and then TNS to two titles.

“I played under some fantastic managers but I suppose if I was asked to name the ones who had a big bearing on my career I would have to mention Bryan Robson, David Moyes and Dave Geddis,” added Harrison.

“Robbo was the man who gave me my league debut after signing for the club as a YTS. He was always really helpful and I even got to play alongside him a couple of times which was amazing.

“And while I have always been a defender I would say it was David Moyes – now manager at Manchester United – who taught me the real art of defending. He would keep us behind for extra sessions and really focus on positional play.

“Finally there is Dave Geddis, who at the time was the youth and reserve team boss at Boro, he had a huge influence on me in my early years and remains a close friend to this day.”

It is not just football bosses that Harrison has learnt from – when you line-up alongside side some of the greatest footballers of a generation and come close to reaching a major cup final at Wembley on three separate occasions – how can you do anything but learn?

“In many ways I was very unlucky to have my career cut so short, but for such a short professional career I did an awful lot,” he continued.

“I played in the Premier League, I have a Division One winners medal and I have played alongside the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Juninho, Paul Ince, Mark Schwarzer, Paul Merson, Bryan Robson, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Neil Ruddock and Andy Johnson.

“I also played in three League Cup semi-finals, where with Crystal Palace we beat Liverpool 2-1 in the first leg at Selhurst Park before eventually getting stuffed 5-1 at Anfield.”