he story of Jim Morris was so good Disney made a film about. In The Rookie, baseball pitcher Morris – played by Dennis Quaid – emerges from coaching a high school team to play in the major leagues for the first time at the age of 35. Paco Craig did not move into teaching after he left West Ham’s academy, but he has spent nine years outside British professional football. Just as he was on course to finally make his Football League debut with Wycombe Wanderers at the age of 27, coronavirus swept across the world and brought his dream to a shuddering halt.
Unless he becomes a Premier League regular, Paco is unlikely to become as famous as his dad, Mikey Craig, who played bass in Culture Club. “I’m no musician but I get my athleticism from dad,” says Craig. “He was a good sprinter. My endurance is from mum: even after she’d had us she did a good time in the marathon! I’m blessed with that combination.”
Craig grew up at the West Ham academy, but the club let him go in 2011. “I went to Sheffield United and did well with their reserves. But they said they were going to go with a boy a year younger than me, who they were nurturing through. Turned out to be Harry Maguire, so they made the right decision there!”
After a stint in non-league, he accepted a soccer scholarship at Young Harris College, a liberal arts university in Georgia. Craig ended up staying in the US for eight years, where he played for Rocket City United and Ocala Stampede before a successful spell at Louisville City in the USL Championship, the country’s second tier.
“We won back-to-back championships, so in any other country we’d have gone up, but that’s not how MLS works,” says Craig from the family home in High Barnet. “I’ve not got a Green Card so I would count as one of the eight international spots at an MLS club, and they reserve those for an Ibrahimovic or a South American baller. I was getting no love from MLS and was done dominating the USL. So I thought ‘screw it’ – why not take a risk and search for something better.”
Craig left the US last November and set up a trial at QPR. “It was supposed to be for three days but it turned into five weeks. I fitted in at training, played a few Under-23 games and was really happy. It confirmed what I believed: that I could play at that standard. Then Mark Warburton said there was no deal on the table for me. He was very upfront and honest, but I was frustrated I couldn’t prove I could play in the Championship.”
Warburton helped get Craig an opportunity at Wycombe, who were challenging for a place in the League One play-offs before the EFL was suspended. “Wycombe was a whole different style: rougher, more direct, more simple, but effective. After about six weeks on trial they gave me a one-month contract to see how I did in games. It was going well and I was really excited. Then the virus hit and everything stopped.”
Having been so close to making a belated breakthrough, Craig is in limbo again. But he is inured to it now. “I’m OK with being told ‘no’. At 18 it was a shock to the system – your compass is spinning around, you don’t know where to go. But it’s all a matter of time. Nearly every pro has been released or rejected by one club or other. One thing I’ve learned is that no two pros had the same road to success.”
Unlike Morris, who took up teaching after seven years in the minor leagues, Craig’s only job has been as a professional footballer. “West Ham gave me my education. Things I learned there made me ready to play. And I’ve grown as a player in many ways because I’ve grown as a man.” Majoring in psychology also helped him stay balanced. “Psychology was fascinating and I’ve taken a lot from it. Not so much the theories of Freud or Jung, but an understanding of the subject that made me question things and applying their ideas to my own situations, all to my benefit.”
Craig turns 28 in October, but believes time is still on his side. “A lot of top pros are still at their physical peak at 35 – that’s something to hold on to. I’m in the best shape I can be. I’m not worried about my age until a coach brings it up, then there’s a pause and I think ‘Oh no’!”
The uncertainty of his present situation is difficult though. “Self-isolation is mentally challenging. I think ‘What am I running for?’ There’s nothing on the horizon. But I’m very aware a lot of people are in much worse situations. I look at my goals, not the restrictions. If I can’t get a contract in the EFL, I will go to Europe. I’m open-minded. I just want to be a footballer.”
Next man up
Scott Pollock is one of the few players in League Two who has more social media followers than his club. Northampton Town have high hopes for the tall and slender midfielder, a Cobblers season-ticket holder who they signed from their community trust programme 18 months ago. The 19-year-old, who developed a huge following online through his performances for Hashtag United, is quiet and academic, and has just received the highest possible grade for his Btec in Sport. Pollock is keeping his followers entertained during lockdown with the over-the-house challenge, although he will have to wait until next season now to add to his 20 appearances in League Two.
The tragic news of Christian Mbulu’s sudden death last week at the age of 23, rocked all those at Morecambe and Crewe but also at Millwall where he was a regular for their Under-23s. Signed from Brentwood Town, Mbulu played at centre-back for Millwall in the Professional Development League for two seasons, captaining them in 2017, before moving to Motherwell. The death of this friendly and intelligent young Eastender has devastated former teammates now based all across these isles, from West Ham to Lincoln City, Newport County to Sligo Rovers.
Chelsea are unlikely to hang bunting along the King’s Road but we can expect their Under-23s to soon be crowned Premier League 2 champions for the first time since 2014. Chelsea led Division One by three points from Leicester when the academy season was abandoned with four games left.
The bigger question is about relegation and promotion. Ten points from safety, Wolves could have few complaints if sent down, but second-bottom Southampton trail three clubs by six points so could have survived.
Who to promote from Division Two is rather tougher: the winners (West Ham are top) go straight up, with the next four playing off for the other promotion spot. Given that Manchester United – surprisingly relegated two years ago – are only three points behind the Hammers with a game in hand, they may both get the nod.
This week in 1989
Thirty-one years ago this week, teenager Graham Alexander was playing as a No10 for Scunthorpe reserves at Preston. Nearly 23 years later, Alexander was back at Deepdale to make the 1,023rd and final appearance of his extraordinary career – 421 of them for Preston.
He was 40 when he came off the bench for the last few minutes of the final game of the season to bid the fans farewell. Preston were trailing Charlton 2-1 in injury time when Alexander had a chance to send in a cross from a free-kick. After being encouraged by a young teammate to shoot, Alexander promptly curled the ball into the net at the Town End. It was an extraordinary finish to an extraordinary career. “If I could live just 20 seconds of my career again, it would be scoring with my last ever kick for Preston,” Alexander said recently. “It was absolutely perfect in every way.”