Late-era Darrell Clarke was partially characterised by the wildly inconsistent results of his forays into the transfer market. For every Billy Bodin there was a Tom Nicholls, for every Liam Sercombe there was a Stefan Payne. But a much less-heralded purchase has ended up providing a much more lasting legacy for the club. Step forward Tony Craig.
If you type the words ‘gnarled old pro’ into Google it yields only 1 result, and that is a full screen image of Tony Craig’s face. Nose not so much broken as utterly destroyed, staring back at you with dead-eyed malevolence. There is no text at all, but there doesn’t need to be – his gaze says one thing and one thing only: “Go on, just fucking try it. I used to play for Millwall”. Because despite his dedication to the Gas, and despite the fact that he puts his ageing body on the line week in, week out, there’s something about Craig that is still ineffably South East London – if the white quarters of his shirt look a bit darker that those of the rest of the team, it’s because he has special dispensation to wear his old Millwall shirt underneath. This is by no means a criticism.
Initially, fans were sceptical to say the least. During the turbulent first few weeks of last season, when it became ever so slightly clearer each week that we were, to put it bluntly, in the shit, gasheads were casting about for a scapegoat. Reluctant to pin it on our beloved DC (hallowed be his name) or any of the revered ‘promotion heroes’, disparaging remarks were made about Tony, and for a while the accepted wisdom seemed to be that Craig was a symptom of everything that was going wrong – that he was, in short, crap. The problem for these naysayers was that, in fact, he wasn’t crap. When Tony was picked game in, game out by first DC and then GC, and as it became clearer that our preposterous, top-6 goal difference was the only thing (apart from the Clarke-Harris miracle) that gave us a chance of staying up, people’s minds started changing. As slowly as Tony’s turning circle at first, but then with a vociferousness that grew with every game. Tony’s game didn’t change – that would be like expecting the law of gravity to change – he still stalked the 18 yard box like an ageing, pigeon-toed cockney panther, but the opinion of the masses was inexorably bent to his will.
I’m not ashamed to admit that Tony Craig is by far my favourite Rovers player. You might criticise his distribution, but that is part of his charm. Tony don’t distribute. If any midfielder doesn’t drop back to give Tony a simple pass out of defence, then that really is their lookout.
If you are still amongst the dwindling band of doubters, I would submit two final pieces of evidence. Firstly, his rigid pogo into the Thatcher’s end when James Clarke scored against Fleetwood betrayed an almost catatonic level of competitiveness that we had not seen before – a man so unused to normal human emotion that in that moment of joy, he had no idea how to respond and so just leapt backwards for no apparent reason. And secondly, much has been made of his mastery of ‘the dark arts’, and this is no idle boast. If you watch Tony Craig jog heavily around off the ball, as I have, then you will notice how often, as an opposition attack is building, a striker in Tony’s vicinity, who is just setting off on a run, mysteriously falls over.