Saturday, 19 May 2012

Craig Hignett: An Appreciation

A new series of appreciations to past players begins by looking back at the Scouse Scholes...

In his own inimitable way, Anthony Vickers recently asked Boro fans to name Boro's unsung heroes.

And I can think of no one more "unsung" than the underrated, underestimated and underappreciated Craig Hignett, who was a key cog in the Boro attack during the end of the Lennie Lawrence years and a large part of the Bryan Robson era.

That he was not a Teessider, but a Merseysider, mattered not one iota to neither the fans nor him. Indeed, he once admitted that he "loved it" in the North-East and would "never move again". That his wife and in-laws are from Middlesbrough no doubt helps, as does the fact that the town reminds him of where he grew up.

But, moving on to the football...

"Higgy" was one of many who didn't make it at Liverpool. Fortunately, he got the chance to develop at Crewe Alexandra before Lennie Lawrence brought him to Boro in November 1992, three months into the first ever Premier League campaign. Despite our failure to avoid the drop that season, he remained a key figure as we gradually forced our way back into the top division and later into two domestic cup finals... before we dropped back into English football's second tier. Again. Still, we would be back at the top before long, and there was even another cup final to look forward to along the way.

What made him so significant to the team, for me, is that he was simply a high-scoring midfielder. Whenever our forward line misfired, or whenever we were having a bad day, you could count on him to wake us up and guarantee a result a lot of the time. He was very much like a Scouse Scholes, in that if he wasn't in the same class as the Manchester United legend, he seemed to have most of his gifts. He could head, he could cross, he was a brilliant passer, and he could score from long range. Better still, he was a dead ball specialist; not once can I remember him missing a penalty in a Boro shirt!

Whether he was playing alongside Nick Barmby, Juninho or Paul Merson, he remained significant in so many key moments during the early years of the Riverside Revolution. The first competitive goal ever to be scored at the Riverside, against Chelsea; numerous vital cup goals, including the opener against Liverpool in January 1997, the tying penalty in that epic against Chesterfield, and the last-minute clincher against Reading in 1998; his defence splitting passes, the most memorable being those that set up Merson for his goals in the League Cup semi-final in 1998; and possibly the best Boro team goal I have ever seen, which finished with him diving in to put us 3-1 ahead at Old Trafford!

One can't forget his thunderbolt against Reading during our last successful promotion campaign, either. The Royals had come to the Riverside to defend, and looked like frustrating us to a 0-0 draw until Higgy unleashed a stunning long-range drive that had Ali Brownlee screaming. An especially significant goal, as it broke Reading's confidence and Boro went on to score three more. And, of course, there was his crucial double strike in the game we absolutely had to win that season. It was a great send-off if there ever was one.

Craig Hignett's goals for the Boro

But why did it have to be a send-off? The truth is, even though the fans loved him, and he was a great servant to the club, he never seemed to be a manager's favourite. Either Robson never really wanted, or could never quite figure out how, to fit him into the same team as Barmby and Juninho.

It's quite probable that Robson also took Higgy's faults into account, too; like Scholes, he wasn't fearsome enough in the tackle, and he had a tendency to not track back enough, or even drift out of games when things weren't going for him. One still wonders where he was during Juninho's one-man-show at Elland Road in May 1997, although you could argue such an energy-sapping season had finally caught up with him.

More importantly, Higgy was the sort who would eventually atone for his mistakes - and he would tend to do so in style, scoring or setting up vital goals. Did he really deserve to be marginalised in favour of a past-his-best Paul Gascoigne, especially after he'd taken a pay cut to stay at Boro following 1996/97? I'm sure Gazza was wondering that, too - which is probably why he made the unforgettable gesture of giving Higgy his loser's medal on Cup Final day.

Once Higgy's time at Boro was up, he decided to try his luck north of the border with Aberdeen, but failed to settle and hence moved back down south to Barnsley, where he had an infinitely more successful spell. Then he moved to Blackburn, where he was to get the League Cup winners' medal that had eluded him twice. After three years at Ewood, with a loan spell at Coventry in between, he moved to Leicester, Darlington and various other lower league clubs, before calling it a day. He was never really as good after leaving Boro though.

It's a tribute to Higgy's understated, but unquestionable impact on the club that the McClaren's and Southgate's of this world were able to realise that a player like him is key to providing a vital attacking spark; think Carbone, Geremi, Zenden and Tuncay. If Mogga finds a similar player, we may yet be able to reach for the skies again.

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