If you had suggested to Nathan Craig last January, when he was still clocking on for a nine-hour day in the “real” world, that eight months later he would be preparing to start his second Football League match in the heat of a Devon derby, he definitely would not have believed you.
“I’d have laughed at you,” said Torquay United’s 20-year-old Welsh midfielder, who is poised to hold his place against Plymouth Argyle at Plainmoor tomorrow.
Last New Year, Craig was working full-time at a builders merchant in his home town of Caernarfon, and trying to fathom how seven years at Everton seemed to mean so little in terms of a career in football.
“I was clocking on at 8.30 each day, training once a week and then playing for Caernarfon Town on a Saturday,” he recalled. “I’d started at Everton when I was 12 years old, training there twice a week, and it got more and more as each year went by.
“By my GCSE year I was training at Everton five times a week. I ended up having a year as a professional, but in my last season they had two left-sided midfielders ahead of me and one of them [Diniyar Bilyaletdinov] had cost nearly £10 million, so I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere there.”
Craig, who had made a substitute appearance for the Toffees in a UEFA Europa League tie against BATE Borisov in December 2009, went on: “Plenty of people thought that someone like me would have no trouble getting a Championship or League One club, but I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy any more.”
He finally got a week-to-week trial at Plainmoor that turned into a monthly agreement and, suitably impressed, Torquay manager Martin Ling offered him a two-year contract in the summer.
Plenty of people have been quick to draw parallels between Craig and Eunan O’Kane, the Ulster-born midfielder who was also rejected by Everton before relaunching a career which recently took him to AFC Bournemouth for £175,000.
“Eunan was two years ahead of me, but we did share the same digs for a year, so we know each other quite well,” Craig added.
Ling said: “There are similarities between Nathan and Eunan, and I believe that Nathan also has the potential to be a very good player.”
Ling handed Craig his first senior start at Port Vale last Saturday, and the Gulls’ boss added: “I think he went under the radar a bit, because we’d had [ex-trainees] Niall Thompson and Kyrtis McKenzie both making their debuts. But Nathan was as good as we had last Saturday.
“I played him in the holding role, and I think it might be his best position, because he can get a bit more time on the ball there, he can pass it and his game-awareness is good.”
Craig only learned on the morning of the Vale match, after Craig Easton had failed a fitness test, that he was in the side.
“It wasn’t a problem – I don’t tend to get nervous any more, not after the last year or so. I just love the challenge of it all,” he said. “In fact, I was just pleased to get a full 90 minutes in – I hadn’t done that since I played in a reserve game at the end of last season. I was blowing a bit towards the end, but I got through it OK and it should do me the world of good.”
Ling reported that Easton (groin) is “20-80 against” being fit to face Argyle, so Craig looks booked for that second League start tomorrow.
‘I was just pleased to get a full 90 minutes in – I hadn’t done that since the end of last season’ – Nathan Craig