When I first moved to north Wales in 2006, the name ‘Nathan Craig’ was prominent in the local press and rarely absent from the lips of local cognoscenti in conversations about football in the area. At that time, Nathan seemingly had the world at his feet. I remember the article in the Caernarfon Herald which trumpeted his professional deal at Everton in 2008, at the age of 18. He was the most promising player to emerge from the area since Malcolm Allen and Iwan Roberts joined Watford in the 1980s. In 2007-08 his school, Ysgol Syr Hugh Owen in Caernarfon won the Welsh Cup. As a 12 year old, he had won a national football skills competition on BBC’s Football Focus.
By 2009, Nathan had played 20 times for Wales youth teams, and was called up to Bryan Flynn’s U21 side. I travelled to Wrexham to photograph his debut for the Under 21s alongside Andy King, Darcy Blake , Neil Taylor and Ched Evans, who have all since stepped up to become regulars in the senior side. I was surprised to see that even at the age of 19, the youngest player in the team, Craig was given responsibility for all set pieces, corners and free kicks in that game.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email a week after that match. It was from Nathan Craig and he was asking if I had any photographs of his appearance. That in itself isn’t unusual – I often get players asking for pictures of themselves, but there was something in this request which touched a chord. Other enquiries are dripping with hubris. When one Prestatyn Town player was asked for a £10 contribution towards my expenses, he simply stole the image he wanted and bragged about it online. ‘He should be paying you for letting him take it’ laughed his team-mates.
Nathan Craig’s email was different. He was polite and friendly. There was no air of arrogance at all. I was touched by his obvious pride in wearing a Welsh shirt even at Under 21 level. I sent him his photograph with my best wishes. I was in no doubt that one day he would make his full debut for his country, and I resolved to be there to cover that one. In return, he turned up at our local junior football club to present the end of season awards. Again, he was polite and friendly and the kids loved him. He was living proof that it was possible for a young player to make it in this area despite the geographical and social disadvantages.
Nathan’s sweet left foot and in particular his set-piece delivery saw him progress to Everton’s reserve team in 2009, and by 2010/11 he became a regular in the ELP side’s second eleven before making his first team debut against BATE Borisov in the Europa League. Everything was going to plan, and at the end of last season, Nathan waited to receive the contract offer that would represent the next stage in his development. That offer never came.
The general expectation was that Nathan Craig would join another one of the Lancashire clubs further down the professional ladder. There was talk about Oldham. Maybe Bury or Tranmere would come in for him? He had been with Everton since the age of 12 – surely they would look after him and set him up with another club. They didn’t. He was on his own. You might have expected somebody in the Welsh set-up to have put the promising player in touch with a club. They didn’t, and Bryan Flynn left the boy he had called “the best Welsh player of the tournament” in the 2008 UEFA European Under-17 Championships out of his next squad.
Nathan’s agents set him up with trials at Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv. Israel seemed a bizarre choice for a young lad from Caernarfon, and things didn’t work out. He waited for another offer, another trial. When that didn’t materialise he started looking further down the ladder. Surely he would be a huge coup for a team in the Welsh Premier League. Ambitious Bala Town were interested, and Nathan went on trial for a couple of weeks with TNS. Nothing came of either deal, and local football was surprised to say the least when Lock Stock Welsh Alliance club Caernarfon Town announced his signing last month. Nathan Craig of Everton currently plays his football on the fields of Gwalchmai, Nefyn, and Bodedern.
This is a sobering tale for the best young players of the area who spend two or three days a week travelling 3 hours a night travelling back and forth to Liverpool, Manchester, Chester and Oldham. Just yesterday I was told the story of one of Nathan’s team-mates at Caernarfon, who had been signed by Crewe as a boy, but who was unable to fit in with a crowd of players who spent the day taking the piss out of his accent. Nathan’s story shows that even when you make it, you can never be sure you’ve made it.
So Nathan Craig now has the opportunity for another type of success. Instead of becoming comfortable and wealthy and playing the occasional League Cup tie at Goodison Park, he can become the type of local hero that we haven’t seen since the 1970s. The young player could help his local side get back into the Welsh Premier League and recapture the glory years of the mid 1980s. There is certainly interest in the town. The first derby between Caernarfon Town and Caernarfon Wanderers drew 2,000 people last year. “I am tremendously proud to be able to represent the club I grew up watching as a boy”, says Nathan, “ and hope, that for the time being at least, I can help the Town achieve its ambitions of winning the league this year, and bring some silverware back to The Oval.” Let’s hope he has a long and successful career at whatever level he plays. He’s given his youth to the game, and he deserves his chance.