For Paco Craig, the 2011/12 season was spent playing in front of a few hundred fans in National League North. Six years on and the defender regularly plays in front of packed stadiums with as many as 25,000 fans looking on. Rather surprisingly, it was a step back from senior football which led to the 25-year-old’s career progression.
“My mother was the brains behind me getting back into education and I love her for that,” says Craig. “After bouncing around lower league teams and then finding Bishop’s Stortford, I was a little bit jaded with football as a whole. I will always appreciate the lessons learned but I wasn’t always enjoying myself and as a 18-year-old, I was a little bit lost.
“So going to college in the States just seemed like another crazy experience that sounded good to me at the time. The uncertainty of my situation at non-league was a gamble I didn’t like the feel of it and an opportunity to experience a whole different way of life while still getting to play football was appealing to me.”
But before his time in the States, Craig began his playing career at the Academy of Football, West Ham United’s famed youth academy. Although he would leave the club before he had the chance to make his senior debut, the principles he was taught at his first club have stayed with him throughout his career to date.
“West Ham gave me a very good education of football,” he says. “This was where I was able to start refining my raw abilities, especially in the latter years and without this foundation, I wouldn’t be close to the player I am becoming.
“Of course I would have loved to stay longer, getting a pro contract from a Premier League team is every players’ dream and I am also from London so it would have been perfect. But I was naive and had much to learn about achieving success.”
After leaving the Irons, the aforementioned spell at Bishop’s Stortford was next for Craig, a club who, at the time, were in National League North, or Conference North as it was known then.
It would give the defender from the capital his first taste of senior football but any notions of it being a shock to the system after an upbringing in the Academy of Football were quickly dismissed.
“It wasn’t a huge shock as I’ve always kept my canvas blank when entering a new environment. But it was the first time I got to compete for real points in a league alongside men so it was a fantastic experience.
“If West Ham was were I was fine tuning my technique and playing ‘attractive’ football, Bishop’s Stortford matured me as a man and showed me how to compete to win games not just to look pretty while doing it.”
It was a learning curve for Craig who went on to make 23 appearances that season. He also scored his first senior goal that year, scoring in front of 176 fans as his side defeated Eastwood Town 4-3, a club who have since dissolved.
After a year of uncertainty in non-league, Craig followed his mother’s advice and took the plunge to step away from senior football and move to America to accept a scholarship offer from Young Harris College in Georgia, the same college that Saint Louis midfielder Lewis Hilton attended.
“I had always been a good student in school but if the subjects or particular professor didn’t captivate me, I always just allowed it to roll on by,” he says.
“This was the same at college. It was quite a peaceful and relaxed three-and-a-half years for me. I was often confused by other students subjecting themselves to unhealthy life practices just to squeeze a few more points on a test.”
His time on the field at Young Harris was an unprecedented success. He was named his league’s Freshman of the Year and followed that up with a Player of the Year title the following season, becoming only the second player to achieve this feat. He finished his college career with 17 goals and 14 assists and combined this with playing for fourth-tier side Ocala Stampede over the summer, where he also made the team of the season. Despite the success, it was his time off the pitch which Craig chooses to comment on.
“I really enjoyed my time at college and it allowed so many other aspects of my personality room to flourish. This definitely fleshed me out as an individual and while I may not have been getting pushed enough to get better at football, my overall performance was also developing as I did in life.”
Craig’s time at college had clearly paid off but on his arrival in the States, he could have bypassed the whole education system as a whole, a decision which he is glad not to have taken.
“Since playing non-league at 18, I felt like I could have played USL the first year I flew over here but that wasn’t the path laid out for me. I was so much as tempted because I had no real connections or doorways opening for me.
“So I remained patient and almost removed it from my mind. I had to stay in the present and live the day I had in front of me to the fullest. In that regard, I always knew I could play I just had to stay patient and make the most of my reality. Anyway, I had to see my mother’s smile when I graduated with a degree.”
With his college days finally behind him, Craig sort his first professional contract and after impressing on trial in pre-season, his dream came true when he signed for Louisville City ahead of the their second ever campaign in the USL, America’s second tier.
The transition between college football and the USL can be a large one, with college sides varying massively in strength, but it was not a problem for the former West Ham youngster.
“The step-up wasn’t a problem for me. The only things I was focusing on were fitting in with the team – as that helps me play my best game – and then training as hard as I could.
“It took me a while to start games in the beginning and so I had to use that patience I was able to cultivate at college. It wasn’t always easy though, not even travelling at times for the away game, but that’s how football goes.”
After finally breaking into the first team, Craig went on to make 19 league appearances in his debut season, scoring twice as his side made the Eastern Conference playoff final.
The following year, with the English defender playing an even bigger role in the squad, Louisville went one step further and won the USL Cup, defeating the winners of the Western Conference playoffs Swope Park Rangers 1-0 in the final, with former Tottenham Hotspur striker Cameron Lancaster scoring the winner. Craig was then named in the team of the season.
For the former Bishop’s Stortford man, who is the son of Mikey Craig, the bass player of legendary band Culture Club, the success he had already achieved in his pro career had crept up on him.
“I was extremely lucky to play for Louisville, as when I arrived, I knew I was with a team that could become successful – it already had been in its debut season.
“Looking back on it, we were just taking it week by week trying to do our best and so we were successful before we even knew it. I definitely didn’t expect it but every athlete goes into their sport trying to achieve everything possible and so those were the standards we had set, it was just a great feeling when we had reached those expectations.”
Going into this season, Louisville were the team everyone wanted to beat after their success but they’ve remained consistent, currently sitting second in the Eastern Conference. Although they’re nearly twenty points behind run away leaders FC Cincinnati, their playoff spot is all but guaranteed and they will be looking to defend their title.
Craig has missed just two league games all season, starting in all 29 of his appearances and has scored twice. He knows that there is still a lot to play for this season but what does he have his sights set on in the long-term?
“My future ambitions are to continue playing football at as high a level as possible for as long as possible,” he answers. “I would love to play in MLS but my biggest dream is to return to England or anywhere in Europe and play at a high level so that I can be nearer to my family.
“I am taking measure to look after my body so that I can play for many more years and feel that I am only becoming stronger as I mature.”
It would appear that there is still plenty to come from the 25-year-old and although his career so far has been very successful, he is determined to improve on it even further.