Tees Life catches up with former footballer Craig Hignett – scorer of the first-ever goal at Boro’s Riverside Stadium 22 years ago – who talks about his love for the club, his controversial departure as assistant to Aitor Karanka and his first spell as a manager with Hartlepool United…
Tees Life: The Riverside has been like your second home for the last 20 years – and you both got off to that great start when you scored the first ever goal at the stadium against Chelsea in 1995.
Higgy: It’s been 25 years now that I’ve been associated with the football club, in one guise or another. I suppose the Riverside is my second home. Everyone associates me with Middlesbrough, and it’s the place where I feel comfortable. I love coming here and watching games. That first match here was a great day. It was a massive difference to what we’d been used to at Ayresome Park. Ayresome was a great place but it was falling to bits. Along with Bryan Robson, this place was responsible for attracting a lot of players. I don’t think (Fabrizio) Ravanelli would have come if we were playing in an old shabby stadium. I remember my goal in that first match because people don’t stop talking about it! Nick Barmby went down the left, cut the ball across and I just remember having loads of time. I just put my foot through it and it flew in the top corner, so it looked better than what I’d intended.
TL: Do you think Bryan Robson appreciated you?
Higgy: I’d say no. I always felt I was a scapegoat. But at the same time I understood that. He’d spent £10m on two players – Barmby and then Juninho. If they were fit, I understood the politics and they had to play. But I never fell out with Robbo, he was great with me. It never ended badly with him, it was my decision to leave. The club wanted me to stay but the contract offer didn’t reflect that, so I moved on. But I scored two in my last game against Oxford and we won promotion back to the Premier League, so I thought it was a fitting way to go out.
TL: But you keep coming back, Higgy!
Higgy: I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing! I came back to work in the Academy first, learned my trade as a coach and got my qualifications. I then joined Hartlepool as Colin Cooper’s assistant and then came back here under Aitor Karanka, which was a big thrill for me. It was a fantastic job, something I couldn’t turn down, but it didn’t go the way I’d planned it to.
TL: Why didn’t it work out?
Higgy: I just think we were two different people. Aitor is one way, and I’m very straight. From pretty early on I knew it was going to be difficult. I don’t fall out with anyone but I do have opinions, and if people ask me I’ll tell them what I think. I’m my own man, and I’m not going to pander to anyone or say what other people want me to say, just to get on in life. I’ve seen enough people do that, and I’ve got no respect for the people who do. The breaking point came after a game when Blackburn scored a last-minute equaliser. Aitor questioned my loyalty and I took offence to it. I’ve been accused of being bitter about Aitor but that’s not the case. This wasn’t far off my dream job. I was assistant manager at a club I love. It’s a club I’d love to manage one day but I knew I had to learn my trade first. But when someone takes that away from you, through them being, shall we say, childish, why shouldn’t I say what I feel and tell the truth?
TL: How do you spend your spare time on Teesside?
Higgy: I go boxing. I’ve been going for about two-and-a-half years now. I go training every morning with a couple of friends. I love it because it gives me something to focus on, keeps me fit and keeps the weight off. I go most mornings, then I’ll go up to the moors and give the dog a good walk. I’ll need to work again at some point – and I’m working on that at the minute – but right now I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, and re-charging the batteries because the last job took it out of me.
TL: In boxing parlance, losing the Hartlepool job was a bit of a sucker-punch.
Higgy: It was a great place at first. We were third bottom when I got there, and we finished comfortably mid-table. We wanted to kick on in the next season but when things start happening to players off the pitch there’s nothing a manager can do really. We were always fire-fighting. There was no money- and when you have people not being honest with you, it’s not easy. It was an impossible job but I was quite pleased with the job I did because the players I brought in for nothing have all been sold for money. I’m confident we would have stayed up if I’d stayed. I don’t blame the chairman totally, he’s listened to some people he’s brought in, people who are still there now, who I’d class as ‘hearts are in the right place, but clueless at what they’re doing’.
TL: What do you think of Boro’s prospects this season?
Higgy: I’m really excited. Gary Monk is going to be supported by (chairman) Steve Gibson, who has said himself he wants to obliterate the league. It’s a tough league but if you have money behind you then you’ve got a real chance. Hopefully we’ll see some exciting football and a few goals.
TL: So what’s your next dream?
Higgy: Obviously I want to stay in football. Unless people really know the ins and outs of what happened at Hartlepool, I think I’ll struggle to get a manager’s job. I thought the football we played was good, but off-the-field stuff took over. It was more like a circus than a football club. I’ll need to start coaching somewhere and then in time I’ll have another crack at it, because it’s a job I know I can do.