• Ian Smith

Boro Mag: Craig Hignett - A Career In Words

What strikes me about Craig Hignett, and always has, is just how down to earth the guy is.

After all, this is a guy who's played in three major cup finals for Boro, been promoted twice, played alongside some huge names and scored so many goals.

Whilst he joined Boro in late 1992, it wasn't until his four-goal haul in the 93/94 season at home to Brighton in the League Cup, that he started to become a real fan favourite.

HIGNETT: I was playing well and scoring goals for Crewe in the old 4th division and had some good games and scored goals against teams higher up the leagues. I played against Boro in pre-season and scored a couple of goals, and I think from then on I was on their radar. I moved in November having scored 15 goals for Crewe. There were a couple of bids turned down from other Clubs before Crewe accepted a bid from Middlesbrough and I travelled up to meet Lennie Lawrence; negotiations didn’t take long and I signed the next day.

It was a big step going from the 4th division to the Premier League but I was confident having played against a number of Premier League teams that I would be ok.

It would be remiss of me not to mention though, that he joined from Crewe for around £600,000, no measly sum for a player plying his trade in the old fourth division. Such was his class though, he took to top-flight life, as Boro took part in the inaugural Premier League campaign under Lennie Lawrence, rather well. His double at Everton, against his Dad's team no less, showed early on what we could expect from this silky, floppy-haired playmaker.

HIGNETT: Everything was different playing in front of more fans on TV. Being recognised in the street was all very different from what I was used to. I owe Lennie a lot for having faith in me and bringing me to the club and giving me the opportunity to play in the Premier League.

Coming from Crewe, which was a coaching environment, to then training at Boro with Premier League players was different. There wasn’t the same type of coaching at Middlesbrough because players were expected to know the basics with being Premier League players; so there was more focus on the team and not the individuals.

He'd played predominantly as a striker at Gresty Road, the goals he'd notched prior to his arrival on Teesside showed why Lawrence wanted to sign him. The two goals at Goodison Park showed just that, although as we all know he'd go on to play in a variety of positions with Boro, yet none would be as a conventional striker.

But back to that Brighton cup tie in 1993.

It was a season that started promisingly, and “The Craig Hignett Show”, as it was gleefully christened by the commentator on the VHS season review, was among one of the many reasons to be cheerful. All four goals arrived in the first half, showcasing once more just how good he was in front of goal, with cool finishes and poacher’s efforts rendering The Seagulls seasick.

After an indifferent 1993-94 campaign that started so well, time moved on, and Bryan Robson arrived. The 'Robbo Revolution' was in full swing, and it was the first sight of Hignett stepping up to the plate when challenged by new arrivals.

Robson's vision aligned with Steve Gibson and the arrivals of Nigel Pearson, Neil Cox (our first £1m signing), Alan Miller and Clayton Blackmore, clearly set out Boro’s intent to make a return to the big time.

But for a serious bout of glandular fever, Hignett's contribution to the title-winning season would most certainly have been greater, but missing the final three months of the campaign would go on to have potentially damaging consequences for the Scouser.

Contract wrangles led to a worrying stand-off between club and player, and links to other teams surfaced, but thankfully during the summer of 1995, the dispute was settled, with Hignett making much-publicised concessions in order to stay. Usually, during disagreements between clubs and their playing staff, it tends to be the player that comes off the worse, but in this case, the bond between fan and player strengthened.

HIGNETT: The club offered me a contract when things were going well the season before and didn’t really understand the effect glandular fever had on me. I was constantly tired and had no energy and felt very lethargic all the time. However, I was made to train every day but all this did was make the symptoms worse.

The contract offer was then taken away and there was a lot of uncertainty around my future at the club. I had the chance to go to Bradford City and had spoken to Bryan Robson about it and in this meeting, I told him I wanted to stay at Middlesbrough and would forgo a signing on fee to stay at the club and prove my fitness to him. I came back pre-season fully recovered from the illness and this showed in my energy levels and performance where I think I scored in every game.

I ended up starting in the team against Arsenal away on the first day of the season and had signed a new contract by then after turning down a move to Celtic. My relationship with Bryan was not affected at all by this, he was true to his word and gave me a fair chance to prove my fitness and earn a place in his team, which I did.

The arrival of Nick Barmby from Spurs in the summer of 1995 saw him and Higgy form the most fruitful of partnerships. Their chemistry showed an almost telepathic understanding of each other's game, the sort of thing you see with twins, which for some they actually were.

HIGNETT: Nick Barmby’s arrival was fantastic as it showed the ambition of the club to bring a young English international to Teesside. Nick was a fantastic team player with great technique and a clever football brain; he also helped me see parts of my game where I could be better just through seeing him in training. He was a very unselfish player and would get just as much enjoyment from an assist as he would from scoring a goal.

We were good friends off the pitch also and this showed the way we played together on the pitch, one of the best things to happen to me at Middlesbrough was the Club signing Nick Barmby.

Along with Jan Aage Fjortoft, the triumvirate terrorised at times, and whilst the eventual arrival of Juninho changed things a little, and ultimately saw the break-up of the Hignett/Barmby partnership, what we did see for that period of time was a player revelling in his role, producing some of the best football he’d played in Boro shirt.

So after Boro had moved to the Riverside Stadium after promotion and leaving Ayresome Park in an emotionally charged final season, it was fitting that Hignett would etch his name into Middlesbrough history.

HIGNETT: We trained at the Riverside on the week building up to the first game against Chelsea, but up to that point the club had not been granted a safety certificate and there was some doubt as to whether the game would go ahead.

The game got the go-ahead on the Saturday morning; to be a part of the team that played in the first game at the fantastic new stadium was special. I remember the excitement of everyone and the buzz around the stadium when we went out to warm up.

Scoring the first goal is something I’m incredibly proud of and is the one thing that every Boro fan mentions to me whether it’s in a letter or when speaking to me. The whole day was special given the fact that we also won the game.

It felt appropriate that it was one of the longer-serving players who notched the first goal and much sweeter given it was Hignett after the much-publicised contract issues and his own personal struggles with illness the season before.

A promising start ultimately tailed off for Boro, who eventually settled in mid-table, but Hignett had made his step back up to the big time seamlessly. Even the arrival of Juninho, a world-class talent in the making, failed to diminish his role.

HIGNETT: Juninho was a different type of player to Nick, he was an individual with fantastic ability who would play all over the pitch trying to affect the games. Juninho was another signing who made me a better player just by watching him in training and taking bits of his game and adding it to mine.

He was also a brilliant lad who worked extremely hard and threw himself into the culture of the English game and always had a smile on his face; he was probably the best player I ever played with.

As the 96/97 season rolled in, players such as Higgy could've easily felt threatened, as Robson added Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson to the mix. However, he rose to the challenge once more, and if you didn't know any better, despite his delayed start to that season, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was one of the big-money buys.

Goals against Manchester United both home and away, most notably a headed effort on a rain-soaked afternoon at Old Trafford live long in the memory. Both games ended up as draws (the 3-3 away from home after being 3-1 up didn’t help in a relegation battle), but his impact was telling.

Another starring role in a 2-1 win over Liverpool was especially satisfying for the former Anfield youth. It was the quarter-final of the League Cup, and showing strength and persistence to fire home clinically from the edge of the box, Hignett gave Boro the lead, before he powered in a sublime corner that saw Steve Vickers volley home. 

His nervy spot kick against Chesterfield in that bonkers FA Cup Semi-Final, a game that perfectly encapsulated Boro’s season, saw Hignett level things up at 2-2, which brought a celebration from him and Ravanelli that lives long in the memory; the Italian hauling Higgy towards him by the collar and screaming “Come on!”

And whilst ultimate failure in the form of relegation and two cup final losses categorised the tragedy of the season, Hignett had enhanced his reputation. There’s no denying that the disruptive antics of Ravanelli and Emerson were damaging, but Higgy carried himself through it all with the utmost integrity and professionalism, which wasn’t lost on the Boro faithful.

HIGNETT: The 96/97 season was an unbelievably exciting season for the most part, we had a fantastic team that on the day could beat anyone. At the time it felt like we were at a special club that had the ability to sign any player in the world due to the chairman’s ambition and Bryan as the figurehead.

The cup finals are obviously a regret, not winning one of those still rankles with me but there were some fantastic games and performances in that season, but it just shows you a team is never too good to get relegated (to be fair we were only relegated because of the FA’s three point deduction).

Wiping away the abject disappointment of relegation, the three points debacle and the cup final losses would take some doing, but the 97/98 season proved that it was possible. In what proved to be his final season, it was perhaps fitting that Hignett would have a major say in how it panned out.

After the expected high profile departures, the incomings were just as impressive. Paul Merson and Andy Townsend joining that summer to be followed at the tail end of the season with Paul Gascoigne and Marco Branca. It showed that Boro would still be able to compete at the top end of the table. Despite that, there did appear to be a more grounded feel to the football on Teesside. 

This would be a bittersweet campaign for the former Crewe man though, his form on the pitch was excellent and he often linked well with Boro’s new superstar ‘Magic Man’ Paul Merson. The form of one of Boro’s most effective attackers was not enough to get him a place in a third successive cup final for Boro. His glaring omission from the cup final squad, making way for Gazza at Wembley against Chelsea in the League Cup final, felt like a blow too heavy to come back from.

But Hignett would not let his time on Teesside end with a whimper.

Cue Oxford and the final day of the season.

With Boro in pole position to take second place, only needing to match Sunderland’s result, there was a decidedly nervous atmosphere at the Riverside that day.

After a shaky first half, Boro blew away the cobwebs in a blistering beginning to the second half. There was a collective sigh of relief in the stadium as all worries subsided, thanks in no small part to the contribution of one Craig Hignett.

Following Alun Armstong's quick-fire double, Hignett registered two brilliant finishes; the first in off the post, composure personified. And the second an emphatic thrash into the net. The midfielder let his emotions loose as the raucous Riverside crowd celebrated promotion.

It seemed the perfect way to go, but this was a player who was reluctant to leave...

HIGNETT: I wasn’t sure it was going to be my last game for definite but I thought it probably was. All I was bothered about was winning the game and getting promoted. After a nervy first half, the game ended up a comfortable afternoon although I'm sure the fans didn’t feel the same!

Scoring two goals was the icing on the cake for me and I couldn’t have wished to finish my Boro career in a better way.

But after that game it was time for him to leave.

HIGNETT: Leaving Boro was something I hadn’t thought about until it finally happened, I had spent almost seven years at Boro and achieved things with the club I'd dreamt about doing as a kid so to say it was a huge wrench would be an understatement. I loved my time at the club and made lifelong friends and in an ideal world would have loved to have spent the rest of my playing career there.

A real fan favourite at Boro, Hignett finished his Boro career with 194 appearances and 48 goals, basically one every four games. An impressive total for a player who switched from striker to midfield upon signing for Boro. Given his time at the club wasn't without it's stop/start occurrences, then it only proves even more just how much of a contribution he made.

A free transfer to Aberdeen ended his Boro career, but that was cut short with a move to Barnsley for £800,000 after just six months. He left a lasting impression at Oakwell, with an impressive tally of 35 goals in 66 games. He's fondly remembered in Yorkshire and in the last few years he was nominated for the Barnsley hall of fame, even though he only stayed for 18 months, such was his impact.

A big money move to Blackburn was a successful one. Rovers promotion to the Premier League was followed by his only major trophy success as a player, finally getting his hands on the League Cup in 2002, appearing as a substitute in the 2-1 final win over Spurs.

Over subsequent seasons his career started to wind down. Plagued by injuries and short-term stays at the likes of Leicester, Leeds and Darlington, Hignett sampled foreign climbs with a spell in Cyprus with Apollon Limassol. Eventually, he returned to the North of England with Spennymoor, Hartlepool (who he would later go on to manage) and Billingham Synthonia.

After a spell in youth coaching at Rockliffe from 2008 and as an assistant to Colin Cooper at Hartlepool, Hignett returned to Boro in 2014.

When he returned as Aitor Karanka's assistant the club was on the up after Tony Mowbray had taken the team as far as he could. His role as part of the management team did not last as long as his playing career. Clashes with the meticulous Spaniard served to end his stay prematurely.

HIGNETT: At the start, our relationship was very good but we are very different characters and as time went on it became a difficult job and I felt increasingly isolated. I think the fallout after Blackburn has been well documented and there was no going back after it.

We have very different personalities, I'm much more of a people person but what I will say is that his attention to detail and his game preparation was excellent and that’s something I have taken from my time working with him.

Despite the relationship souring, Hignett’s love for the club and area continues. He has worked at Hartlepool in a number of different roles over the past few years and he will forever have an affinity with the people of Teesside.

HIGNETT: I love the area, it's very similar to Liverpool in terms of the character of the people. Three of my kids have been born on Teesside and the people have always been welcoming and friendly. I felt very comfortable the moment I came here from Crewe. I'm very proud to come from Liverpool but I class Boro as my home. The way the fans have treated me and still do treat me is very humbling.

Craig Hignett. Boro legend.

This article was brought to you by The Boro Mag. You can buy the magazines here with all proceeds going to charity.

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