Written by Colin Byiers
Sean Crighton has played well over 400 games in his career so far, and at the age of 31, will no doubt make 500 or even 600 before it is time to hang up his boots. Recently, Sean joined ambitious League 2 side Stenhousemuir from Airdrie, where he hopes to help guide his new club back to League 1.
Shortly after signing, I spoke with Sean about the move, the disappointment of not getting promoted with Airdrie and his current role as youth coach.
So first up then Sean, how pleased and excited are you to have joined Stenhousemuir?
I’m looking forward to it. I met the manager, (Stephen Swift), and I really liked what he was saying about the ambition. He spoke to me about a few players he looked to target, and the way he talked about wanting to win the league. I felt it was the right fit. I had other options, but after talking to the manager, this sounds good, and I know it’s a drop down a division, but I hope to get Stenny back up to League 1 where they belong. I’vealways felt Stenny were a League 1 side, and they want to push on to the Championship if they can.
They mentioned other part-time sides and they want to be the best in the country. They look at sides like Alloaand Arbroath, who were in the Championship last season, and they want to be like that. They are quite central, a good location, a good support and a board who are ambitious and that’s why I thought “why not?”. The manager also said that Stenny haven’t won a league title in the whole time they have been in the League, so that was some that enticed me because it’s a challenge. I’ve won League 1 a couple of times and I wanted to win something again, so I wanted to help Stenny achieve their goal. It’s going to be difficult, like all the league’s, it’s going to be so competitive. I’m under no illusions thinking it’s going to be easy, but you see the ambition they have shown, in terms of the players they have shown. Hopefully, there is another 1 or 2 still to come in. It’s exciting times for the club.
Is what’s happening at Stenhousemuir, something we might see from other clubs, as the threat of dropping out is real and clubs may look at different ways to try and be successful?
Football clubs have always to try and push forward, no matter what division you are in. You see the ambition that Kelty Hearts and Cove Rangers have, they are pushing to get up the leagues and because the Pyramid is in place, clubs like Stenhousemuir and Stirling Albion have got push to get to the division above. There is more ambition from League 2 clubs now, in terms of the money, the things they are trying to do, infrastructures in place, compared to when I was at Montrose in League 2. I was on loan, but it was guys who were just there to get a wee bit extra money and never thinking it was a career. Now, League 2, and League 1 players are thinking “if I do well here, I have a chance to push up.” We’ve seen it with plenty of players doing well in our league’s to then going on to do well higher up. Andy Robertson is your biggest example out of anybody. Young boys have got to take that on board as well and realise it’s not about the big fancy name, it’s about playing men’s football and hopefully progressing up through the leagues.
When did the captaincy come into the equation?
Right away! He (Stephen) said “I’m wanting a captain. I’m wanting a leader. I’ve done my homework on you, and I know what people say about you.” I think I’ve been a captain at every club I’ve been at, whether that’s been at the start of the season or at some point through the season, I’ve worn the armband. I just said I was happy to be captain and I would come in and put my own stamp on things and try and run the dressing room as best as I can. Because I have done it for so long, it felt natural to me. The manager has been great with me because he’s been messaging me about different things, and he said to me that he would bring me in as a fourth coach and be the link between the management and the players. It was another easy decision to accept the captaincy and I was excited about that as well.
Will it be easier or more difficult to captain players you don’t know?
It’s happened before. When Jim Duffy appointed me captain at Morton, we were a new team. It was myself and Andy Barrowman, he was captain, and I was vice captain, and then he changed the captain through the season, so that gave me plenty experience on that side of it. At Livingston, David Hopkin made me captain early doors, but again, it was a brand-new team, so you just need to adjust. I know some of the players that have signed with Stenny, so they’ll know what I’m like. Obviously, we had Nat Wedderburn at Airdrie and I was his captain at Airdrie as well, so knows exactly what I’mgoing to do. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, it’s just getting to know all the boys. I’ve sent messages to them all just to get things going and doing that early is so important.
You mentioned Airdrie there, was it difficult to leave Airdrie, having been there for a couple of spells?
It was. To be honest, it was a decision I was mulling over for so long, but I felt it was the right time to leave. Leaving on a wee high, I know people will say it wasn’t a high because we didn’t get promoted, but for us finishing second was a massive achievement for the club. I think the last time they did that was 2007. With the teams that were in the league as well, people forget Airdrie didn’thave a big budget and we were a hybrid model, but it’s credit to the manager, the players, the board, everyone, because we all pushed for it but sadly, we came up short. I think if you look at the games, we looked tired. I felt, in the semi-final, we gave it absolutely everything and we just ran out of steam. I was proud of that achievement to finish second and on a personal note for me it was great. The fans have been brilliant with me, since I joined the club and even when I left the club, I know there are some who are disappointed I have felt. The messages and posts on Twitter, social media, and even personal messages that I have gotten from people has been really overwhelming, but it wasn’t an easy decision to leave. Sometimes you get a feeling in your gut, and you just have to accept it’s time to leave. The manager (Ian Murray) and I had a good discussion about it, and we both come to that conclusion, that it was time to move on.
What was the turning point for Airdrie’s season, because at one point, finishing second was so far away?
The biggest turning point for me was, we played PartickThistle, and I was suspended, and we had a chance to go 2-0 up in the game and their keeper pulls off one of the best saves I’ve seen live! Paul McKay is 5 yards out and thunders a shot and the keeper saves it. They then go up the other end from that and score and we fell apart after that. We then go up to Cove and we just looked down and out. As captain, I’m trying to pick the boys up and we go to Dumbarton in midweek, which was our game in hand, and it’s 0-0 and there is nothing happening. Now I’m thinking we are never going to score, and Ally Roy pops up and scores late on. From there we just kicked on. We never gave up in any game. We scored so many late goals, our fitness was really good, and that was credit to the boys because we did keep our fitness up. That was massive in games, and you seen that in the semi-final when Rory McAllister scores on 90, and I got up top, go for a header, the keeper clatters me, I’m shouting, “PENALTY”, and I turn round, and we’ve scored! So, the turning point was Ally Roy’s goal at Dumbarton, because we sitting 7th at the time and 12 points behind Falkirk and everything just changed. That’s credit to all the boys, even the guys who weren’t always playing but guys like Craig Thomson and Jack McKay were important and that togetherness got us over the line.
You got well over 400 career games, is the aim to get to 500?
I’m nearly at 450, so definitely. Stephen actually said to me the other day that he couldn’t believe the amount of games I had played in the last 3 seasons. I played 108 games, and touch wood, I’ve remained injury free. I look after myself off the pitch so, that’s helped me and hopefully I can remain injury free. I’m hoping to play as many games as I can and I’m at that age where I just want to play and when I see guys like Andy Graham at Alloa playing at 38, there’s no reason why I can’t do the same. I’m moving into the coaching side of things and hopefully I can play throughout that.
After the last two seasons, are you looking forward to a full 36 game league campaign?
Aye, it’s been quite hectic. I still think last year, when the season was finished, we were 3rd, 5 points behind Raith. I felt we could have gone on a run, and it was disappointing because we had Raith to play. They beat us 3 times 1-0, so the games were always tight. We also had Falkirk to play as well, and looking at our results recently against Falkirk, they haven’t beat us in the last 6 games, so we felt we had something in us. I’m looking forward to a normal season and playing week to week, especially us older guys who are getting on a bit!
What do you are your new club hope to achieve this season?
The aim has got to be the title, no matter what club you are at. Apart from my year at Brechin City, which was a horrible year for us as a club, I’ve challenged every year for something. At Montrose, challenged for the play-offs. Elgin, the play-offs and league, and at Airdrie, Morton, Livingston, every club I’ve been at. That was the reason I went to Stenny because I wanted to challenge for something. To challenge for the league, we need to be top half and that will be the aim throughout the season. If we are outside of that, then we need to push on and get into the top 4.
At 31, you still have 4 or 5 seasons still left in you, but what is the plans for when you do hang up the boots?
My ambition is to become a coach or manager. I have done all my badges. I had done them all by the time I was 26. I worked for Morton for so many years and I got the head of youth development job at Morton, Derek Anderson was the academy director, and I was in the job for about a year-and-a-half, then the club made cuts. Davie McKinnon came in and made cuts and I was one of those cuts unfortunately. I also took the reserves while I was at Morton under Jim Duffy. So, I have plenty experience and it’s something I want to pursue but like on the playing side no matter what age you are, you shouldn’t think you know everything and that’s the same with the coaching side of things.
I’ve been coaching youth football since I was 20 at Morton, and I’ve always said it helps when it comes to me playing on a Saturday, because there is no point in telling a kid something that I can’t do. I was learning at St Mirren’s academy under Gus McPherson and Andy Millen, who were the first team managers, and David Longwell, who was the academy director, and under them you had to learn to take the ball in and pass it, and everyone who knows me as a “head it, kick it” centre half, but I had to learn that first because it’s important to teach these kids every aspect of the game.
Has coaching changed since you started?
Massively. More on the psychology side of things, as our whole society has changed. We didn’t have social media when I was a youth player and I think you need to approach kids a wee bit differently now. You need to put an arm around a lot of them, compared to what I had which was blasting and shouting in your face. Even first team managers are the same, you can’t do things like that anymore. I can go if I’m angry, but it’s finding the balance of the two. You might get away with shouting and balling once or twice a season, but if you do it all the time, the kids aren’t interested. I learned a lot from Jim Duffy on that side of things, and for me Jim is probably the best manager I’ve worked under. He could make you feel tiny by just talking to you but could also shout at you. He’d also be great in terms of advice. It’sdefinitely different. When I started, I was cleaning boots, cleaning toilets, washing stuff and kids don’t do that anymore, and if I’m being honest, I think that’s what is missing in the kids these days. They think they are going to become footballers and don’t think about after, and that’s kids in general not just footballers. That’s not the kids’ fault, it just the way sociality is now. We just need to adapt because everything changes. The grounding I got under Gus, and Jim etc made me a better player and ultimately a better coach. When I was a youth player, I was scared to go into the first team dressing room. Kids nowadays just walk in! I don’t mind people going in being confident, that’s important, but not arrogant. You would panic going in, because the gaffer wanted you to go in to pick up the socks and you would get pelted ad throw stuff at you, but nothing like that happens now. It’s changing with the times, and that’s just the way it is unfortunately.
FEATURE PHOTOGRAPH: Courtesy of Stenhousemuir Football Club