Craig Robinson has enjoyed success during his time as a non-league player and was the headline-maker himself on one famous night at Warrington Town. While watching on from the sideline this season has not been easy for the City of Liverpool FC player-manager, promotion with the Purps has more than eased the pain for the unflinching defender.
“Driven in that time by Mannix…and it’s in! At the near post – Robinson!” Warrington Town’s number 6 Craig Robinson headed home a corner, with his back to goal, initially unaware that he had even scored.
He also had no knowledge at the time that it was the goal to put the Yellows into the FA Cup second round for the first time, eliminating League Two Exeter City, who sat a full 100 league places higher. That was in November 2014, netting the club £18,000 on a sensational Friday night at Cantilever Park.
Almost five years on, the combative Scouser’s playing endeavours are not done, but this has been his first full season as a manager. Stepping up to lead City of Liverpool FC, his debut campaign from the dugout will live long in the memory, after his Purps side sealed the Hallmark Security League (North West Counties) Premier Division title last Saturday (27th April).
Leading up to the decisive last game, he endured what he later described as ‘probably the hardest week I’ve had in football.’ Bootle, the club COLFC groundshare with, had overtaken them at the summit after winning 1-0 when the teams met on Easter Monday. Bootle’s 1-1 draw at home to Northwich Victoria on the last day, however, threw the door open again, and the Purps strode on through with a 2-0 win at Irlam.
In that aforementioned Exeter game, it was Craig who came up with the telling touch, but collective will saw Warrington through. That same ingredient has been in the pot since he took the reins at COLFC last summer, and far from feeling a need to stamp his authority, the former Blackpool youngster knew not to meddle too much.
“Well it was a good squad, so really for me, it was just keeping the continuity and maybe trying to implement my side of things,” he explained. “We’ve had one or two players come in since, but really it was making sure we were right and prepared going into the season ahead.”
“I’m a big believer in having a good team spirit and I was a part of that as a player. A lot of them are friends, so it was one of them where I had to keep a balance of not much change.”
Although he has overseen a championship in 2018/19, Craig had actually been anticipating the season ahead as a player under Simon Burton. The fan-owned club’s inaugural manager, Burton had delivered promotion via the Hallmark Security League First Division play-offs in their first season (2016/17) since forming, with the division’s Macron Cup and Reusch Cup also won.
Craig was part of the side that finished 4th a league higher last season, and in his interview on here last summer, Purps striker Tom Peterson commended him on his ability to help keep everyone together that year. His leadership skills were clear, though to be handed the manager’s job was most definitely unexpected.
When it came to the competitive action getting underway, a swashbuckling 6-3 victory at an 1874 Northwich team tipped as a title rival (ultimately finishing 10th) set the marker.
“The build-up of games in pre-season, I didn’t get my strongest team on the pitch. It was one of them where the build-up of me coming in, and my reputation in non-league as a player, the first game of the season was a massive one, away to 1874 Northwich.
“The work rate and the spirit of the team then, and the performance, was outstanding, so then I knew what type of side I had to take forward into the rest of the season.”
For the gaffer, an injury sustained at the start of the pre-season match action also set the tone on a personal level. He has taken a back seat since then in playing terms, which has transpired to be beneficial, if bittersweet.
“The lads who’ve come in at centre-half (Danny Dalton, Anthony Brown and Paul Williams) have been brilliant. The transition of being a player and manager as well, I just felt it better for me to take a back step and be the manager rather than a player-manager.
“I keep myself ticking over when I can but I’ve not been needed, which I’m glad of, but I do miss it at times.”
Although the battle-hardened centre-back is perhaps still getting used to being cast in the role of manager, to be carrying the trophy under his arm after the whistle went on their league season last weekend is not the worst way to get acclimatised. While life as a number one has been relatively new, Craig got acquainted with coaching back in his late teens, taking it on again as his non-league playing experience stacked up.
“I was assistant manager to Danny Johnson at Ashton – I was player-assistant manager – so I’d done a bit of coaching there beforehand. Then I had a bit of a break and then I was a player-coach at Warrington.
“I didn’t do much of the coaching side of things, but I was assisting a lot, so I gained a lot of experience there with Danny Johnson. Also working under Paul Carden and Mark Beesley, who’ve got good experience in non-league and in the full-time game as well, I learned a lot off them.”
With their title prospects suddenly out of their hands, Craig admits he had to lift himself before he set about galvanising the Purps players following the defeat to Bootle, who had notched up an incredible 20 league wins in a row. At such times, it is inevitable you will think back to how certain managers in your playing career approached testing situations.
A young gaffer now at 36, Craig was at Morecambe after leaving Blackpool, later winning leagues with Droylsden and Warrington, as well as clinching cup success at Ashton United. For Craig, who briefly sampled managerial life at Ashton before reverting to playing, he considers which of his former bosses especially knew how to get the best from him.
His formative football years included working with a Liverpool great, as he recalls.
“When I was a kid at Liverpool, my coach Steve Heighway was big in my career. I’ve played under good managers.
“Shaun Reid at Warrington, I always wished I’d played under him at a younger age. He was vocal and he was on you, but for me at that stage of my career, it was good for me and I enjoyed it.
“It was a good time at Warrington.”
The man in charge for Warrington’s FA Cup ‘giant-killing’ against Exeter, Shaun Reid is the younger brother of former Sunderland boss and England international Peter Reid. On the theme of notable siblings, Craig grew up in the Garston area of Liverpool – his mum and dad still live there – with his sister and his brother, current Oxford United manager Karl Robinson.
Karl was on hand to take COLFC training a few weeks back, and while Craig operates very much as his own man, he feels it would be foolish not to try and utilise such a resource in the family.
“Karl is probably one of the best coaches that I have ever come across. I go down and watch him occasionally – when he was at MK Dons, when he was at Charlton – and I’m lucky to be able to go down and pick his brains and watch how he does things.
“I think he’s one of the best young coaches about; I know he’s my brother but that doesn’t come into it. It’s good to get his advice but at the end of the day, it’s me on the line and me in the dressing room with the lads, so it’s all about me gaining little bits when I can.”
The camaraderie, the laughs, and most certainly feats like winning trophies, are there to be savoured, but as a coach or manager, the chance to impact upon players and people’s lives is not at all insignificant. Asked about someone in the Purps ranks he has seen develop over this season, or a player who may not get the recognition or limelight they deserve, different names come to mind for different reasons for Craig.
Understandably, he is keen to give collective credit.
“I’ve got Craig Cairns who’s known for being that goalscorer and for his movement, but for me, there’s no particular standout. They’ve all been at a good level all season, but the two young lads, Jack Hazlehurst and John McGrath, probably deserve a special mention.
“Two young lads learning their trade and at times they’ve won games on their own. If it’s not John on one side then it’s Jack on another, and the two of them have scored goals and assisted all season.
“For two young lads, they’ve got big futures ahead of them.”
The swift climbing of divisions since the Purps were formed four years ago naturally catches the attention. The signing this season of talented attacking performer Jamie McDonald, who dropped two divisions to link up with Craig’s side from Warrington, also sparks intrigue.
There is much more to it, however, when it comes to the soon-to-be-Step 4 club, as explored in chairman and co-founder Paul Manning’s recent interview on here. As well as bringing it back to basics for supporters – affordable football-watching enjoyment on a Saturday – City of Liverpool FC also wanted to be a club that could house some of the vast footballing talents the city produces but so often allows to slip through the net.
It is very important that they come into an upbeat atmosphere, which Craig is proud to be able to say is one of the Purps’ central characteristics.
“They’re a good bunch of lads who get on well. It’s not every week, because people have got busy lives away from football, but we tend to get together every now and then and socialise and get out.
“There’s a pub that sponsors us and we know well and looks after us, Slaughter House. I’m a big believer in that; they’ve got to have good team spirit and that’s what we’ve had all season.”
Running a plastering company that takes him all around the North West, as well as being a dad, things never grind to a halt for long for Craig. As a manager, the first truly unforgettable memory is in the bag.
As a player, still nothing quite tops that Friday night dreamland from four seasons ago.
“I’m lucky I’ve won quite a lot, but I’ve got to be honest with you, the Exeter game, the build-up with it being the first live (FA Cup) game on BBC (that season), with me scoring the goal – however lucky it may have been – it was the standout night of my career. The ups and the downs of football like it is, that was just the pinnacle of my career, and it’ll stay with me and my family for the rest of my life.”
With a capacity crowd of 2,400, a pitch invasion ensued on the final whistle. Moments later, Craig saw his family for the first time since before the game, as they ran towards him.
He recalled at the time having to turn the car around that morning, after his young daughter reminded him she had forgotten to bless him before they left the house! A good job they went back, as his winner ultimately paved the way for some never-to-be-forgotten (or never-to-be-quite remembered?) festivities.
“I don’t think I stopped celebrating. I was in the bar at the club until late, and then the lads were up and we met up at about 12 o’clock and we were back on the ale on the Saturday, celebrating!”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I started coaching when I was 19. I coached at Liverpool in the Community, but that was just a job where I’d come out of full-time football and started coaching. I coached back then but it was never in my mind to sort of be coaching higher; I just loved playing football and I wanted to carry on as long as I could. It wasn’t even something at City of Liverpool where I looked at and said ‘yeah, I wanna manage’; it fell on me. I was looking forward to the season ahead under Simon as the manager, but I was lucky to take it. It’s just something that’s happened and generally gone from there really.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I can’t say there’s a specific one but I enjoy getting amongst the lads and being involved. That’s probably most enjoyable, whether it be a circle or a game, because I’m back involved playing again. Although they probably say I shouldn’t be, that’s the bit I enjoy most, probably.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
It’s a bit of both (involved and stood off at the side, observing), to be honest, because I am still involved as a player and you never know what can happen in football. I do try and join in as much as I can; I’ve got two staff alongside me who take the sessions and they’re very good, so I’m able to join in. It’s good to stand back as well because you can learn a lot from players’ actions and movements.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
The best one for me is Wembley because I played there as a kid. It was the old Wembley and it was always one of them where as a young lad it’s like ‘this is where I wanna go and play.’ Unfortunately for me, I haven’t ever been there again and played, but it’s something where I really look back with fond memories. It was an Under-11s tournament for Liverpool Schoolboys, a national competition, 7-a-side. It was before an England Under-18s game, I think.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
I’ve never actually looked at a player and been like, ‘I wanna be like them,’ but I’m a Liverpool fan so I’ve always looked up to Steven Gerrard. I know he’s not my position but his attitude and his desire to be the best has always been one I’ve watched and aspired to be, I suppose.
And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for City of Liverpool (in his prime)?!
My pitch to Gerrard…wow, what a question. Well, luckily he’d be playing for his hometown club again, so that would be one of the biggest ones. We’ve got a team where the majority are Scousers, so for me, it would be one where he’s looking to come and play for his hometown club, but the purple side of it…and it’s not blue!
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
It would have to be a training camp in Spain where there’s plenty of golf that can be played, and also, football as well as socialising.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Most challenging is picking a side and having to tell someone they’re not playing, especially early on in the season. I class a lot of them as friends, but because I’ve got such a good squad, there’s players who are just as good as the other player. As a player, you never understand the reason why they’re doing it, but as a manager, you make a decision that you think’s best for the game. That’s been probably the most difficult, but it’s also been a good thing because of how good and talented the squad is that I’ve got that headache there.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Ben Smith at Ashton United. He was hysterical, every training session, every away game on the coach. He’s got to be one of the funniest lads I’ve ever come across in football.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
When I was at Vauxhall Motors, playing away at Marine against a couple of friends of mine, there was a free-kick took and I heard a whistle. I was in the box and actually caught the ball and gave away a penalty. (What was the reaction from your manager/teammates?) It wasn’t very good! Also, the problem was, the lad who took the free-kick, Eddie Hussain, was a good mate of mine. He found it hilarious after the game, but we got beat 3-1, so it wasn’t good.
Your routine on a match day
I’m very superstitious. If it’s a home game, I’ll get up Saturday morning and go to the gym, have a shower and come back. Also, I’ve got this superstition where I have to go to the shop and get three packs of blue Extra chewies. I’ve done that since the first game of the season, where we won. It’s funny because my brother’s the same; he’s very superstitious. He’s got to do certain things a certain way when they win.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
I’d say ‘The World’s Greatest’ from R. Kelly.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Probably from my dad from an early age: always respect people.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
I’d say Bill Shankly.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
It’s a funny question because I’ve actually signed players where because I was always such a vocal player, quite aggressive, I’ve had a run-in with a lot of people! So there’s a big misconception of me as a person. Everyone always thinks I’m like that but it’s not the case. I wasn’t very well liked as a player because of being vocal and aggressive, and off the field, that’s probably not what I’m like.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Yes, I do. Football’s in me, it’s been in me since I was a kid. My dad and my brother have got the love for football, and being involved, the buzz on match day, I don’t think you will ever beat it. Also, the buzz of being involved as a fan on a match day, getting up on a Saturday and going to a game, I don’t think you will ever beat.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes