The youngest player to appear in the league for Nottingham Forest, making his debut as a 16-year-old in October 2001, Craig Westcarr was also an England international from Under-15 to Under-21s. The striker would play 26 times for Forest, but then had to work his way back from non-league to ultimately join Notts County as a 24-year-old.
That move came after an impressive spell at Kettering Town in which he was a Conference North champion, as well as part of the side that notably reached the fourth round of the FA Cup in 2009, with Craig netting twice in their 4-2 loss to Roy Hodgson’s Premier League Fulham. Having seven more years in the EFL with the likes of Walsall and Portsmouth, he has been plying his trade in non-league in the last three years, making a switch from Matlock Town this summer to fellow Evo-Stik Premier side Grantham Town in his native Nottingham. In this interview, he looks back at the enjoyable to eye-opening times the game has brought him so far, with varying personalities aplenty…
Favourite team and player growing up
Man United – they were the first team I watched on TV, that’s why. Player, I’d say Eric Cantona at the time, or Dennis Bergkamp.
Favourite game(s) you’ve played in and why? I always remember watching the 2012 JPT final on TV when you scored (Craig’s Chesterfield beat Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town 2-0 at Wembley) – would that be the main one?
Yeah I’d probably go with that game really. There were a few games when I was at (Notts) County as well. We played Rochdale and it was, not a decider, but if you win you’ve kind of won the league, so it was nice to play in that sort of high-pressure game. Walsall v Coventry at home when we beat them 4-0. To be fair, there’s loads.
A teammate/coach who taught you something new, made you see the game in a different way, or gave great advice you’ve always remembered
I’d say Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly (at Walsall), and Ian McParland (at Notts County). I’d say those two when I was at Walsall, they gave me ideas which I didn’t really know I could do, and they kind of pushed me through to my last energy and effort really. All the good advice they gave, it makes you work hard for them as well.
You came through at Forest when the club was in Division One (now the Championship), making your debut at 16 against Burnley at The City Ground. Were there any notable influences during those years, and was it a supportive/family feel around the place, or was it dwindling at that time?
I think it was dwindling a bit at the time, when Paul Hart left, if I’m honest. It wasn’t the greatest atmosphere. I wouldn’t say anything notable really after my debut happened; you were kind of on your own and it didn’t leave it sour, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Funniest teammate/coach/manager in your career (or give more than one example)
I’d say Lee Hughes. Just bonkers. Funny guy, really nice guy, but bonkers.
You scored plenty but how do you reflect on last season at Matlock for you personally? Was it more enjoyable or frustrating?
I think it was more frustrating really. Frecks (Dave Frecklington) took charge and we went on an unbeaten run, we did really well, got out of the bottom half, but then from Christmas, we lost three or four of our key players, attacking players. We kept the same back four, centre-halves, and didn’t really recruit. Before, Frecks got in a few attacking players and it did make a difference, but then I think it was Marshy (Marcus Marshall), Kingy (Craig King), they got injured and that was it really after that. We were struggling to sign players and we were playing a different way, and just in a bit of a muddle really. It became the dressing room of old really. With Marshy, Kingy, obviously myself, Cleveland (Taylor), it was a different vibe, but when they left the dressing room, I think it got a bit stale. Before, everyone was on it, we were flying. Yeah we lost the odd game, but then we were never out of games. I think there were players who’d been there years and couldn’t take any stick or anything like that, and I think it just became downhill then.
A player you’ve played with whose ability alone deserved/deserves to be at a higher level
I would say Romaine Sawyers. He’s playing in the Championship but I think he could sneak in at the mid-to-lower end of the Premier League; he could sneak in at Aston Villa. He came (to Walsall) from West Brom and he didn’t really get much of a chance, but after pre-season, the next season when he came to sign – incredible. We were all like ‘wow, this guy’s actually really good.’
Happiest spell in your time in football so far
I’d probably say Notts County really. We won the league (League Two) and it was good. I know too many things happened, which are well-documented now, but we had a good squad and a ‘never say die’ attitude. We changed the managers too much and it just went downhill. Obviously, one of my better days was at Chesterfield in that game alone (at Wembley), but it doesn’t count for 50 games or a season.
Hardest moment/experience as a player
I think Chesterfield when we got relegated from League One. I think it was the last game of the season and it would have given us a good chance if we’d have won, but we got beat.
From the managers you’ve played under, who’s understood you and how to get the best out of you the most?
I’d say Dean Smith and Ian McParland. The Notts County managers that I had; Craig Short. Paul Hart at Nottingham Forest, obviously. I’d say them.
What is a typical week like for you, in terms of routine?
I work in a school every other day, which is enjoyable, and training Tuesday and Thursday really. Now with Grantham, really enjoying it, part-time football. It was always going to come to this moment in my career where I’ve got to probably give up full-time and look for something else. Education suited me better and it was one where every day is a different day. I’m assistant head of Year 9, so I do the behaviour and mentoring side of it as well, and speak to parents. I really enjoy it.
In terms of other interests, is there room for much else outside football, work, family?
I’ve been watching tennis and playing it for a bit, so I’m trying to get into that. I’ve been trying for years and I’ve been going down to the open days. I went to the tournament in Beeston that we had down here and watched a few games. Just difficult to get to Wimbledon! I’ve been trying to go for years and I’ve not got any tickets.
Looking back, is there a funniest/most memorable/surreal thing you’ve seen at a game? Or in the changing room/a team talk?
Martin Allen, some of the stuff he did, where we were at the services and he was using us for goalposts and stuff like that. It was funny at the time, because whoever was the goalposts you laughed at, but you’re a bit like ‘come on.’
Any change you think could be made to the game at this level?
I think the mentality at this level won’t change with some lads, because they just see it as work and not as football. I’ve always had an edge to it and thought ‘I need to do this, I need to do this.’ Lads now just turn up, collect their money, go for a night out, sometimes turn up for training, then wonder why they’re not playing Saturday. It’s strange because it was kind of more of an eye-opener last year than when I first went in (to non-league) with Kettering; when I first went to non-league it was never like that. There were lads in the squad who were always on it, there was always scraps, tension, and there was no one negative when it became tough. To be fair to Frecks last season, he was brilliant, but it was hard for him to get players in. Manager-wise, he was probably another who got the best out of me, he was really good. Now I’ve come to Grantham, the gaffers (Paul Rawden and Russell Cousins) are really good; I know it’s only the start of pre-season but I know them anyway and what they’re all about. I used to play against and with Russ when we played for the Nottingham City Boys’ District. Paul, I know from playing against and through seeing him at games; his brother’s a massive Notts County fan.
Any myths/misconceptions, or a rumour you’ve heard about yourself in your career that wasn’t true?
Probably when I was younger, I could have went to West Ham, when I was playing for England and stuff. That’s the only thing really I’ve heard. I’ve had a decent enough career, I’ve done what I want on most levels really. Playing at Wembley and scoring the winner, it’s difficult to top that.
Who are some who’ve been the life and soul of the dressing room at the clubs you’ve been at?
I’d say Notts County dressing room, everyone in that squad really. We kind of lifted each other and sometimes we didn’t need to. We always had good characters and we knew what to do to get over the line. We did have a laugh and joke but when it was time to be serious we did that. I’d say Andy Butler at Walsall as well. Good lad, really good lad. We had a good bond, to be fair, the Walsall team, until everyone left; (Jamie) Paterson, (Will) Grigg, Febian Brandy. We had a good squad, a good manager at the time, and played some good football.
One singer/band/artist you’d sneak on to the team playlist? And have you ever done the changing room music anywhere?
It’d probably be Jay-Z. I’ve never been DJ, to be fair, which is quite good, because…pressure’s on! There are a lot of lads that love their SoundCloud. I think Marlon Harewood at Forest used to do the DJing, in the first-team dressing room – when I used to be in there!
What have you been impressed with at the club so far, and why should people come down and support?
Because we’re getting a good squad together. The managers are good, uplifting, and just to give us all a chance and give us all support, and get us through. It’s a big club, big stadium as well, so hopefully by the middle of the season we can try and fill that. I think that’s our aim, to try and fill the stadium at least, and to try and push for the play-offs and try and do something in the league. That’s what the managers want and what the players want.
Finally, what has all this time in football taught you the most and has it changed you at all?
Just discipline really. It’s different now because when I was in my 20s, I did question a few bits, but I do it more now I’m over 30, which I think’s normal. I think you learn all the time. Just speaking to players and trying to take a bit from everyone, which I think does help you in life.
Interview by @chris_brookes