Vanarama National League Column Oct 25th

VANARAMA NATIONAL LEAGUE COLUMN - Craig Harrison, by Glenn Moore

Some coaches begin preparing for life on the training pitch while they are still players, making notes about sessions put on by their managers, mentally filing behaviours, and taking their qualifications. Others fall into the job by accident. The strange thing is that sometimes it is the latter who are more successful.

Among them is Craig Harrison, coach of Vanarama National League side Hartlepool United. Harrison had quit football after suffering a career-ending broken leg while playing for Crystal Palace reserves in his mid-20s. He struggled with depression, came through that, but remained disenchanted with the game opting instead for a career in property development.

Then, for his 30th birthday party, wife Danielle booked a band. The guitarist looked familiar. He was Gareth Owen, formerly of Wrexham, whom Harrison had played against when on loan at Preston. Owen was player-manager at Welsh Premier League club Airbus UK and seeking an assistant. He asked if Harrison was interested.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’ve moved on from that’,” Harrison, 40 this month, told the Non-League Paper earlier this season. He added: “A couple of weeks later I saw in the local paper they still hadn’t filled the post. My other half persuaded me to give Gareth a text to see what was going on. He said he was still looking so we had a chat and he offered it to me. I took it. That was in December. By the end of the season Gareth had moved on and they gave me the manager’s job.”

By then Harrison was smitten. His biggest problem was persuading part-time players to be as committed as he was. He rapidly acquired his badges and now holds the highest qualification, Uefa Pro Licence. In late 2011 The New Saints, after a rare season failing to win the Welsh League, moved in. With them Harrison won six successive league titles, four Welsh Cups, and played clubs such as Slovan Bratislava and Legia Warsaw in Champions League qualifiers.

Despite this success the chance to join Hartlepool was irresistible for Harrison, Gateshead-born and a former Middlesbrough player. It is not an easy job. Harrison is Pools’ sixth manager in four years, which underlines the instability at the club. Yet though relegated from the Football League last season they still attracted more than 50 applicants for manager.

The opening rounds of the Vanarama National League were a shock. Having lost their opening match at home to Dover Athletic, Hartlepool had two points after six matches. A 13-point haul from the next five games dispelled fears of back-to-back relegation and rekindled hopes of an instant Football League return. They are now in 14th place, only five points behind second-placed Wrexham in a tightly-contested promotion race.

“Looking back with a clear head, what’s probably happened is the four-five weeks at the start of the season has been vital,” Harrison said last week. “When it hasn’t gone for us you either go your separate way and the group fragments or you come together. What went on early season is probably one of the best things to happen for team spirit. It has come together over the opening weeks of the season.”

Harrison, who knows better than most how unpredictable football be, added: “Maybe the start was a blessing in disguise.”

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