Tony Craig wears the scars as a badge of honour. There is the seven-inch track of a surgeon’s knife that snakes round the outside of his left knee from thigh to calf, a legacy of his attempt to block a shot from Bradford’s James Hanson in the autumn of last season. “He must have caught it quite well because it bent the joint back and took the hamstring tendon and lateral ligament completely away,” he says as if relishing a chance to relay every gruesome detail. “Proper trauma. I knew I was in trouble when I hit the ground that time.”
That detail is worth clarifying not least because, rewinding to the autumn of 2009, the defender had been unconscious even before landing back on the turf after a kick in the head from Gareth Ainsworth that left him with a depressed fracture of the cheekbone and eye socket. The operations that followed inserted a titanium plate into Craig’s face, though he was still badgering his manager at Millwall at the time, Kenny Jackett, to pick him for a league fixture against MK Dons a little over a week later wearing a custom-made carbon fibre protective mask. Jackett refused while a merciless squad delighted in christening their rugged left-back “the Phantom”.
Craig is sitting in the changing room at Millwall’s Calmont Road training ground contemplating Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham Hotspur and volunteering the grisly details of the six occasions he has gone under the knife over a 14-year senior career. It has taken in stints with five teams and almost 500 games, of which 302 were over four spells at the club he counts his own. He had spent his childhood watching this club from the Cold Blow Lane stand, a kid from Thamesmead who went on to captain the youth sides, reserves and first team. Millwall through and through.
Just to maintain the injury theme, he counts promotion to the Championship in the 2010 play-offs as his most memorable period, even if he was forced off in the final at Wembley with two broken metatarsals. Craig ended the afternoon waving his crutches in celebration from the royal box and moon dancing in an air-boot.
It had taken an argument with the club doctor, Imtiaz Ahmad, to permit him even that privilege. “I remember him telling me there was no way I could walk up the steps for the award of the trophy, but I said to him: ‘This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, mate. You ain’t stopping me going up there.’
“Look, I’ve been fortunate. I’m living the dream. I’ve played for the club I supported, and scored on my home debut [in 2003] in front of the Cold Blow Lane end where I used to sit. I celebrated by pointing up to my mates, sitting up in the stand where I used to be. It brings the hairs up on my neck even now. I was in the squad that travelled to Cardiff for the 2004 FA Cup final, and I’ve still got the suit at home.” A side badly hit by suspensions and injury lost 3-0 to Manchester United but Craig describes it as a dream come true, “All of it, putting on this shirt and captaining this club.
“Each time I’ve left, there’s always been this thing bringing me back. Willie Donachie wanted the money they’d raise selling me to reinvest in the squad, so I went to Crystal Palace [in 2007] because I didn’t have much of a choice. I made it known it wasn’t really the move I was looking for, but the manager had made the decision.
“Then, after coming back for that really successful second time, Kenny and I had a discussion about the chances I’d have to play, and he made it clear I wouldn’t feature every week. I understood that and left on very good terms for Brentford [in 2012], and was lucky enough to help them gain promotion to the Championship. I thought maybe that was it, my time was up, but, when Neil Harris asked me back, it was a no-brainer. I think I get this club. The fans, they look for a determination in people. They want to see you giving everything. That’s what I do.”
Their standards are set high. Where Craig warms at memories of that Cup final side – “A strong team with guys like Timmy Cahill, Darren Ward, Dennis Wise and Kevin Muscat, who was the heartbeat of the side and would steam in in training as if it was a game” – Jackett had leant heavily on a core group of self-styled ‘Guv’nors’ during that promotion back into the second tier at the turn of the decade. A pride of senior professionals in Andy Frampton, David Forde, Paul Robinson, Gary Alexander, Harris and Craig ran the dressing room. Harris the manager, forever a talismanic figure at this club, had recognised the importance of rekindling that Millwall spirit when turning back to the experienced defender in 2015. He wanted a vocal presence, a leader of men. He re-signed a figure who still becomes so hyped up for matches he struggles to go to sleep before 4am, and not because his wife gave birth to their second child a fortnight ago.
Craig is a throwback, but one who has suffered setbacks, from those injuries to two play-off final defeats and a relegation, and has had to prove himself on every return to his spiritual home. Last season’s horrific knee and hamstring damage had kept him out for almost six months and, when he returned to fitness and reclaimed the captain’s armband from Steve Morison, his rusty performances drew stinging criticism from the stands. The hangover dragged into the start of this campaign. Harris publicly defended his captain. “If I build a Millwall team on desire, love for the club and an attitude to play, train and lead,” he said, “then surely he should be at the forefront of people’s thoughts?”
“But in this game, if you’re out for a while you’re forgotten,” Craig says. “I had to prove myself all over again once I was back, and it took a while. I made a slow start to this season, but I’d had a very serious injury. I think all those scars show the sort of player I am. I put my body on the line every week. I wish I was more gifted, but I’m not. I work hard to make up for that, but I need to get into a rhythm and train every day if I’m going to perform at my best.
“There’s only one way I can play. I’m 31 now, so I can’t change much, and I do what I do. But these fans are more demanding than most. They let you know what they think, but that’s the mentality of this club. You’ve got to be strong enough to take it on the chin and, hopefully, prove people wrong.”
He has done that. He has played all 3,150 minutes of Millwall’s promotion pursuit this season, recovering form and triggering a 12-month extension to his contract, and his rehabilitation feels complete with a nomination for the League One player of the month. Typically, Craig takes more satisfaction from the run of nine clean sheets in all competitions curtailed with Ben Reeves’ goal for MK Dons at The Den last Saturday – only the second this team have conceded since 2 January – after 14 and a half hours of football. The hosts still claimed victory in stoppage time and extended their unbeaten run, which incorporates the FA Cup eliminations of Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester, to 17 games, the club’s best since 1895-96.
“Bleedin’ hell, I didn’t know that,” Craig says. “We’ve got great team spirit here, you know. We’ve got people who gee each other up, get the best out of each other. It’s exciting times.”
Spurs, with a former Millwall loanee in Harry Kane in their ranks, will test that optimism as around 4,000 away fans take the Seven Sisters Road to White Hart Lane. A 19-year-old Kane, forging a fine partnership with Andy Keogh, scored nine goals in 27 appearances for Millwall over a six-month spell south of the river in 2012.
“He was young, but he tried to integrate himself in the team and bought into the mentality we had here,” Craig says. “He scored some crucial goals at a critical time for the club, and you could always see his talent. Everything that’s happened to him since has been fantastic, but hopefully I can pass him on to the centre-halves to deal with on Sunday.
“Tottenham are a team of exceptional talents, but we’ll go into the game with belief. Our league form hasn’t dropped, and that shows the mentality we’ve got. The gaffer watched Spurs against Everton last weekend, and we’ll be ready with a game plan. It’s a great occasion for everyone involved at the club: the fans and the players, young and old. A quarter-final of the FA Cup. It means a lot.”