There have been an incredible number of players to pass through the doors of Leeds United since our relegation from the top flight in 2004. Some of them have become heroes, some villains, whilst some have quite simply disappeared from the memory. Stephen Crainey is one of those players who can claim to have had greater success since departing from Elland Road. Those who saw him in his time in a white shirt will find the fact that he is still playing at this level baffling in the extreme.
Kevin Blackwell’s famous quip that on his first day there was just him and Gary Kelly at the club meant that there was bound to be an influx of talent in the summer of 2004. Talent may be stretching the point a bit in some cases (Michael Ricketts anyone?) but what all United’s new signings had in common was that they were all free. The financial meltdown meant that Leeds were "shopping" in the charity bins as they prepared for life in the Championship.
However on the 6th August 2004, from somewhere Leeds found the money to make their first cash signing. Costing £200,000, Crainey looked to be a player of decent pedigree. Whilst never setting the world alight at Celtic, he had managed to play over 50 games in four seasons at Parkhead, also finding his way into the international set-up winning five caps. He moved on to Southampton, then in the Premiership, but never really cut the mustard making just five appearances for the South Coast side.
The move to Leeds gave him a chance of regular football, but after a decent start, which saw Leeds put together some good results, an injury forced him out after a shaky performance at Cardiff where he gave a way a penalty, which was saved by Neil Sullivan.
That was that for his first campaign, with the likes of Danny Pugh, Matthew Kilgallon and Michael Gray filling in for the rest of the season. His future didn’t look too bright either as Leeds splashed out £1M on Dan Harding in the summer.
Harding though looked completely out of his depth at the start of the 2005/06 season and Crainey was back in the side by the time Leeds visited Hillsborough in mid-September. Unfortunately he too was unable to stamp any authority in the position and was back out of the team again a couple of weeks later. When Harding failed to impress after being given a prolonged run in the team, Crainey finally made the place his in the New Year, staying in the team for the remainder of the season.
With the side securing a place in the play-offs against Preston, the second leg would prove to be pivotal. After a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in the first leg, Leeds went into a two goal lead at the start of the second half. With the team trying to run out the clock, Crainey was booked for kicking the ball away. He then compounded his error by fouling David Nugent moments later, receiving the red card which would rule him out of the final.
His suspension forced Leeds to reshuffle their back line for the final against Watford, with Matthew Kilgallon who had been in fine form in the heart of the defence shifted to left back rather than Harding being brought back. It was one of a number of calamitous decisions made by Kevin Blackwell on the day as Leeds succumbed to a devastating defeat.
Harding moved on in the summer, leaving Crainey as the undoubted first choice. However with the departure of Blackwell and the arrival of Dennis Wise, the Scot’s days were numbered. He was left out for Wise’s first match in charge with Eddie Lewis being asked to drop back into the full back position. He was recalled a couple of weeks later for the visit of Colchester, but after that the side’s form dipped alarmingly and Crainey picked up an injury in December which saw him lose his place again. This time he would not regain it, his last appearance being as a substitute in the win at Hull in January.
Crainey was released at the end of the season, and was picked up by Simon Grayson at Blackpool, who had taken United’s place in the Championship. He was an instant success at Bloomfield Road, helping Blackpool not only maintain their Championship status in that first season, but to eventually push on to earn a place in the Premier League under Ian Holloway
Most Leeds fans would have expected to see him horribly exposed in the top flight, but Crainey was remarkably solid, playing 31 times in Blackpool’s fairy-tale season. Since relegation he has signed a new contract at Bloomfield Road, earned a recall to the Scotland squad, and most remarkably of all, was picked out by Ken Bates as being "one that got away."
Stephen Crainey was probably unlucky to play at Leeds United when he did. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Tony Dorigo and Ian Harte was going to be a difficult task for anyone. When that is coupled with the fact that he was joining a club in turmoil, it is understandable that his form and confidence dipped. Away from the spotlight in Blackpool, he has rebuilt his career and is now one of the most dependable left back’s around. Hopefully he will revert to his Elland Road form tonight.