Extreme circumstances of a global pandemic may have dictated so, but it proved poetic that Tony Craig’s final game for Bristol Rovers was his 600 th career appearance, as the Gas delivered a brilliant display to beat Sunderland 2-0 at the Mem.
Craig proudly strode onto the pitch with his children, produced a trademark stoic display at the heart of the defence and then was celebrated on the field at full-time as the Mem was rocking.
Such was the magnitude of the occasion, it even drew a tear out of Millwall Tone, which takes some doing.
Eighteen months on, and with Ben Garner making the regrettable decision to release him in the summer of 2020, Craig will be back in north Bristol, this time bearing the colours of Crawley and with Saturday’s return symbolic given what has happened to the Gas since his exit.
Craig was a consistent performer for Rovers on the field, his durability and consistency a high bar for others to follow, bringing aggression, intelligence and a feeling of assurance to his teammates when he was on the field.
Over his two-and-a-half season he missed just 142 minutes of league football, starting 97 of a possible 98 matches; a remarkable record for a player in their early to mid-30s and supposedly in the twilight of their career.
But he was also a leader in the dressing room, an organiser and conduit between coaches and players and an overall presence that the club has never been able to replace. With those sort of qualities chronically lacking from the squad as they were relegated from League One, the season after Craig’s departure.
“I played against Rovers a few time when Craigy was in there; whether it was Lockyer in there or Alfie Kilgour next to him, and he’s one of those centre-halves who, whoever plays next to him, plays better, which is usually the sign of a good centre-half,” Barton said.
“In our second year at Fleetwood, we signed Peter Clarke who’s still cracking on at Tranmere and he’s in that mould, someone who’s been a great player, had a really good career and every club he’s been at he’s been the terrace hero because the way he goes about his business.
“I’m sure he’ll get a great reception because when you speak to people around the club, not only was he a good player but a good man and a good professional around the place.”
The general lack of leadership is something Joey Barton has tried to fix this summer with own north west version of Craig arriving in Mark Hughes plus midfielder Paul Coutts and Glenn Whelan, who is poised to join on a free transfer.
It helps bind the squad, set standards and give the younger elements of the team a reference point in terms of attitude and application, plus keep them in check.
It’s unsurprising therefore that Barton would have liked to have had Craig in his squad when he took over at the Gas in February.
“He’s someone that I would have liked to have inherited when I came here, as opposed to some of the players in those positions,” Barton added.
“If he’d been here when we came here, he would have been one of those more experienced players that we’re building the foundations for a new culture.
“So, I’ll have a chat with Tony but hopefully he has a terrible game and we win quite easily. And then after that, he can get the reception off the Gasheads that his performance for the quarters, when he put them on, will no doubt have been earned.”