Carl Craig: the man with the punk past leading Minnesota United into MLS

The Loons are joining MLS as an expansion team, and leading them into the promised land is a coach whose approach is best described as open-minded

In his early years, in the 1980s, he was there on the picket lines supporting striking miners. There to rage against a machine fixed against the British working class and their way of life a world from which he came. There, too, to witness the brutal policing that came with it. And there to watch on in horror as the soccer world got a dose.

Because the end of the decade saw another policing disaster: the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough, innocent victims who were later blamed. Carl Craig, son of Newcastle, England, recognized it as another example of the worst excesses of the times, when soccer fans were treated like shit, virtual second-class citizens. The policies of Margaret Thatcher claimed many victims. And Craig was one of its agitators: protester, advocate, and punk musician.

Today, Craig is the high functioning head coach of presumptive 2017 MLS addition Minnesota United. The now 50-year-old Craig is the man tasked with leading the Loons into the promised land from the less celebrated confines of the North American Soccer League. For a football man, hes unorthodox and refreshing.

To his players and the Minnesota United staff, Craig is indeed no run-of-the-mill soccer coach. He is the friendly, impressionable funnyman now leading their team down a merry road. That colorful biography threads through his approach to management. Lapsed punk musician, former bike messenger, one-time aspiring vegan restaurant owner. Somehow those experiences all seem to find life around the Minnesota camp. In his coaching, he broaches into New Age territory. Meditation. Even hypnosis. But behind the jocular atmosphere, behind his unusual methods, lies a well-respected, serious football man.

One of a kind, is how Minnesotas veteran midfield man Aaron Pitchkolan describes his boss. His enthusiasm for the game, Pitchkolan goes on, is unique. He knows his soccer. Theres no doubt about it. The way he approaches the game hes obviously super knowledgeable as far as tactics go. And then on top of that I think hes great when it comes to dealing with the players.

Yet many of the players, the 33-year-old says, at least until very recently, didnt know much about the punk past of the man with the strange accent and peculiar banter.

For Craig, it all started playing boys soccer in the north-east of England. An aspiring defensive midfielder, occasional right-back, his on-field career suffered in his mid-teens. His parents had earlier divorced, and his mother, remarried, had moved to the Middle East. And I didnt want to go, Craig tells the Guardian. I was essentially looking after myself. You know, a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old lad, a bit daft, not too stupid but its tough when youre trying to make the world work for yourself at that age. Having to get to places, et cetera, et cetera. Football just kind of fell by the wayside to be honest.

By then he was listening to punk music, and forming an affinity with left-leaning political causes. He toured Britain with punk bands, joining Newcastle-based group Reality Control. Chumbawamba, who had a hit in the late 90s with Tubthumping, were among his friends. Back then he was a vegan, inspired to run a whole foods co-op out of the spare room in his flat. Usually broke, surviving on unemployment checks in a dismal Britain of the time, he nevertheless remained a beacon of hope.

We got into the idea of opening a vegan restaurant, so I would hitch-hike around Britain visiting vegetarian places and vegan places, which back then there werent a lot of, Craig explains. But the lack of finances made the dream elusive. We didnt have a pot to piss in, really, he laughs, so no one was going to touch us. But it was a great experience. The music kind of tied in with it it was an educational time of my life, very enriching.

In that vein, along the way Craig had acquired his full English FA badge he now holds a number of other top coaching qualifications including a Uefa A license which of course led to the United States. Prior he had worked for the FA in the English north-east, as well as for the Newcastle United academy system along with Sheffield Wednesday. At the same time, he continued playing for fun in local leagues. Since first arriving in the US in 1994, Craig has coached across the youth ranks as well as at the Premier Development League and National Premier Soccer League levels. He has been with Minnesota since 2010.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Ibson of Minnesota United FC and Lucky Mkosana of the New York Cosmos in action in Hempstead. Photograph: Mike Stobe/New York Cosmos/Getty Images

So far, Craigs methods seem to be working. Theyre in fourth place after a decent NASL spring season and the fall season starts this weekend.They are shaping a team primed to enter an MLS top-flight next year. Craig replaced former head coach Manny Lagos, now club sporting director, in the close season, as Minnesota accelerated preparations for the jump. But Craig insists he shouldnt be seen as a stop-gap appointment. He signed a two-year deal and fully expects to be in charge at the start of next season.

His approach can probably best be described as open-minded. The hypnosis, the meditation, the motivational techniques, they all serve one master: helping the individual. I think football is a little bit superficial in so much as saying its a goal. Youve got to think of bigger goals in terms of what you gain when you win a football match, what you gain when you win the championship. From a life perspective, what you gain when you win those things is I think where the truth lies.

He might sound like a partially reconstructed hippie, but some of his players seem receptive. Its thinking outside of the box, thinking in ways that soccer players perhaps dont think, says Pitchkolan. He says: If this works for you, Im opening up new doors then go for it. But if its not, if its something you dont want to do, he doesnt force you to do it.

Craig might have been living the US more than 20 years but the Newcastle brogue and banter lingers. Some might sometimes get lost in the cultural divide. Not just between Britain and the US, but also for those from elsewhere. Experienced Brazilian center-back Tiago Calvano isnt necessarily one while playing for Sydney FC in Australia, the former Sunderland and Leeds United player Michael Bridges schooled the big Brazilian in the local Geordie lingo. Im used to listening to [Craigs] accent, Calvano says, laughing off some of the idiosyncrasies of the Newcastle dialect. Newcastle is a bit different from everything as well but my ear is ready to adapt with each accent so for me its not a big deal.

Craig mischievously points to language problems closer to the American heartland. Weve got a lad, one of our media fellas, and he quotes me so he does interviews during the week post-game and stuff and he puts quotes out there, he says, and to be honest with you it just doesnt make sense, what he writes. Even if you read it back to him, its like it doesnt even make sense in any form of English.

So he obviously doesnt understand what Im saying even though he works for our club. He just throws words in there and guesses. Its unbelievable! I said to the main media guy, I says: Have you read what hes quoted me as saying? It does not make sense whatsoever.

He likes a laugh but hes mindful not to cross a line, not to let the jokes go too far. But Craig still sees himself as a bit of a punk at heart. Im very much into alternative stuff. I believe in the power of people, people doing good for each other, that kind of thing, he says. I dont dress like a punk rocker, I dont necessarily hang out in punk bars. But I feel very much affinity. Even at a supporters do last night, he adds, Im there with me suit on. But Im hanging out with the people with the bright colored hair and the punk shirts. Im very comfortable in that sort of environment.

The days when he coached at the PDL level reminded him of those days on the road with his band. The shit traveling, the shit hotels was just like being in there. I said to the lads: Its just like being in a shit band, he says. Nae money, starving, sleeping on floors and that sort of thing, you know. Not any more. The protest is almost over. MLS beckons.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/jun/29/carl-craig-head-coach-minnesota-united-mls

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