First published 2016
Football fans take great delight in chanting ‘He’s one of our own’ when a home-grown player performs admirably on the field of play.
It’s no different within the stands at Rochdale AFC, where there have been few local players to attract the native pride Craig Dawson has.
It’s easy to understand how a great many that have played for nearby Manchester United or Liverpool have grown up supporting these clubs and claim to have fulfilled a boyhood dream when stepping out in their colours.
It’s not so easy to recall many Rochdale players who have made the equivalent claim.
But when Dawson delivers such an assertion, there’s no doubting him. Here is an affable, genuine fellow whose love of the club, and football in general, is palpable. He entered the professional game the less fashionable way and his career trajectory since has all the substance of a Roy of the Rovers comic strip.
It’s a cliché, granted, but there is no denying the involuntary double take one performs when considering Dawson went from playing non-league football to the Premier League in just two years, before going on to win England Under-21 caps and represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games.
Not that the man himself is in any way thunderstruck. There is no arrogance or showy cockiness here, just a quiet self-confidence in his ability and an unwavering dedication to the biggest factor of all in achieving success – hard work.
Born in Rochdale in 1990, Dawson was raised in the Spotland area of the town, just half a mile along the road from the stadium of the same name. He attended Meanwood Primary School and Oulder Hill High School during his seminal years.
‘When I was at Meanwood, Rochdale’s football-in-the-community coach, Keith Hicks, used to come in a couple of times a week to run a soccer school,’ Dawson recalls. ‘I got involved and, as part of that, we’d get invited to Rochdale games. A lot of my school friends were big Rochdale fans anyway, so there was a good few of us used to go when we were young. I remember Kevin Townson was playing up front around that time and Steve Parkin was manager. Rochdale were doing quite well and it was good to watch. I collected quite a few replica shirts growing up.
‘It was definitely always my dream to be a professional footballer, but I had never signed for a club’s centre of excellence or academy. I just didn’t get that opportunity. Nothing came of the Rochdale soccer schools or anything that I tried anywhere else. It didn’t look like it was ever going to happen. As I went through high school, I kept myself fit by running a lot and I played other sports, too. I was a batsman for Rochdale Cricket Club in the summer months, but it was always football that interested me the most.’
A teenage Dawson kept himself in pocket as a glass collector at the Dog and Partridge pub on Bury Road, and kept himself fit by turning out for Rochdale St Clements, a local amateur side.
‘I suppose I got my first proper taste of “men’s football” when I was playing for St Clements’ first team,’ he says. ‘My brother Andy is four years older than me and he had been playing for them for a while. He was in the first team and I had started out in the fourth team. I got a lucky break when the first team was a player short one day and I found myself drafted in just because I was there. I did well and got a run of games after that. I know I’m a defender now, but I was playing right wing, up front, everywhere, back then. It was my first experience of adult football, and it was a steep learning curve, but I loved it. I stayed in the first team for the rest of that season and we won the league and cup double.
‘That was my life at that point. I was working in the Dog on a Thursday and Friday night, glass collecting, as I wasn’t old enough to serve beer, and playing for St Clements on a Saturday, before going back to the Dog to do another shift at night.
‘By this time, I was at Hopwood Hall College, too, studying for my A-levels. I was studying PE, IT and sociology, of all things. I suppose I eventually saw myself going to university to study sports science or coaching.’
In 2007, with Dawson aged seventeen, a well-known representative from Northern Premier League side Radcliffe Borough saw potential in the teenager and, before long, he was an integral part of their starting XI. It was here he established his reputation as a goal-scoring centre-half, notching fifteen times in ninety-five appearances.
‘Bernard Manning Junior was the chairman of Radcliffe at the time,’ says Dawson. ‘I went to high school with his son, Ben. He knew of me because both me and Ben played football for Oulder Hill and he would watch the games. He’d seen me play for St Clements a few times, too. He was in the Dog one Friday night and he said: “Are you coming down to Radcliffe for training?” I laughed it off. I thought he was joking. He kept on at me, though, and then I knew he was serious. I agreed and he took me down there. Initially it was just for pre-season training. I did okay and they put me in the team for a friendly against Salford. The manager at the time, Kevin Glendon, was worried about me because I was only seventeen and I was playing in an adult league. I ended up making a tackle on the halfway line and took this guy right out. I remember seeing Bernard and Kevin on the sideline laughing and nodding in approval. Radcliffe signed me on the basis of that match.
‘The standard in the Northern Premier was way higher than I’d experienced at St Clements up to that point, but I really liked the challenge of playing centre-half. There were a lot of ex-pros there – such as Mike Flynn who had been at Stockport. They all looked after me and taught me quite a lot.
‘When I was at St Clements I had played higher up the pitch and scored a few goals. My brother was a centre-half and always used to score from corners, so I tried to copy him. It became a habit. Everybody wants to score a goal in a game but it’s harder for defenders, obviously. I guess I got the knack from having played in different positions while I was developing as a player at St Clements.’
By now, Rochdale manager Keith Hill, in his first spell in charge of the club, was developing a reputation for bringing on promising young players. Word of Dawson’s Radcliffe performances reached Spotland. However, it took Hill a while to decide that the teenager would be more than capable of making the step up from non-league to League Two.
‘I’d played a good six months at Radcliffe and was doing well,’ Dawson remembers. ‘I was on £50 a week and was made up that someone was paying me to play football. I really enjoyed the laugh I had with my team mates and the experience on the pitch. I’d gone from playing on fields and parks to a tidy little ground. It was still a far cry from the professional environments I’ve played at since, but I wasn’t really thinking about anything else too far into the future. Then I got told Accrington Stanley were interested in me and then Rochdale and Crewe Alexandra shortly after.
‘Rochdale invited me down to train with them and I couldn’t believe it − my home-town club. I went there for a month and trained with the first team, but it was a massive step up. Massive. After the month was up, I was told they weren’t interested. I was gutted. Then Crewe put a decent bid in, which was accepted by Radcliffe. I went down to speak to them but I turned Crewe down. I felt it wasn’t the right decision for me. It was a huge decision to do that, being a part-time footballer, but it didn’t feel right. A week later, [Rochdale assistant manager] Dave Flitcroft phoned me up and said: “We want to sign you if you still want to be part of what we’re doing here.” He told me they were willing to take a chance on me. I was over the moon. Radcliffe accepted their bid and I went straight over there and signed. It was funny, because all my mates were still watching Rochdale every week. I didn’t tell them I’d been training with the club. When I told them I’d actually signed for Dale they were all well chuffed. They couldn’t believe it.’
Dawson signed a two-year contract with Rochdale in February 2009 but was allowed to see out the season with Radcliffe as part of the deal. He left the club in style, too, being named their Player of the Year.
‘Hilly decided I could still play for Radcliffe at the weekends and train with the Rochdale first team during the week, getting to know the lads and so on. I wasn’t going to walk straight into the first team, so he wanted me playing competitive games. During the week, Hilly and Dave Flitcroft put a lot of work into me. I think they saw me as their little project. They wanted to make me a success. They were doing one-on-one drills with me − a lot of extra work. I took that into my games for Radcliffe and felt I improved massively. The difference training every day made to me was immense.
‘I had a good year at Radcliffe and was sad to leave. It was a good club and I made a lot of friends. It was great to be honoured the way I was, being named Player of the Year, and everybody there wished me well now I’d achieved what I’d wanted to do since I was a boy. I was a full-time footballer.
‘I remember walking into the office at Rochdale with Colin Garlick [the club’s chief executive] to sign my contract and Kevin Glendon was with me. He said: “Everything you want is right here. This is just the start. You need to crack on and work hard. This is your opportunity.” I knew he was right. I thought: “I’m finally on the ladder.”
‘Rochdale gave me a programme to work on over the summer to get me ready for a full-time pre-season. I was the fittest I’d ever been after that. I met up with everyone for pre-season and we went away to Spain for a week of intense training. I was welcomed fully into the fold and very much felt part of the squad.
‘Nathan Stanton and Rory McArdle had formed a great partnership the previous season in the centre of Rochdale’s defence. I accepted that it would be a very difficult partnership to break. Part of the deal that saw me move to Rochdale was that Radcliffe got a friendly out of it. I started that game alongside Rory but then he dislocated his shoulder. We were only a couple of weeks away from the first league game. I was given my chance a lot earlier than expected because of Rory’s injury and I found myself starting against Port Vale away to start the season. I remember Joey Thompson scored for us in a one-all draw and the away end going mad. It was incredible. I would have been stood in there myself a few years ago. I remember going back to Rochdale Cricket Club after the game, because my brother had been playing for them that day, and the attention I got was amazing.
‘Everybody wanted to speak to me about the game and how it felt to play.’
Dawson’s first season at Spotland was a rousing success. His goals from centre-half and his ability to play the ball out from the back contributed to Rochdale’s first promotion since 1969. Quite rightly, he was named in the League Two PFA Team of the Year.
‘To establish myself and get that much success in my first full season as a professional footballer was unbelievable. I owe so much to Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft for that. I joined a very well-organised, talented side that was already well on the way to being successful. I felt like I slotted straight in and, even to this day, I’m still in touch with a lot of lads from that time.
‘The morale was superb. Rory McArdle was a big character in the dressing room and Tom Kennedy was the biggest joker when I was there. I got on best with Jason Kennedy, I would say, though. We were both quite quiet in the dressing room, so we seemed to gravitate towards each other. Joey Thompson was a Rochdale lad as well, so we shared car journeys. We were both the focus of extra training, too, so we spent a lot of time together.’
However, just as his performances for Radcliffe had attracted Rochdale, his performances at Rochdale enticed the Premier League. As the summer transfer window was about to close, West Bromwich Albion snapped up Dawson for an undisclosed fee on a three-year contract. The Dale faithful were not to be deprived of seeing the star defender continue to light up League One, however, as the Baggies loaned Dawson back to the club for the remainder of the 2010/11 season.
‘I was aware of the interest from West Brom and was conscious that Rochdale had turned down a few bids,’ says Dawson. ‘In the end, the club decided to let me go and it was a chance for me to go to the Premier League, which nobody would ever turn down. From a football point of view I was excited but, emotionally, I was very sad to leave Rochdale. I knew I’d be coming back on loan for the rest of the season as part of the deal, so that made it easier. The best place for me to keep developing at that time was at Rochdale as I wouldn’t have gone straight into West Brom’s first team.
‘Having finished the season strongly with Rochdale, I arrived at West Brom in the summer of 2011. I did a full pre-season with the club. I felt ready, but the step up was incredible. Roberto Di Matteo and Dan Ashworth had been the ones to sign me, but, by the time I arrived at West Brom, they’d gone and Roy Hodgson was in charge. He was a great coach, but, in hindsight, I maybe should have had a spell in the Championship first, as I can’t overstate the increase in standard enough. That said, I learned so much by training with Premiership players. It’s an experience you can’t beat. Yes, I had two frustrating years at West Brom where I didn’t play enough games, but I never stopped learning. Learning was all well and good, but not playing games did hinder my development. Looking back on it, I should definitely have gone out on loan sooner.
‘You see, you get away with so much more in League One and Two. Here, in the Premier League, every tiny mistake costs you – and the pace the game is played at doesn’t give you any time. It was difficult to get in the team.
‘I was given my debut against Bournemouth in the League Cup in August. They weren’t a Premier League team back then and we won 4-1. I remember I was then given an opportunity in the Premier League at Swansea a few weeks later. We were 2-0 down after twenty-five minutes and lost the game 3-0. After that, Roy Hodgson decided to go with Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson and they formed a great partnership.’
One positive that did follow Dawson’s Baggies debut was him being called up into the England Under-21 squad by Stuart Pearce.
‘It was out of the blue,’ Dawson recalls. ‘I remember the car picked me up at the house to take me to training. It was an England-branded car and everyone on the street was out looking at me. I didn’t even think I would make the bench for the qualifying game against Azerbaijan, never mind start. I scored with my first touch down at Watford wearing an England shirt. It was very special.
‘We won almost every game in that qualifying campaign and then went to Israel for the European Championship finals in 2013, but we simply didn’t perform out there and finished bottom of the group. It was great for me to experience an international tournament, though. I had so many texts of support after each appearance for the under-21s. It was great.’
Clearly impressing while with the national under-21 side, Dawson was also selected by Pearce for the Great Britain 2012 Olympic football team; where he went on to score a penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out defeat to South Korea.
‘I was doing some running ahead of pre-season and had my phone buried in my bag somewhere when the Olympic squad was announced,’ Dawson says. ‘I didn’t have a clue I was part of it. I dug my phone out later and had so many missed calls and text messages from friends and colleagues. Loads of media people were trying to get hold of me, too. I thought: “Wow, I’d better go home!”
‘To be a part of Team GB in London was a huge honour. I played alongside Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy, who were absolute perfectionists. Stuart Pearce is a very passionate man, too, but he’s really calm in the dressing room, which is probably not what people would expect to hear. He puts a lot of work into developing his players. He was brilliant during the Olympics. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be part of something like that. The Opening Ceremony alone was breath taking.’
On the domestic front, Dawson had committed his next three years to West Brom but further management changes hampered his first-team progress. Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers all vied to exploit the situation, with the latter managing to get Dawson in on loan. While it meant dropping down a level to the Championship for a while, Dawson was simply happy to play regular football again, scoring four goals in his first six appearances.
‘I just needed to play games and it was only the England Under-21s that had kept me going in that regard. Bolton provided an opportunity to play on a more regular basis. They needed a centre-half and I was it. My time there gave me the confidence I needed to reaffirm I was more than capable at a higher level.
‘I want to play at as high a level as I can for as long as I can. I’ll just keep working as hard as I can every day with the ultimate aim of making the senior England squad. Look at the career Rickie Lambert had after leaving Rochdale. That’s what I aim to do. If I look after myself, hopefully I’ll keep improving.
‘You know, when I look back, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft made Rochdale an unbelievable experience for me. They made the place like one big a family. If it wasn’t for the work they put into me during and after training, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham and Dan Youngs