James Craig on football in the US & Australia, overcoming injury & God

James Craig is a professional footballer, who has overcome injuries, played across the world from the US to Australia and through his faith and beliefs, continued to push on at the beautiful game.

In this exclusive, James shares his story.

James Craig holding a ball for Grafton FC
Source: Supplied

Zushan Hashmi: In a very short period of time, you’ve moved to several places and attempted to play for several teams. What is it about football that you love?

James Craig: One of the biggest things I love about football is its ability to bring people from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences together.

No matter who you are off the pitch, football gives you an opportunity to make a name on the pitch. I think that’s powerful.

I’ve been to tryouts where I don’t speak the same language as some of the other players, but I’ve been able to connect with them and even express myself through my performances on the pitch; it’s been unreal.

Another thing that I love is that football is a game of expression. Where I can truly be free. I thank God because it’s literally art for me. I can’t draw, I can’t sing, and I can’t act, but I can play football, and that’s my art.

How did you get involved in the sport, and why do you enjoy playing as a Full Back/CDM?

I signed up for my first team at 5 years old. It was just a recreational league, nothing like an academy, but that’s where it all started.

The more I played, the more I realized I sucked at the game, and it was that realization that motivated me to be better. I felt like the other sports I played came naturally to me, but for this one to be so difficult, I knew this was the only one that would push me to my limits.

Shortly after starting, I stopped doing all the other sports  (baseball, basketball, American football) I had been involved with and focused all my efforts on becoming a better footballer.

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I played the beautiful game year-round, joining a travel team and playing in the fall, at age 10, playing futsal in the winter, and playing for my respective schools (middle and high) in the spring. The summer, I devoted to individual training, as I believe there was always room to improve.

I enjoy playing in the fullback position because to me, there’s no better feeling than thwarting an attacker. It’s like scoring a goal to me. And I can do it for 90 full minutes. I also love crafting out an assist.

Usually, the goal is a highlight in and of itself, but I admire the precision of a pass behind the defence or the perfect weight of a quality ball into the box. In the centre-defensive mid position, I feel it’s much of the same, but I am given more license to dictate the tempo of the game.

If you look at the greats of this generation (Pogba, Kante, Gini Wijnaldum), whenever they pick the ball up from the back, they’re directly involved in starting the attack. If they win the ball from the opposition, the same applies, and when they or someone on the team loses the ball in the middle third of the pitch, they’re the first line of defence that can stop an attacker running the defenders ragged.

Don’t let that be the only reason you improve, but if playing professionally is your dream, put in the work, don’t listen to negative people, and find someone better than you to mentor you, so that you can learn from their experiences and improve.

Tell me about starting off with your college career and the experiences there?

I played one year of college football at two different colleges. My first year was also my first at university.

I actually played striker that year! I had a travel coach that was really adamant about me playing in a more attacking role due to my pace and finishing ability. Because of this knowledge and his suggestions, I decided to give it a shot. This decision was made a few weeks prior to arriving for my first team training session, and I did quite well in the season, given the shift from right-back to centre-forward in less than a year, even notching my first collegiate goal.

Really, I learned three things that year:

1) How to deal with not being chosen into the first team - Up to that point, I was the first name on the team sheet for my high school and club; the captain and leader for both. And even though I was out performing most of the players at the time in training, the head coach would choose the older, more experienced players when it came to the matches.

It wasn’t until later in the year, and the team had no chance of winning the conference, when I was given a chance to prove myself, which I did with a few good appearances and a goal that was contender for goal of the year: a 40-yard screamer, ironically from the left-back position (my only goal of the year).

2) How to push forward efficiently - As more of a defensive-minded player by trade, until that point, I had never been one to really dribble forward unless the situation absolutely required Before that year, after winning the ball back from the opposition, I would look to distribute as quickly as possible, not considering dribbling forward into space I had created due to my less-than-adequate dribbling skills and a lack of confidence on the ball.

Training with the attacking players rather than defenders on the team demanded that I be able to dribble much better and be fully in control of the ball at all times. This made me a better all-around player, as I now was able to add dribbling in tight spaces, shooting, and more accurate crossing to my arsenal.

I was now able to be as much of a threat in the offensive third of the field as I was in the defensive third. Much like how Trent Alexander-Arnold became a better fullback by playing in the midfield during his formative years, so did I become a better fullback by playing in the centre-forward position. An additional effect of playing in a strange position was that it allowed me to replicate the thoughts of a striker going against a defender, so in essence, I am able to read the movements of the other team, know their thoughts, and act accordingly, rather than reacting, to stop an attack.

One thing I did notice that was a bit different was the game in Australia was a bit more direct than the game in the US.

Wanting better is not a bad thing - After the season ended around November, I knew two things: first, I knew while it was not a mistake in coming to that university to play, to get where I wanted to be (a professional contract), I could not spend another year of eligibility there.

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I don’t believe in mistakes because God is intentional in all things, so I knew that in me choosing to go there, I was meant to learn something. At the same time, based on what I gauged during the season (my ability vs others’, my drive vs others’, and where I wanted to be after my time in college was over), in order to improve I needed to look for other avenues to continue my collegiate career.

Unfortunately, after leaving that university and attending a new one in the corresponding fall, I would not play another college game until 3 years later due to a multitude of factors; however, in that in-between time of not being able to play, I was still able to train, and because of my efforts, I was able to sign my first contract at the end of my last season playing college football.

Second, I had to improve my game. I knew that just because I was one of the better players at that specific location did not mean that I was one of the best players in the world.

After the season’s end, I started training individual aspects of my game, only somewhat relenting once I was doing the target movement, passes, weights, etc. to a consistency of roughly 90% or better. That is where I not only started to take my training seriously but nutrition, as well.

I started eating with the intention to bulk, accompanied with my regime of training twice a day (first with a ball and agility, the second with weights and for muscle), and gained 7 pounds of muscle in a month.

This is where my good ideas forged some of the great habits that I still keep to this day when it comes to nutrition, working out, or even during my “off” or recovery days.

James Craig tackling another player for Grafton FC in Australia
Source: Supplied

Who did you play for in Australia and what was that like?

When I played in Australia, the team I signed for was Grafton United FC, who play in the North Coast Football League.

The experience of going overseas and competing was an amazing experience. A lot of footballers don’t get an opportunity to have careers under contract unless the go to a prestigious academy or play at a D1 college, so to have a chance to go internationally and prove myself was a wonderful opportunity.

It taught me a lot about myself as it was my second time leaving America for football, but the first time I would be gone for so long (I spent a full year in New South Wales).

It took me about a week to get my body used to the time difference (16 hours ahead of where I lived beforehand), to shake off the jetlag (around 24 hours for my flights, including stops), and the change in heat and temperature [it snowed the day before I got on the plane in the US, but after landing in Australia, the heat was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)], but once I got settled, I was able to play a pivotal part in Grafton United’s top 4 run until a season-ending injury took me out of the line-up for the last few games.

How different is the sport in Australia and the US? And what were some of the things you were able to take across from Australia when you returned to play for the Georgia Revolution?

Quite a few aspects of the game play out very similarly between the US and Australia, actually. I was a bit surprised! I honestly had expected to have to shift my mindset completely to adapt to the Aussie style.

One thing I did notice that was a bit different was the game in Australia was a bit more direct than the game in the US.

Although both styles are far more direct than the tiki-taka style we see in Spain, most of the Australian players I defended against were more interested in taking on a man then distributing the ball, no matter their position on the field, whereas, in America, it’s more likely that you’ll pass the ball before the pressure comes, unless you’re in the opposing team’s final third.

Read our conversation with former Nepalese pro footballer, Kumar Thapa here.

Fortunately for me, because of the countries I’ve travelled to (Sweden, Finland, and Australia) to play, I’ve been able to adapt and add a few aspects of each country to my style.

From Australia, I’ve been able to add the ability to go forward with less fear. I feel like the players and coaches were more upset with me when I didn’t take the ball forward a bit! I’d say now I’m a bit more relaxed on the ball and willing to take a few people on when the time is right.

Football or soccer is still long and far from the minds of US fans, particularly those who follow American football. Do you think the sport has grown a lot since you started, and why do you think this is?

The sport has grown so much since I was young! I feel like Americans are definitely still on the fence because they value other sports, namely: American football, basketball, and baseball, as the “Big 3” of the sporting world in the US, but with each year, there has been an increase in fans and notoriety.

I have to attribute that success to what the US Men’s National team started to do in the 2010s with a good run at the World Cup that year, a good win over a top team Germany (2015), and Tim Howard’s insane performance vs Belgium (2014); however that continued rise definitely has to go to our women’s national team for absolutely dominating World Cup performances, and even winning the last two Women’s World Cups.

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What is it like to be a footballer in the US, and not score a gig in one of the big MLS clubs? Particularly, in terms of income and making a living?

Honestly, I haven’t given up signing for a big club, whether it be in the US or internationally. In the meantime, you do what you have to do to make ends meet.

When I moved down to Atlanta, and before I started playing with the Revolution, I was doing UberEats to make a bit of extra cash, which only lasted a month.

Right around the time I started playing for the club, I also started doing soccer training through a company. This opportunity really blessed me because I could share my love for the game while also finding different methods to train myself in between gigs.

Really, I attribute my current fitness and form to being able to work hard and play hard this past season/year.

James Craih on the football groumd
James Craig on the pitch (Source: Supplied)

How have you overcome the challenges you have faced in your career and what do you intend to do about it post-COVID-19?

I always try to take the challenges that I’m presented within stride.

The Bible says, “ Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything [James 1:2-4].”

So first and foremost, I give all the issues that I have, both in sport or otherwise, to God. Whether it be not being in the first team, injury, or even something like finances, I’ve made it a habit of at the very least praying about it before I say, think, or do anything else about it. That’s saved me heaps of worrying, trouble, and the like.

Like I mentioned before, I suffered a season-ending injury at Grafton that put me in the hospital for a bit and inevitably was key in my decision to come back to the US. Throughout that time of not being fit, moving back, feeling a bit defeated, then wanting to continue with football, I can very plainly say that the driving factor was not me, but God and His Will in me.

I dealt with a lot of loss and feelings of hopelessness after that injury, but because of my faith in God and His community of believers I have around me, I was able to push through.

During COVID, I saw an opportunity to make myself even better than I was, both on and off the pitch. I’ve been able to spend more time with God than ever, I’ve been training much more, and I feel so prepared for my next opportunity in the world of football.

My day has a schedule as if I were playing in Australia again, and everything is planned out: when I eat, sleep, and how I spend the time in between! I’ve also been talking to a lot of people with connections inside the game. I’m looking at being with a quality club or agent once the dust has settled.

Tell us about your experiences with Rookee, and being on there to share your fitness and training?

First I want to say that I truly love the idea of this app. Being able to have access to a pro athlete’s training, nutrition, and other aspects of their game just by downloading an app gives the aspiring player, or even the casual athlete, the opportunity to improve their game.

Alex and I connected about a year ago and things have just improved since then. Everyone I’ve spoken with at Rookee has one thing in mind: making athletes better, and that’s something I can get behind.

As a former soccer trainer myself, I was thrilled at the opportunity to share more about the workouts and training I do for myself to others on a platform like an app. It’s so much more accessible than what I was doing previously, and I even try other athletes’ regimes from time to time!

What do you say to young and upcoming footballers?

I think the most important decisions that allow you to profit on the pitch start off the pitch. So my first recommendation would be to know God and actually have a relationship with Him.

There have been so many moments in my career and even life where if I didn’t know God, or if I didn’t put Him first, I surely would’ve given up. It says in the Bible to, “ Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go [Joshua 1:7].” Because of that, I attribute all my successes so far and all the success I’ll have in the future to God.

Beyond that, “never give up.” Football is a game of opinions, and if a coach doesn’t think you’re a quality player: change. Their. Opinion.

Don’t let that be the only reason you improve, but if playing professionally is your dream, put in the work, don’t listen to negative people, and find someone better than you to mentor you, so that you can learn from their experiences and improve.

Any other thoughts/comments?

I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak here! I love football like it was my own child, but at the end of the day, it’s only a game. But because of the game, I’ve been able to do things like this, and use my platform to not only educate others but to speak on God’s behalf.

If you have taken the time to read this, please also take a few moments to look up John 3:16. It’s what drives me to do and be better than who I was the day before.

You can follow James Craig on LinkedIn.
For more Soccer content visit Sportageous.
Saqib Tanveer assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow him here on LinkedIn.

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