AFTER a series of relatively short spells bouncing around Scotland’s lower leagues and a brief stint south of the border, James Craigen finally has somewhere that he can truly call home. After sealing a loan move to Arbroath at the eleventh hour on transfer deadline day earlier this year, the 29-year-old has signed a permanent three-year deal at Gayfield after a handful of appearances for the Red Lichties last season.

For Craigen, the contract represents something he has rarely experienced in his career to date: security. Apart from three years at Firhill after being recruited from Edinburgh University as a youngster, the midfielder hasn’t remained at any of his previous employers for any more than two seasons but he is hopeful of easing that sense of instability during his time at the Angus club – especially given the overwhelming sense of insecurity that has engulfed the future of Scotland’s lower league footballers as a knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

The upcoming campaign will be something of a new beginning for Craigen. His team-mates’ impressive form, fixtures being rescheduled or abandoned and the early curtailment of the previous campaign meant that he struggled to make a big impression in Dick Campbell’s starting XI during his loan spell but with a fresh term on the horizon, he is confident that he can play his part in further success for Arbroath – and says that the warm welcome he received from senior figures at the club made signing a permanent contract a no-brainer for him.

“It’s nice to have a bit of security and a lengthy contract is always good,” Craigen said. “I’ve got a three-year contract so it’s good to get it signed. As you can imagine, the market in football is quite slow. The start date has been put back so it’s good that the club have offered me this contract and I’m really happy to have signed it.

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“I went on loan on deadline day in January and the team were doing really well. The first game we played away at Dundee United they won and the second game at home they won too, so quite rightly the manager wanted to keep the same team. We had a couple of games called off, one was abandoned, then finally we played Morton right before lockdown. I played that game, started in it and played well so that probably would have been me in the team for the foreseeable but then the season got curtailed early.

“I had been on loan at Forfar and Dick Campbell was there when I was in my first year at Partick Thistle so I got to know Dick, his brother and all the coaching staff – they’re pretty much all at Arbroath now. They’re good people and it’s a family-run cub at Arbroath.

“From the day I arrived in January they made me feel welcome, even the chairman and directors sent me a message welcoming me to the club and went out their way to make me feel welcome. I just thought they’re a team with a good side; they’re in the Championship, they’re there on merit and they want to be looking up the table rather than down. I thought three years there might be a good fit for me.

“Training is serious but it’s a good laugh as well. [Campbell] is a character; he’s infectious and it makes you want to go and play there when you’ve got someone like that leading the team. He’s so passionate about winning and stuff like that but he does it in the right way and we have a laugh as well which is good. It’s what you need really, that balance.”

Before the outbreak of Covid-19 brought the 2019/20 season to a grinding halt, Arbroath were one of Scottish football’s unlikeliest success stories. As a part-time team in a predominantly professional division, the deck was stacked against them from the off. And having gained two promotions in the space of three years, questions were asked of Campbell’s side, and whether they had the temperament to compete in Scottish football’s second tier. The last time they had competed in the First Division back in 2002/03, they finished dead last and 20 points behind ninth-placed Alloa.

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There would be no such failure this time though, and Campbell and his players made the nay-sayers look very foolish indeed. Not only did Arbroath steer clear of the relegation zone for the entirety of the campaign but had the season not been concluded early, they stood a very good chance of reaching the play-offs. In the end they had to settle for fifth; four points behind Dundee with a game in hand and with the second-best defensive record in the division to boot.

Such success could quite easily lead Craigen to dream of a shot at the play-offs come the end of the upcoming season, but the former Thistle, Raith Rovers, Dunfermline and Falkirk midfielder is keeping his feet planted squarely on the ground, even if he can’t help but wonder at what might have been.

He said: “Safety is first in our minds and I think we had just about guaranteed that really. Not mathematically, but we were looking up the way. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself but the play-offs were definitely a possibility. We had eight or nine fixtures left and we said to ourselves, ‘If we get a certain amount of points we might sneak in here.’

“It will be the same this reason, really. We’re not going to say, ‘We’re going for the play-offs next year’, we’re going to try and start the season well then see what happens. There’s no reason why we can’t do something special again.”

A tilt at the play-offs is not beyond the realms of possibility for the Red Lichties this season and they have done their chances very little harm by convincing centre-half Tam O’Brien to sign a three-year extension at Gayfield. Regarded by many as the Championship’s best defender, the deal to keep him tied to the club might just be the best bit of business they do all summer – and Craigen was quick to point out that the overriding sense of continuity will be of huge benefit to his side going forward.

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“Tam’s a great player,” he said. “There were a few teams that put bids in but he’s signed up on a new three-year deal. He’s got four years left now. He’s signed a new deal, I’ve signed for three years and I was speaking to the manager – they’ve got 13 of the squad all signed up who have been there for one or two years.

“That’s a great thing to have, all these lads that are used to each other. There are not many squads in the Championship now that are 13, 14-men strong at this point, especially who have all played together. That’s another positive too.”

While things are looking up for Arbroath, the same cannot be said for the club that gave Craigen his break in senior football: Partick Thistle. Relegated to League One on a points-per-game basis – an agonising 0.04 points behind Queen of the South in ninth – the Maryhill outfit have now suffered two demotions in the space of three unhappy years.

The rebuilding work has already begun in earnest with Ross Docherty and Ricky Foster signed up at Firhill, while a host of first-team players have left the club after their contracts expired. But rather than seeing his old team’s relegation as a negative, Craigen believes that Ian McCall has the chance to revitalise his players and get them firing this season – and reckons that anything less than a top-two finish must be viewed as a failure for the Jags.

“A club the size of Thistle are going to be challenging and they have to be challenging,” he insisted. “Them and Falkirk – I don’t want to disregard any of the other teams – they’ll probably be battling it out for the title. I think if they weren’t to finish in the top two then there would be something wrong really.

“With a slightly shorter season getting off to a good start will be crucial for them but the players that they’ve got – and they’ll probably add a couple – it’s exciting for them and they’ve got a great chance to get back into the Championship. Thistle want to be in the Premiership but they have to win this first and build a squad that can challenge next season as well.”

One of those players hoping to make a first-team impression at Thistle this coming season will be Blair Lyons, who has joined up for his first campaign with the Jags after completing a move in January before spending the remainder of the season on loan at Montrose. The winger has enjoyed an impressive rise after signing for the Gable Endies from Stirling University two years ago and will take his first steps in full-time football when League One gets underway in October.

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Craigen shares a sense of kinship with Lyons, having taken the leap from Edinburgh University to Thistle at the start of his career, and the midfielder says that the 23-year-old must fully believe in his own ability when he is given a chance by McCall, and warned not to get disheartened if first-team opportunities are hard to come by at first.

“When I signed it was pre-season, and Jackie [McNamara] and Simon [Donnelly] had assembled quite a good squad,” he recalled. “I was stepping up from university level to full-time football with Partick and I was thinking, ‘These lads have got a fair bit of ability’.

“In the first game of the season we played Falkirk – I was on the bench – and from that game we went 10 or 12 unbeaten. I couldn’t get in the team and I was watching them thinking, ‘How am I going to get into this team?’ We were winning and we were top of the league, we were flying.”

He continued: “You’ve just got to believe in yourself. Jackie signed me and he brought me to the club because he knew I had ability so that’s what I’d say to Blair. He’s there, he’s had a good season at Montrose and he just has to believe.

“There might be times when he’s not in the team but you’ve got to believe that you’re there because you’re a good player. These lads are not going to be better than you. You’ve got to have that self-confidence.

“It took me a couple of months to think, ‘I belong here, actually’ and it took me a while to get into the team at Thistle. But you’ve got to work hard, take every day as it comes, do the extra, make sure you’re the fittest there and just believe in yourself. Then when you get that opportunity you’ve got to take it. If he gets a chance from the manager then he’s got to do the business but not to put too much pressure on himself.

“It’s exciting for him. I loved it and I thrived in it. Especially because they’ve got a great chance of doing well and winning something this season which should be great for him as well.”