TOTD: Craig Malcolm

TOTD: Craig Malcolm

IT SHOULD be no surprise that a man with more than 100 goals for Stranraer in the last ten years is in the club’s Team of the Decade.

Craig Malcolm was more than just a regular among the goals in his two spells with the Blues; he also won over fans with his workrate and desire.

The striker, now with East Kilbride, was “delighted” to be in the team and said: “Stranraer means everything to me.

“I had probably the best time of my footballing career there.

“I know that I was probably not as blessed ability wise as all the other players in the Team of the Decade but I would like to think that the fans see me as a guy who always gave 100 per cent and happened to be in the right place at the right time to score all the tap ins from all the good players setting me up.”

Malcolm made the move from Arthurlie to Stranraer in 2010, following in the footsteps of Stevie Aitken, who returned to Stair Park from Dunterlie Park.

A third player – Sean Winter – would also make the move that summer, with Frank McKeown making it four, twelve months later.

Malcolm said Winter, who was also named in the Team of the Decade, making the move had been “a massive boost” and added: “The boys will probably not believe it but I was quite shy back then and having Sean coming with me was a big factor in me moving.

“Obviously, with Stevie, having played with him the season before and him going there and it was him that gave us the chance and took us there, it was a big help.”

Malcolm already had experience in the senior ranks having started his career at Raith Rovers.

He found the net against Ross County at the end of 2004 but was released the following summer.

Time in the amateur and junior ranks saw Malcolm impress but it was not until 2010 that he made the step up.

If strikers are judged on goals then Malcolm got off to the perfect start in the league.

A goal against Clyde on his league debut was followed seven days later by a strike against Albion Rovers.

Goals in the next three games ensured his return to the senior ranks had got off to the best start.

Malcolm said: “I think any striker will tell you the first goal is the most important and the longer it goes without a goal the harder it becomes.

“The goals get smaller and smaller and obviously to get off the mark right away and get that run going, I think I knew at the very start that it was going to be a good fit with me and Stranraer.

“Sean and myself came from Arthurlie and, at the time, there were a lot of boys who probably questioned whether we could play at that level.

“Even guys like Michael Moore in the dressing room before we had kicked a ball were kind of slagging us.

“The more confident and louder guys in the dressing room, Michael in particular, I always remember him saying ‘oh Junior boys, you are hopeless’ and winding us up and trying to get a reaction out of us.

“It was good to shut guys like that up and get a few goals early doors and show that we deserved to be there.

“It was friendly banter and everybody who knows big Mick and what he is like knows that it is nothing personal.

“He is always just wanting to slag you and get in your face one way or another.

“I always remember early doors him saying that to us and even after a couple of seasons he would still turn around to us and say ‘Junior boys’!

“He always said he would never play Junior and then towards the end of his career he had a season at Kilbirnie so I had the chance to slag him back for that – ten years down the line or whatever it was!”

Malcolm was a regular under Keith Knox and played alongside Moore and Armand One in the Stranraer attack.

Now 33, Malcolm was quick to praise the more experienced attacking duo for their role in ensuring he was a success with the Blues.

He said: “That first season I had Michael and Armand playing alongside me.

“The two of them were very experienced and they did enough talking on the park that I did not really need a manager telling me what to do as well.

“I think Mick will say that I did most of his running for him and Armand the same.

“It was good to come in and have two experienced players, who were totally different type of players from me.

“Two big targetmen so I could go and play off of them.

“They would take the hits and almost do the hard work for me and for me to do the easy stuff.

“It worked out well in terms of that with the two of them being there.”

However, not everything went smoothly for Malcolm during his time with the Blues.

He pointed to the play-off defeat to Albion Rovers in 2012, where the Blues lost on penalties at Cliftonhill, despite leading 2-0 from the first leg.

The striker’s involvement in the game came to a close on 70 minutes after suffering a serious injury.

He said: “Still to this day, I think that is the worst day of my footballing career.

“I broke my leg once before that and I always remember being about a 15-year-old boy and my dad moaning at me coming off the park saying ‘this leg better be broken’ as he took me to the hospital.

“I knew something was not right towards the end of the 90 minutes.

“The boy tackled me and I tried to play on, partly because I was terrified at the age of 24 or 25 of what my dad would say if I came off in such a big game!

“I tried to play on to the point where I could not even walk anymore.

“Unfortunately, we lost the game on penalties and I still look back and think ‘if I was playing and I was still on the park in that penalty shootout, I would probably have put my name forward for the first penalty’.

“I think Frank McKeown stepped up first and missed and was the only person in the full shootout to miss.

“I know it probably does not work like that but I still look back on things like that and think if I had stayed on the park and taken the first penalty then you never know, we might have won it.”

Promotion would come with the demotion of Rangers but that brought about a different challenge for Stranraer.

Knox’s squad now had to attempt to stay in Division Two, with the knowledge they had been preparing for the fourth tier.

In the end, it came down to the final game of the season – and what would turn out to be the final game of Malcolm’s first spell at the club.

Stranraer travelled to Stenhousemuir knowing only three points would ensure they would finish above the relegation play-offs.

Malcolm described it as “a massive achievement” avoiding an immediate relegation and also securing the chance to play Rangers the following season.

Stenhousemuir found themselves a goal down after four minutes, partly due to a wayward pass from their goalkeeper Chris Smith.

The Stranraer striker said: “It was more than a gift!

“To this day, it is still one of the hardest finishes for me.

“I remember the ball just taking ages to roll across the line.

“It was an open goal from about 14 or 15 yards out and I was thinking ‘should I dribble in with this or should I just hit it?’

“With the turn of pace I’ve got, which is not very good, I thought I am better just hitting it before somebody catches me.

“Thankfully, it went in.

“The goals just seemed tiny, even though there was nobody in them, just because of the importance of the game.”

John Gemmell equalised for the Warriors after David Mitchell saved his penalty but it would be a spot kick at the other end which proved decisive, with Malcolm stepping up.

He added: “I did feel extra pressure taking the penalty but probably more because my penalty record at that time was not great.

“I had missed one or two for Stranraer.

“Scott Agnew obviously took them for Stranraer in the first season and I had not hit many.

“I don’t even know if I was the penalty taker at that time.

“I think it was Darren Gribben who went down in the box and he wanted to take it.

“I just decided, I think at that moment I felt confident enough to go and score it.

“Certainly, putting the ball down, the wind was terrible that day and the ball would not sit on the spot.

“It seemed to take ages for it to settle before I hit it.

“Thankfully, it was one of the better penalties I have hit in my career and it went in.

“I have absolutely no idea why I took it.

“Chris Aitken was on the pitch and I am surprised he let me hit it.”

That game marked the end of Malcolm’s first spell at the Blues as he made the move up the A77 to Ayr United.

Travelling to Stair Park meant the frontman was missing his son’s football matches in the morning.

It also gave Malcolm a chance to link up with fellow Junior goalscorer Michael Moffat.

However, it was a partnership that did not click the way that many had expected, with Stranraer finishing above the Honest Men at the end of the season.

Malcolm said: “Don’t get me wrong, I think I came back to Stranraer as a more complete footballer.

“I played most of the season at Ayr in centre midfield because I could not get a game up front.

“I must have played 30 games in the middle of the park for Ayr and it probably made me realise that playing as a striker, before that all I was interested in was scoring goals.

“I did not really care about any other part of my game.

“I always went out there to work hard, score goals and that was all I cared about.

“I think going to Ayr, playing in midfield and realising when the midfielders got the ball you have got to move for them, show for the ball and create spaces for the midfielders, it helped me probably develop my overall game.

“Certainly, it was not what I had hoped for when I left Stranraer.”

Malcolm suffered a blow early in his tenure at Somerset Park when he found himself on the bench and Kevin Kyle preferred for a clash with Rangers.

The Blues hero said: “I was gutted.

“I had all my family coming down to watch the game, which was on TV.

“I was on the bench and think I only played the last half hour.

“I think at that point, it was pretty early in the season and we had only played maybe a dozen games, I had played every game before it.

“We had actually been doing alright but Michael Moffat had been scoring all the goals and I had probably only chipped in with two or three goals.

“I think the manager decided to go with Kevin Kyle for his experience and probably his physicality against a team where we knew we were probably not going to have a lot of the ball.

“That was a sore one to take.

“From there, I went six or seven games sitting on the bench and one of them was against Stranraer where Jammer (Jamie Longworth) scored a hat-trick in the 6-3 game.

“I was sitting on the bench thinking ‘what have I done here?’

“I had the chance to stay in a great Stranraer team and be part of that and I decided it was time to move on.

“There were times where I thought I had made a mistake but I suppose you cannot look at it like that and everything happens for a reason.”

A return to the Blues came at the end of the season and the striker quickly rediscovered his goalscoring touch.

It also allowed him to play alongside three of his good friends.

He said: “The season I came back, obviously Jamie Longworth was there, Sean was still there and Barry Russell was there as well.

“It was like three of my pals, who I have known since I was a boy.

“It was like living the dream and playing football with your pals for a season.

“Travelling into training was brilliant and I’m sure the three of them will tell you the same.

“There was nothing better than every single training session – whether it was rain, hail or snow – was brilliant because we were all pals travelling down to Stranraer and enjoying a pretty successful season, which helps.”

Beyond that, in his final season, Malcolm was able to tick off two personal milestones – 100 career goals and 100 goals for Stranraer.

He said: “I never actually thought about it until the start of the last season.

“I think I needed three goals for my 100 senior career goals and then another 15 or so for 100 Stranraer goals.

“I managed to get off to a really good start that season and scored eight or nine goals early in the season.

“Then, I think it was Iain Dougan (Cosmo), had said to me that I was on 97 goals.

“He said he was going to get a 100 goal shirt looked out for me and he would have to hand it over soon.

“Then, ever since that, it was the longest goal drought I have ever been on.

“I think I was stuck on 97 goals for about five months.

“Honestly, it was from the start of October until the end of February that I finally scored a goal.

“When I scored the 100th goal, it was not even enjoyment, it was just more relief to get it over with.

“I would like to think I was quite mentally strong and things did not play on my mind but that was in my head for months.

“I don’t like to admit it but Cosmo got in my head and actually started affecting me a bit.

“It was more him than anyone else that seemed to slag me for it and the more he slagged the better the chances I missed.”

Finally, the century of Stranraer goals came against Brechin City at the end of February 2017, making him second to only Jim Campbell since the club entered the league in 1955.

He said: “I think it was from a Willie Gibson free-kick.

“You know when Willie is crossing the ball it is going to be put in the right area with plenty of pace and power on it.

“It is really just a case of getting yourself into the right position and hoping that it hits off you.

“That’s what happened.

“I’ve always said that the type of player I am, I am never going to score goals unless I have got good players around about me.

“If you have got guys like Willie Gibson delivering the ball for you, it certainly becomes a lot easier.”

Looking back on his time at the club, Malcolm was quick to praise the fans for always making him and his team-mates feel welcome.

Despite picking up more than a few wins along the way, it was a thumping on the road that hammered home the connection between the fans and the players.

He said: “I remember under Brian Reid I was suspended for a game up at Dunfermline.

“I was sitting in the stand with David Barron and I think we lost 6-1.

“We were 2-1 down and I think Dunfermline scored three goals in five or six minutes right at the start of the second half.

“We were sitting in with the Stranraer fans and thinking they were going to turn on the players and rightly so because we were having an absolute stinker that game.

“To be fair, to every single fan, they all stayed until the very end.

“I did not hear any sort of abuse towards any players, which, for a team that is losing 6-1, you would not get that anywhere else.

“I think that is really when it hit home how special the fans are down there.

“Being at other clubs where they turn on you pretty quick when things are not going your way in a single game.

“We were 6-1 down, away from home, in a game where you would say, although Dunfermline were full-time, we were expected to go and compete with them.

“Every single one of the fans stayed to the end and clapped the players off the park.

“I remember turning to David Barron and looking at them in amazement and thinking it was pretty special to see something like that.”

Photos: Arthurlie, Jim Foy, Raith Rovers, Bill McCandlish, Albion Rovers, Stenhousemuir, Ayr United, Morgan Images