The One Battle The Beast Couldn’t Win

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You could see how prepared the TV news channels are for the inevitable this month. When the one modern figure who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with history’s greats died in Johannesburg, they were ready to run the hours of video tributes they’d salted away years ago in readiness for the sad event. I feel I ought to have been equally ready to report on today’s unfortunate news. Mark Creighton’s decision to call it a day has felt sadly inevitable for a while.

It’s been painful to watch him constantly break down as he’s tried to get back into action. It almost seems as if backing in and hopping for a flick when he’s playing as an emergency target man doesn’t tax his limbs so much, but when he has to attack the ball for a defensive challenge time and again he asks too much of himself.

The moment when he went down on a boiling hot day at Ebbsfleet and didn’t get up again was chilling. Even back then there was a horrible feeling in the back of my head that we might be witnessing something catastrophic. For one thing, it felt so wrong that the seemingly invulnerable Creighton wasn’t just shaking off the knock and cracking on with things. This must have been really serious.

The immediate worry was that a man of his size would struggle to shake off a serious injury. The weight of such a muscle-bound player was bound to put such strain on his knee, and although none of us wanted to admit it out loud, Creighton’s ability to return at the level he’d been consistently performing at for the previous year and a half was always going to be in doubt.

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Creighton put in a hell of a good shift for Wrexham though. Such was his influence that it feels like he played more than 86 times for us, but his period as the reference point of our defence coincided with the greatest spell of defensive parsimony in the club’s history. Each of the seasons he spent at The Racecourse feature in the top ten best defensive seasons in the club’s history, and the one full campaign he managed with us saw us concede fewer goals than in any other season.

Least league goals conceded in a season by Wrexham.

Least league goals conceded in a season by Wrexham.

I was thrilled when Dean Saunders drafted Creighton in, as he’d impressed me whenever I’d seen him play against us. I was even more excited when, as his loan spell continued to go well, the noises from Oxford seemed to suggest they didn’t want him back.

Creighton’s contribution went far beyond his prodigious efforts on the pitch though. Sometimes a player’s personality manages to cross the boundaries of the pitch and appeal to the fans on a level deeper than merely what they do on the pitch. The Beast certainly achieved that. He never did anything by halves; his blunt instrument of a header to score against Woking on the first day of last season (2.56 below) summed him up. Nothing was going to get in his way. Just as it’s hard to imagine The Racecourse without Joey Jones, it’s difficult to conjure with the thought of Mark Creighton not being around.

Creighton hasn’t had all that many central defensive partners over the years. His alliance with Nat Knight-Percival stands out, of course, as they were the cornerstone of that remarkable 98-point season. They complemented each other perfectly: Creighton the big stopper, Knight-Percival able to cover around the back of him with his mobility. What a shame that he never got to recreate that partnership with Martin Riley: I can’t help thinking that if The Beast had avoided injury on that fateful day and a Creighton-Riley partnership had developed, the big man would be playing in the Football League right now.

There were other impressive pairings though: he started off alongside Marvin Andrews, and after a debut in which the duo had been magnificent, repelling York constantly at Bootham Crescent to earn a point, Creighton was agog to describe the awesome power of the Trinidadian on a rare day when his defensive partner was the aggressively dominant one for once, and he just had to cover the scraps. It was Creighton who would go on to make a far more significant impact for Wrexham though.

Sadly, we never got to see the Gog and Magog pairing of Creighton and Dave Artell, although you might be surprised to hear that as Andy Morrell is forced to scroll through all his possible defensive options. Of course, that’s down to the loss of Creighton as a reference point at the heart of the back four. It’s sobering to consider that he had just three defensive partners in that record-breaking 2011-12 season (Knight-Percival, Chris Westwood and a nineteen minute stint with Steven Wright.) We’ve already had fourteen central defensive pairings this season.

Mark Creighton leaves the pitch for the last time after breaking down against Gresley.

Mark Creighton leaves the pitch for the last time after breaking down against Gresley.

Of course, football is a hard-nosed business and we can’t ignore the fact that Creighton, a man who did so much for us by putting his body on the line, has put us first again. This announcement isn’t just an admission that injury has got the better of him; it’s a parting gift to Andy Morrell. By timing the decision in this way, Creighton has given Morrell plenty of time to weigh up his options: he now has extra room to manouvre with his wage budget as he looks to bring players in. They’ll have big shoes to fill though.

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