Portrait of the artist as a professional footballer

It started as a hobby, now painting is a second career for Jody Craddock. Jason Burt hears how tragedy shaped the player's life
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The Independent Football

It is not the norm for a football interview to cover such subjects as contemporary portraiture, landscapes and the virtues of oil over acrylic-based paint. But then Jody Craddock has always had a certain streak of individuality to him.

"I didn't think I was good enough for football," the Wolverhampton Wanderers defender offers as way of explaining how he began to nurture an interest in art which, when he eventually retires from the game, will become his new career.

It started with his A-levels. "I always made the point that I wanted to finish my studies," he says. So much so that he turned down the Youth Training Scheme at Bournemouth and waited until he was 18, quite late in League football terms, to join his first club, Cambridge United.

"At 16 I didn't think I was going to make it [in football]," he says with candour. "That's why I thought I needed my A-levels, and I did get them. I have always had that mentality."

At lowly Cambridge, where he stayed for four seasons, the doubts persisted. "I couldn't pass a ball. I was very competitive and passionate and that's what got me through the early days, along with a lot of hard work and graft," Craddock says.

Just in case it all didn't work out, he took a course in nutrition and physical education, and planned to become an instructor. But he couldn't afford to paint. "I did sketches with pencils because they didn't cost much," Craddock says. "I didn't have the money to buy paint. Materials aren't cheap, and I was on extremely low money."

Art is probably, he says, in the genes. His great-grandfather, for example, used to decorate the letters he sent back from the First World War trenches with pen- and-ink drawings, and Craddock himself never lost the desire.

A move to Sunderland, for £300,000 in the summer of 1997, helped, and was also a clear sign that he was a better player than he had given himself credit for. "I had a flat and a bit of time and it gradually came back," Craddock says of his painting. As with his football, the art is down to hard work. "I taught myself how to oil-paint," he says, preferring that medium because of its speed. "It's my style, although I have used other mediums."

By now Sunderland were flying, and so was Craddock. He was a Premiership footballer. With success came a greater desire to paint. It is, he says, a "release" from the day-to-day pressures. "Away from the football, I can concentrate on the painting," he explains. His work was recognised, galleries wanted to show it and soon he was exhibiting in the North-east and London. It was no longer just a hobby.

Then a terrible thing happened. In August 2002 his four-month-old son, Jake, died, a victim of cot death. "I found myself painting every single day," Craddock says. "It most definitely helped me deal with the situation. It was how I coped. It was good for me."

Among his most treasured works are paintings of his wife, Shelley, and Jake. Two pictures hang in the couple's bedroom. "It isn't hard," he says of the constant reminder. "It's something we talk about, and we remember Jake for the good things. The bad things are as far from my mind as I can put them."

It helps that the couple have since had another son, Joseph. Craddock has donated work to the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) charity, helps with fund-raising and next year plans an auction, with Premiership shirts up for sale along with his paintings. Unsurprisingly, much of his subject matter revolves around the game.

"I have also been doing pictures which are far from it, but I am in football and I do enjoy it, and some of the images are so good and so striking that I like to put that in a painting," Craddock says.

He picks out a portrait of Arsenal's Thierry Henry and one of Chelsea's Frank Lampard and John Terry celebrating. "They are also signs of how I've progressed," he says. "I always think I can paint something that someone will want to hang on their wall."

He doesn't, given his success in the game, have to worry about sales just yet. A painting is completed every two weeks. "I don't push it," Craddock, who has a studio at the top of his Worcestershire home, says. "If I think it's good enough there's a friend of mine who's got an art shop in Wolverhampton and I take them down, he puts them in, and I get the feedback. If people buy them, then that's great."

The demand has been good. His work now sells for around £1,000 apiece. Buyers have included the Sunderland manager, Mick McCarthy - who has pictures of rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison - plus his former team-mates Jason McAteer and Thomas Sorensen. At Wolves, whom he joined for £1.75 million after Sunderland's fire sale following their relegation two years ago, there have been commissions from team-mates, who want family portraits.

There was also one from the club's president, Sir Jack Hayward, of the players celebrating at the Millennium Stadium after promotion to the Premiership was gained in the 2003 play-off final. "It was the most time-consuming piece I've ever painted," he says, as it had to include all the members of the squad.

Being a footballer has certainly helped his profile. "Of course," Craddock says. "Any artist getting that much publicity can only be good, and being a footballer has helped it along the way. But now I know it can also sell itself. People are stopping because they see the pictures, not because they read the name." He even has his own website to market his work. "It's moved on," Craddock says of his work. "What I like is that I don't have to get pigeonholed into one thing. I don't have to do football pictures, I do landscapes as well, and other stuff."

One of his favourite artists is Rolf Harris, whom he feels is "extremely under-rated". It is, perhaps, a trait he recognises, having been hard on himself in the past.

Now 30, Craddock is into the final year of his contract at Molineux. Not that he will be turning to his palettes full-time just yet. He is in talks to extend his career at Wolves and believes, after suffering relegation from it with two clubs, that he can return to the Premiership.

The signs are good. "We're in a very strong position [in the Championship]," Craddock says. "And there's no reason why we can't progress. It's a good division, very competitive, and anyone from the top six can win it. This is a big club and deserves success."

Jody Craddock's work can be found at www.craddock-art.com

A BRUSH WITH THE ART WORLD

Jack Russell

The former England wicketkeeper's brushwork is as assured as his glovework was. Apart from cricket scenes, his favourite subjects include matters military, and he has his own gallery in his native Gloucestershire.

John McEnroe

Also has an eponymous gallery, in New York's SoHo rather than the shires, but is strictly a patron rather than a practitioner. If Venus Williams visits, she is more likely to paint the walls rather than anything to be hung on them; she is the founder and president of an interior-design firm.

Philip Blacker

After 13 years and 340 winners, the jump jockey (pictured) swapped fences for the foundry, becoming a full-time sculptor. Subjects include Red Rum and Desert Orchid.

John McDermott

This young heavyweight in Frank Warren's stable likes to put his opponents on canvas - he's knocked out 13 of them so far - but when it comes to art he's also happiest sculpting busts and bronzes.

David James

A keen portraitist, the goalkeeper's recent subjects include Rio Ferdinand. Given his own accident-prone England career, James's style could perhaps be described as more drop art than pop art.

Ross Nesdale

The former Ireland hooker trained as a graphic artist, and when he isn't coaching the Newcastle Falcons forwards he can often be found in front of his easel. Most bizarre work? Got to be the life-size model cow he illustrated which won first prize in Auckland's annual Cow Parade. Only in New Zealand...

Simon Redfern

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