FA Cup Countdown: Portrait of the footballer artist

Jody Craddock's passion for painting has helped the Wolves defender brush off the pressures of professional football and overcome the grief of family tragedy. As he prepared to face Manchester United this weekend, he talked to Phil Shaw
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Slipping between Jimi Hendrix and Thierry Henry in the studio above the family home, while taking care not to elbow Muhammad Ali, James Dean or David Beckham, Jody Craddock considers the contradiction at the heart of his dual existence as a footballer and an artist.

As a central defender with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Craddock's job is to disrupt and destroy creativity. He could be said to be a member of the clattering classes. Yet in his free time he goes "to the opposite extreme", serenely indulging a passion for painting that has led to his selling several pictures and being commissioned for others.

Tomorrow's FA Cup meeting between Wolves and Manchester United will bring the dichotomy into sharp relief. The 30-year-old Craddock has committed Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy to canvas. At Molineux, he will be striving to reduce them to the status of still life.

The pictures of the United strikers sold quickly, the president of an Asian football club in the Midlands "buying Rooney" and auctioning it at a profit to raise funds. When it became clear to Craddock's colleagues that what he modestly terms a "hobby" was something more serious, Paul Ince, the former Old Trafford linchpin who is now the Championship club's self-styled "Guv'nor", gave him the nickname "Picasso".

Craddock's interest in art started long before his gold and black period began after a £1.75m switch from Sunderland two and a half years ago. "It's something that has always been there, within me," Craddock says. "My great-grandfather used to decorate his letters home from the First World War with ornate drawings, so maybe I inherited something from him. I stayed on at school and got art A-Level. It was just something I enjoyed doing, though it wasn't high on my list of potential careers. I was sports-orientated and I saw myself possibly being a PE teacher."

On breaking into the full-time game with Cambridge United, the most he did was sketches. His wages were modest and that was "the cheapest way to keep going - anyone can pick up a pencil and piece of paper".

It was after a £300,000 transfer to Sunderland in 1997 that the Midlander moved into a different league artistically. "I branched out into oils because I could afford to," he recalls. "But it wasn't just a financial thing. There is stress and pressure involved in football. It can be a very tough, tense game. I found that painting provided a great release for me."

During his time on Wearside, his wife, Shelley, gave birth to a son, Jake. At the age of only four months, he died of cot-death syndrome. "That was a devastating time in our lives. As time went on, and I began playing again, I immersed myself in painting. That was fantastic for me, albeit a little selfish. It certainly helped me through that time."

The couple now have a robust toddler, Joseph, who, his mother quips, is modelling his hair on Hendrix. "We'll never forget Jake. We remember the good times," says Craddock. "But Joseph makes sure we don't have much time to dwell on the grief that we felt."

Shelley is pregnant again and uses the loft-studio to pursue her own penchant for crafts. Once Joseph has had his thrice-daily dose of the Bear in the Big Blue House DVD (his blue period, obviously) and gone to bed, their house turns into a hive of contemplative activity, brushes stroking and scissors snipping, far removed from the world of madding crowds and crunching tackles.

There are managers who would prefer their players to be endlessly perusing videos of forthcoming opponents in their spare time. Bill Shankly once said, when told of a footballer who was an avid reader, that he liked his players to have their brains in their feet. "That attitude is old-school now, isn't it?" Craddock says. "Times have moved on.

"I have a life outside football with my family. This is what I'm about. It's mainly a hobby, although with my website* up and running, and people buying my work, I suppose it has become more than that. It's not something managers or players come across very often. But the lads don't see me as particularly odd, though they are surprised by the extent of my enthusiasm for art and maybe by the quality of the work."

Mick McCarthy, the Sunderland manager, was sufficiently impressed to buy Craddock's portraits of The Beatles and Jim Morrison. The Wolves president, Sir Jack Hayward, commissioned him to capture the excitement of the team's promotion to the Premiership in 2003. With Craddock's interpretations of beach scenes from the Bahamas, where the benefactor lives, it has turned the players' lounge into an alternative Hayward gallery. The picture of Ali towering over a vanquished opponent has been bought by West Ham's Nigel Reo-Coker.

"I'm under no illusions: football has pushed my art out there. It is great exposure for my work. But I'll continue to paint whether they sell or not. If they don't - and the Hendrix hasn't gone yet, for example - we'll just have a room that is crammed with canvases. If they do, fantastic."

Does he regret not having gone to art college? "No. It has worked out how I want it. Football has always been No 1. Besides, I couldn't paint like this when I was 18 or 19. I could have studied art, but I like to work with no pressure; just do what I want, when I want to do it.

"I like to go to exhibitions and look at other artists' work. I love Monet and Leonardo da Vinci. I've got varied tastes. I also admire Rolf Harris. Art is on my mind all the time, apart from when I'm training or playing. I'm thinking about what I can do next. I've got hundreds of ideas. I just have to find time to work through them. Envisaging what they will be like is as much a part of the process as putting paint on canvas."

While art helped him, in a therapeutic sense, to put the horror of Jake's death into perspective, he has not detected its influence on his day job. "Off the pitch, I'm a quiet person. I'm louder on it - that's part of the game - but I've never been a brawler or hot-headed. People talk about ball artists or creative players, but I must hold my hands up and say I've never been like that. I break things up. It's quite a strange contrast." Craddock hopes to encounter some of his more high-profile subjects against United after regaining his place for Wolves' two most recent games. The last time he faced them, two years ago, he finished a 1-0 winner, but he acknowledges the difficulty of stopping whichever attackers Sir Alex Ferguson fields. "You have to be 100 per cent on your game because these are quick, sharp players. But if we want to get back into the Premiership, we have to cope with challenges like this.

"We're the underdogs, but we all know that things happen in the FA Cup. It will help that we've got Incey back, driving us on. He's a dominant character and he knows it's his last chance to play against United, where he was such a major player. So he'll be keen to prove a point."

Craddock is ready to make his against Rooney and the rest. But when such days are behind him, any sense of anticlimax will be offset by the opportunity to "experiment and improve" as an artist. If the narrow focus is on United, the bigger picture is seldom far from his thoughts.