TNS manager Craig Harrison, who takes his Welsh Premier League champions to Cardiff on Saturday week, played alongside some of the most talented footballers in the world.
He lined up in teams alongside the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Juninho, Fabrizio Ravenelli, Paul Merson, Clayton Blackmore and even Chinese international Fan Zhiyi, who later played for Cardiff City.
Gateshead-born Harrison also played under managers Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce, but then his career was ended prematurely by an horrific leg break and it seemed his love affair with football had come to an end.
Five years later, though, he was back, persuaded to take up a management role for Welsh club Airbus UK, and he has achieved amazing success in his new career.
Under his guidance The New Saints have won the Welsh Premier for five successive seasons and are currently 21 points clear at the top, lifted the Welsh Cup four times and the Welsh League Cup twice.
The Oswestry-based team have currently won 27 successive matches, smashing a World record set by Johan Cruyff’s Ajax 44 years ago, and Harrison is now lining up another trophy.
TNS play Welsh League Barry Town United in the Nathaniel MG Cup final at Cyncoed Stadium on Saturday, January 21 (5.15pm).
“Barry were the team who dominated before TNS, but we have won more consecutive titles than they did,” said Harrison, who is ambitious and has thought of moving on if the right job came along.
“I’m happy at TNS and want us to achieve everything we possibly can as a club,” he says.
“But I am also ambitious and want to manage at the highest level I can. Whether that is with TNS reaching the group stages or moving to England eventually we’ll see.
“Mike (chairman, Mike Harris) knew that from day one.”
Harrison, aged 39, played for Middlesbrough, Preston North End and Crystal Palace before injury brought an abrupt halt to his career.
He learned a lot from playing under Robson (at Boro) and Bruce (at Palace).
“Robbo was a big team man and an extremely good man manager,” says Harrison. “Whether it was Merse (Paul Merson) or Juninho or one of the young lads, he knew how to deal with players.
“He knew how to get the best out of players and was honest, always straight down the line.
“Steve Bruce was the same when I was at Palace, again he was straight down the line. I don’t know whether it’s a Northern thing.”
Harrison loved playing alongside his boyhood hero Gascoigne and they helped Boro win promotion to the top flight.
“Gazza was special,” he said. “I played for the same local club as Gazza had when I was a kid, he was my boyhood hero.
“And he was just incredible. There was a time when he was the best player in the world in my opinion, he’s probably still the best player who’s ever played for England.
“It was a great era for Middlesbrough. I came through at the same time as the likes of Mark Summerbell, Andy Campbell, Robbie Stockdale, Steve Baker.
“We all came through together and broke into the squad at around the same time.
“I played a lot of games that promotion season (1997/98) and won the Young Player of the Year.
“At the time it was quite surreal with some of the players who were coming into the club.
“Rav (Ravanelli) was fantastic, Juninho special and Gazza was just superb. That was the good thing about Robbo, he got a good mix of players who had Boro at heart with four or five real flair players.”
Harrison was devastated by the badly broken leg he suffered at the age of 24 and that ended his playing days.
He spent six years out of football, but that changed when fiance Danielle Harley organised a surprise 30th birthday party for him.
A member of the band playing at the birthday gig was Gareth Owen, then manager of Welsh top tier team Airbus UK.
The two men chatted and Harrison became Owen’s assistant. He took charge when Owen moved on and was later offered the job at TNS.
More than five years later Harrison has led Saints to 11 trophies including a triple crown of League title, League Cup and Welsh Cup last season. Trophy number 12 is in his sights – and Barry Town will be the team trying to deny them on Saturday week.
That’s a daunting task, but manager Gavin Chesterfield and his Barry team have made vast advances of their own over several years and are proud to be the first Welsh League club to qualify for this final.
Barry will prepare for the cup final at Cardiff Met’s home stadium believing they can cause a major upset.