On his 19th birthday Tom Crawford realised an ambition.
Having broken through from the successful Chester FC Academy and into the first team at the turn of the year, Crawford established himself at the heart of the Blues midfield and provided a rare high point in a season of gloom.
His all-action displays, the maturity in his displays and the technical ability on show meant that he was always destined to end up moving on to a higher echelon, however much Blues fans wanted him to stay.
And so it came to pass, a move to the Football League with League Two side Notts County for an undisclosed fee materialised and Crawford will be aiming to make his mark with the Magpies. And with their manager, Kevin Nolan, having graced the Premier League in a central midfield role, what better place to continue his development.
The move was a proud day for Crawford, his family, the football club and the Academy. For one man in particular it was a move that was met with immense pride but also tinged with sadness at having to wave goodbye to a player who had been on a journey with the club.
Calum McIntyre, Academy head coach, had been with Crawford, who earned England C honours at the weekend, since he first arrived at the club as a 15-year-old.
Released by Stoke City, who had paid a fee to get him to the Potteries, Crawford was small in stature but big in heart with an abundance of talent.
Said McIntyre: “Tom came to us at 15 when he was released by Stoke City.
"I got a phone call from Stuart Musgrave, my ex assistant manager, who’s opinion I value above most others when it comes to players to make me aware that Tom had been let go from Stoke. You knew who Tom was if you’d worked in the area as he had a real pedigree as a schoolboy and ultimately my question to Stuart was whether we could get him in given that he has just come out of a Premier League club.
"We were lucky enough to get him in for a training session and I remember meeting this really quiet lad waiting by the gate for us at Christleton. The lads made him really welcome, particularly Sam Hughes and Matty Waters, and I think the appeal of playing for his local club meant something to him and he signed for us that January.
“Tom has all the ability in the world, matched with a work ethic and desire that really allow his potential to be as large as he wants it to be. He was tiny when he came to us, and it’s embarrassing to think that he may have been released from a club further up the pyramid due to his size. I think the big thing we tried to instill in him was to take all the best bits, in terms of technical stuff, from his Academy background but ultimately make him a little bit more ready for what senior football would bring.
"We tried to reprogramme him a bit and turn him into more of a box to box, second ball midfielder without losing any of his technical ability and I would feel that was quite successful. It probably bored Tom to death as we gave him the same message. All he needed when he came in with us was his confidence restoring, he’d had a bit of a set back and ultimately needed someone to put there arm round him and tell him that they’re 'with him' and he got that here. I really believe in him.”
The development of a young player involves much more than simply coaching sessions on the training ground.
McIntyre realised that Crawford, from Blacon, needed guidance in order to thrive and reach his potential and was sure to invest his time in him as an individual, even helping him arrange a driving instructor, buy a car, sort out his car insurance and take him to the dentist.
“The relationship with Tom has been quite unique really, partially down to the fact he’s local but also down to circumstance," said McIntyre.
"I wouldn’t ever embarrass him but there are stories to be told about shinpads, cars, football boots and all sorts really that a select group of people will no doubt remember. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I think the absolute world of him, all these players we talk about are people first and I am in a privileged position to get to know them as people.
"Getting to know Tom inside out has been one of my favourite experiences at Chester. He has tremendous values and has a personality where you end up desperate to help him out. I think getting to know him so well stemmed largely from the fact that he struggled for transport during his time here. He was a late birthday so learnt to drive late so I found myself taking him to and from training three times a week during his two years with the Youth Team and then to a game on a Sunday.
"We had a right laugh to be fair, his personality comes out and it was really enjoyable. It was the same thing when he went on loan to Leek Town. He wasn’t driving and it wouldn’t have been cheap for him so I would take him to train with Leek down in Stoke on a Thursday evening and then wherever they were playing on a Saturday which always seemed to be away! That was just a way of committing to him that we were right behind him.”
“I think a lot more goes into developing a player than people realise. The whole equation is massive and every one is different. Tom needed a bit of guidance every now and again but It was always an absolute pleasure, whether that was something on the training ground , arranging a driving instructor and then eventually helping him buy a car!
"He was so popular within the Academy with literally the entire coaching staff. He has spent the entire season coaching our Under 10s group as his little way of giving something back to a club that maybe helped him out, he’d know better than me on that what sort of impact it made on him. He has done some unbelievable work within the Community because he is a real role model and that work really sums him up and what he’s about."
Crawford, who made 17 appearances for Chester last season and netted in the final game of the campaign - a 2-1 win at Barrow - where McIntyre was in caretaker charge.
He now begins the next chapter of his career, a career that McIntyre is convinced will continue on an upward trajectory. He couldn't be prouder.
Said McIntyre: “It’s overwhelmingly a great move for him and opportunity for him to play in the Football League which has to be the ambition of all the young lads that are playing in non-league.
"There’s obviously an element of sadness to see him leave Chester but no-one can argue that he hasn’t moved for a really exciting opportunity and one that ultimately benefits his career.
“He is a wonderful lad that I have been so fortunate to watch develop into an outstanding adult. He is from a superb family. I am so pleased that it’s worked out for him and his family as they’re terrific people who will back Tom wherever he goes.
"I’ve been really fortunate to get to know them all and see first hand what this means to them all and I am genuinely delighted for them. I won’t hide that Tom made a real impression on me and I wouldn’t have missed being at his England C debut in Dublin for anything.
"He was a terrific ambassador for the Academy but more importantly an outstanding young lad who I am probably going to miss more than a little bit. His goal against Barrow, which gave us that win, was a brilliant story and the celebration will be up there with my favourite moments at Chester. I’m incredibly proud of him and Tom will know what I mean when I say I’m not the only one."