Johnny Crossan – December 1963
In the late 1950s the Coleraine Chronicle reported almost exclusively on the affairs of its largely rural readership, who turned to it each week to keep them informed of the latest ploughing competitions, and to discover if any cows had been run over in the area. Sample headlines, genuine ones include “Trouble over a bale of hay” and “Coleraine’s traffic lights – a ‘technical’ hitch”. At one point the sports section headlined a report: “Angler catches nice trout.” But in 1959, quite unexpectedly, they found themselves covering the biggest story in British football. It is a story that the likes of Wayne Rooney and his former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, prone to complaining about their particularly harsh treatment at the hands of the footballing authorities, would have done well to familiarise themselves with. Because nobody, ever, has been treated more harshly than John Crossan.
In the late 50s Ireland was positively crawling with English scouts. If a teenager so much as executed a step over or a sliding tackle half a dozen people would be at his next game, with their interest very often leading to a transfer. As the vast majority of young Irish players were amateur, but it was only possible for a club to charge a transfer fee for a professional, if an English club was interested in a player their Irish team would quickly offer them a contract and then immediately sell them on – some 95% of Ulster amateurs at the time had left their clubs within a month of signing for them professionally. This was the position that Crossan, who played as a forward for his hometown team, Derry City, found himself in 1957.
At the time he was described in the Express as “19-year-old wonder boy of Irish soccer … Ireland’s Jimmy Greaves.” “Scouts galore have come from England trying to get the lad to turn professional,” they wrote. First Sheffield United, then Arsenal, and finally Nottingham Forest all believed they had signed him – he even travelled to the latter two, without agreeing a deal. When Sunderland offered £6,000 – the equivalent of about £105,000 in today’s money – Derry made Crossan a proposition. He would sign a professional contract, they would accept the offer and the resulting cash would be divided between them, with club and player each getting £3,000. Although this was against all sorts of rules, mutually beneficial deals of this type were considered standard practice at the time. He made them a counter-offer: they would get £1,000 and he would keep the rest. They did not like it, he would not budge and player and club had an almighty falling-out. In the end the move to England broke down, Crossan was dropped and at the end of the season – amateur commitments lasting only a year at a time – he moved instead to Coleraine, for nothing.
So unhappy were Derry with this development that they reported themselves to the authorities for illegally offering payment to a player, so as to also land Crossan in trouble for having been willing, in theory, to accept it. They also reported that while at Derry he had been paid – again against the rules, given that he was an amateur – £1.50 per match (the equivalent, taking inflation into account, of about £25 in today’s money). “If Crossan moves to an English club after signing as a professional for Coleraine we want a thorough investigation,” they wrote. Neither Crossan nor Coleraine were informed of the complaint at the time, though it would not be long before they found out.
Coleraine’s manager was Kevin Doherty, something of a legend at the club in his own right having made his debut for them as a player in 1938, but most famous as the brother of Peter Doherty. For those more familiar with his Libertines-fronting namesake, Peter Doherty was a tricky and prolific forward who as a player had top-scored in Manchester City’s first title-winning side in 1937 and won the first post-war FA Cup with Derby County in 1946. The England captain Billy Wright christened him “Peter the Great” and said he was “one of the outstanding inside-forwards in the world”; many years later, when doing a bit of scouting for Liverpool, it was Doherty who spotted Kevin Keegan playing for Scunthorpe United and recommended him to Bill Shankly. But at that time he was managing Bristol City, who agreed a £7,000 deal to sign Crossan in October 1958, a matter of weeks after his arrival at Coleraine. “It was maybe lined up when I left Derry City,” Crossan said, “but that would have been unknown to me.”
Unfortunately Alan Hardaker, the English Football League’s notoriously tough secretary, knew of Derry’s complaint. The story hit the front pages of British national newspapers after he announced that “Bristol City have been informed that the registration of JA Crossan, of Coleraine, is not accepted, nor will be for any other league club in the future.” Peter Doherty protested that “our transfer bid was perfectly on the level”, while Coleraine’s chairman, Sammy Walker, complained: “This boy has been deprived of his livelihood. He has been victimised.” But the president of the English Football League, Joe Richards, replied: “Both the Coleraine club and the Bristol City manager say that this was a straightforward deal. That is not our information. We are not going to be bullied by anybody.”
Crossan was forced to return home and await the results of an investigation hurriedly convened by the Irish Football League. He was summoned to Belfast himself a couple of times to give evidence. “Lots of people on the commission had players who had gone to England at about the same time. All the people on the commission, they had no hesitation in talking about how much some of those players had got and when they got it. It was absolutely the done thing. It was an unwritten law.”
In January 1959 the commission, formed of representatives of league clubs, friends and colleagues of Derry’s own administrators, announced their verdict. Coleraine, for putting the wrong date on a form, were fined £5. Derry were fined £100 for the match fees they illegally paid to Crossan, and a further £155 for offering him a cut of his transfer fee. The individual director who offered the money was not punished at all. And Crossan, guilty of precisely the same offences as Derry only in reverse, and without seeing a penny of the proposed £3,000, was banned from all forms of football, in every country, for ever.
The decision caused uproar. “The case has made young ‘Jobby’ the most talked-about player in the British Isles,” wrote the Coleraine Chronicle. “There is strong public sentiment that the sentence on Crossan is much too severe and should be reviewed with a view to drastic mitigation. Football is John Crossan’s life and, metaphorically speaking, the Irish League has brutally ‘sentenced the brilliant young player to death’.” The Northern Ireland International Premier Supporters’ Club wrote “to protest in the strongest possible manner our disgust at the vicious and savage sentence”. The Guardian called the ban “sickeningly unfair” and evidence of a “lack of humanity and justice”.
As he became something of a cause célèbre in the world of football the then PFA chairman, Jimmy Hill, got involved. “Unless I am mistaken,” he wrote, “the cruel situation into which this talented Irish minor has blundered has more than any other single event in the history of soccer illustrated to the public the fundamental illogicalities and restrictive practices which a professional player is forced to accept … One day, when the archaic regulations on which he foundered are finally and irrevocably abolished, I hope that the members of our association will express their everlasting thanks to John Crossan, the unwitting scapegoat of a feudal system.”
Crossan appealed against the verdict – “a forlorn hope that they would be honest with themselves,” as Crossan described it. Derry did not, despite complaining that “the club is very aggrieved at the severity of the Irish League’s penalty on them” given that they had actively gone out of their way to report a rule breach, and even more so because the rule breach concerned was “common practice”. “We all know that portions of fees have been paid to players,” their honorary secretary, Patrick Maxwell, said. “It is time to make the rules realistic.”
Crossan, extreme right, scores for Sunderland in the FA Cup against Gravesend & Northfleet, 1963
The Guardian newspaper dispatched Clement Freud, at the time working on its sports desk, to cover the story. “Fair-minded people reading of the ban are incredulous that this has been imposed for his failure to get his share of the money,” he wrote. “There is a growing conviction that his crime must have been something quite different, disgusting and unmentionable, like sticking pins into the wax image of the league chairman. I can disprove this.” These rumours had grown because of the league’s refusal to release details of Crossan’s offences, even to the player himself. “The letter telling me of my suspension, I never got,” he says. “I think it was confiscated by a Coleraine director, because Freud wanted that letter and offered a substantial amount of money for it. I asked a director, and he said: ‘I’ll hold on to it for a while.’ I never did read the commission’s decision. All I heard is that I’d told lies. What lies I told, and for what reason, was never made known.”
Crossan himself resisted the frequent opportunities to openly criticise the commission, or to name other players who had benefited from similar deals without punishment. “You’ve got to realise, I was young,” he says. “I’d hardly been out of Ireland. And this was heavy publicity, I can tell you. People coming over from England, interviews on the radio. A 17-year-old in the present day might be a lot sharper, but we had a lot more respect for people in those days. You’d be reluctant to criticise an older person, back then. It was part and parcel of that era. I just wanted to be a footballer. I didn’t want to be a brickie or a pilot or a policeman. I wanted to be a footballer.”
Somewhat bizarrely, the ban, having been handed down by the league, applied only to league football. So after two months out of action Crossan made an emotional return to the team for the North-West Senior Cup final in March 1959, for which he was made captain for the day. “The spectators were delighted by his keenness and skill,” reported the Chronicle, “but unfortunately he ran into a leg injury at the 25-minute stage and when he returned after being off for eight minutes he was limping and obviously under handicap.” All the same, his new side won. Clubs, meanwhile, started to circle in anticipation of a successful appeal. Bristol City (again), Weymouth, Bath City, Chelmsford City, Sligo Rangers, Cork Hibernians and Ulster United of Toronto all made offers for his services. Each was told by Coleraine that “we do not intend to transfer Crossan until the whole matter is settled”, while Crossan told the press that he was “sticking with Coleraine, as Coleraine had stuck by him”.
The appeal, heard by the same people who had made the original judgment, was unsuccessful; though this time he would be allowed to play for clubs outside the British Isles. So in August 1959 he moved to Sparta Rotterdam, and that November he made his Northern Ireland debut, against England at Wembley, playing for and against countries where he was a pariah, an arrangement the Guardian likened to “a modern Robin Hood at a housewarming organised by the sheriff of Nottingham”. Crossan joined Standard Liège in 1961, playing for the Belgian side in a European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid (having scored twice against Rangers in the quarters). But he continued to fight his ban. “I don’t want to be a foreign legion footballer all my life,” he told the Express late in 1961 (an article perhaps most remarkable because in the first paragraph it prints his address, 66 Rue des Clarisses, in full). “The league acted very quickly when I was going to Bristol. Now they are not so quick. I applied a year ago for the ban to be lifted. I just wait and hope.”
He waited four years in all. Fittingly, a ban created as an act of convenience for league clubs ended as an act of convenience for league clubs. In May 1962, two months after the Irish League had discussed the issue and decided to take no action; England played a friendly in Peru, on their way to the World Cup in Chile. There the Sunderland chairman and England selector, Syd Collings, whose club had a long-standing interest in Crossan, bumped into Harry Cavan, the president of the Irish FA. Collings took Cavan out for a drink, and wondered aloud how the ban could be conveniently ended. With a couple of powerful friends on his side the wheels moved swiftly: in July the Sunderland manager, Alan Brown, flew to Belgium to discuss a deal; that September the Irish League agreed to lift the ban and on 20 October, the very day that it was lifted, he moved to Wearside for £27,500, the start of a successful eight-year spell in England that also took him to Manchester City and Middlesbrough.
Within weeks he was back in the Northern Ireland team, for the first time since that visit to Wembley, and in the ninth minute of a European Championship qualifier against Poland he scored one of the finest goals that Windsor Park has ever seen, a waist-high volley from 25 yards. “It’s all like a fairy story,” he said. “And what a wonderful ending.”