To Sunderland supporters of a certain vintage, Johnny Crossan – who scored 39 times for us in 82 games between 1962 and 1965 – is something of a legend.
“Before him, all my heroes were those of my dad,” one fan, Keith Scott, was telling Pete Sixsmith at a recent (Reserves) match. “Johnny Crossan was the first who was my own.”
Salut! Sunderland‘s mission to obtain an interview with the former Northern Ireland inside forward, 46 years after he last kicked a ball at Roker Park, is a legacy of another long-in-the-tooth SAFC follower’s trip to Johnny’s home town, Stroke City (as in Derry-stroke-Londonderry, according to where you fit in the nationalist/loyalust divide).
Pete Horan had been sent to work with people at the local tax office. In his luggage on departure was a book on Crossan that Pete Sixsmith asked him to take to his sports shop and have autographed. Raising the question at work, Pete was told: “You’re in luck: come along for a spot of five-a-side tonight and you’ll meet him.”
Meet him? Pete H also got to play with him. Even today, at 72, Johnny turns out two or three times a week. And when we ran a recent piece about the signing of James McLean from Derry City, Johnny’s old club, a supporter of that team sent a message with the phone number for our former player’s shop. The wheels were in motion.
Johnny instantly agreed to talk to Salut! Sunderland, a reflection of the great happiness he found playing and living in the North East.
This is the result of our conversation, which began from France, continued from Sixsmith Towers in Shildon and concluded with a marathon call from a certain County Durham hotel that would have bankrupted M Salut twice over had the manager not waived the charge, not because he supported SAFC but to compensate for internet access problems during a stay there.
The headline? I wanted to know whether Johnny’s heart lay in Manchester or Sunderland and was delighted with the response (which I hope would have been the same had a City supporter posed the same question).
The interview will stretch to two, possibly three parts, and starts here …
Salut! Sunderland: Can you remember seeing Sunderland and the North East for the first time, and what you made of it?
The first time I came was when Len Shackleton had arranged a testimonial for Frank Brennan at Roker Park. I didn’t see too much of Sunderland that time, but remember staying at the Roker Hotel and thinking with the seafront and promenade that it was a little like home. I did find people very hospitable and easy to get on with. They were extremely friendly and I was only there for a testimonial!
Shack had got together Bobby Mitchell, Jackie Milburn, Stan Anderson for the game which had to be played at Roker Park because Stan Seymour (then chairman of Newcastle United) wouldn’t let him hold it at St James’ Park; Frank had opened a sports shop in Newcastle, where of course Seymour had a similar business of his own, and that had gone down like a bomb with him.
When I came back as a player to join Sunderland, I found the whole thing unbelievable. These were absolutely fanatical football people, much more knowledgeable about the game that in other places.
What is the true story of how you ended up excluded from the game in Britain, and how was it resolved?
I played for Derry City and then moved to Coleraine. The great Northern Ireland footballer Pete Doherty wanted to take me to Bristol City, where he was the manager. They were saying I was the “second Pete Doherty” but I was only there a week. A certain Hardaker (Alan, secretary of the Football League – ed) put his boot in it to make sure I was not allowed to play in the UK. Back in Ireland, a disciplinary commission suspended me sine die from football for being paid at Derry City while an amateur. It was all of 30 bob a week.*
So I went to play for Sparta Rotterdam (who have played in red and white stripes since club officials visited Sunderland in 1899 and were impressed by what they saw – ed) and we reached the quarter finals of the European Cup, going out to Rangers after three games – we beat them at Ibrox, they beat us in Holland and then they won the replay at Highbury 3-2. And we finished runners-up in the league.
I was about to get married and told the club I’d need an apartment and was promised this would be arranged. But at the end of the season when I asked again about it, nothing was forthcoming and I moved to Standard Liege, where I was extremely fortunate and played very well for three seasons, I will never forget March 1962 when we played the great Real Madrid in the European Cup semi-final – against the team of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Puskas and Gento. I got to know Puskas very well. It was fantastic to have met him in competition and then to have time with him afterwards.
That year, 1962, at the World Cup (in Chile), the Sunderland chairman, Syd Collings (a big shot at the FA) had a word with Harry Cavan (then president of the Irish Football Association, later senior vice-president of Fifa – ed). He asked when the ban on me was going to be lifted so I could be signed for Sunderland. The conversation led on and led on and Harry said ‘come and play a game against Lisburn at Windsor Park’. It was agreed and Sunderland did play there once I’d been signed.
You picked up some French while living in Belgium and playing for Standard Liege? Did you come fluent and how well have you kept it?
I did become fluent, and in Dutch as well. I’d done a bit of Latin at school which helped with the French but Dutch was completely different. I have kept in touch with people, especially in Montpellier which send youngsters to play here in the Foyle Cup. Once we get talking I soon find I get back into it.
Tell us about the Sunderland side you played in. Who were the players you admired and was anyone lucky to be allowed to wear our red and white stripes?
I was very fortunate with the teams and players I played with. The Sunderland team of 1962 that I joined were all good. Clough scored four (the record books say three – ed!) and missed a penalty in my first game against Grimsby and I hit the bar with my first kick. I didn’t play well for five or six weeks though; I didn’t believe in those days that you needed time to settle in but you do. Cloughie was sensational. In the end we became very friendly and I have stayed friendly with his wife since he died.
Other memories: my hand going up with a golfball full of pus. I’d pulled a hair that was under the skin. I still have the mark on my hand from that. Also, going with len Shackleton to buy a house. I still remember the name of the builder, Prentice, and what it cost me. Shack told him “this is Johnny Crossan, he’s going to be a big star up here so you’re not going to ask him for £4,750, you’re going to let him have it for £4,500, aren’t you?” It was a cracking house I bought, up towards Whitburn just past where the Bay Hotel was and not far from the Jolly Sailor.
And I always used to go to Test matches with Brian Clough. But that team: Monty, Cec Irwin, Len Ashurst, Stan Anderson, Charlie Hurley, Jimmy McNab or Martin Harvey, Jimmy Davidson on the right wing, me or George Herd at inside right, Brian Clough, me or George Herd at inside left, then George Mulhall. I don’t think there was a bad player in that team. George Mulhall was an excellent winger, Cloughie was a phenomenal centre-forward and Charlie Hurley was the best centre-half ever seen. Plus Monty and the rest. Everyone merited their place and Alan Brown, though a sharp paratrooper kind of a man, seemed to get the best out of the players. These guys just wanted to play. They were footballers and nothing else mattered to them on Saturday afternoons. We had a reunion about three years ago at the Stadium of Light, everyone except Jimmy McNab who sadly had died, and it was a fantastic night.
You played for us but also for Manchester City, Boro and nearly for Bristol City. Whose reuslts do you look for first?
Well Man City and Sunderland, but you don’t need to look at one before the other with matches kicking off at all times. But hand on heart if I had to put my last penny on it, it would have to be Sunderland.
* Johnny put it at £3 a week in an interview with Brian Leng for the The Roker End website
TO BE CONTINUED … click here for Part Two: a hero ‘with a wee bit venom’
Interview: Colin Randall