Interview by Brian Leng
“We were all sitting in the dressing room when Cloughie shouts to me: ‘Young man – do you realise this club has paid £30,000 for you to get goals for me and since you arrived you’ve not created one chance!
When Johnny Crossan put pen to paper to sign for Sunderland in October 1962, it finally brought to an end one of the most amazing transfer stories in the history of British football. The controversy which shook the soccer world blew up three years earlier when Johnny was playing for Colraine in the Irish League and was on the verge of making a big money move to Bristol City.
The former Northern Ireland international, now living back home in Londonderry, takes up the story: “Basically the problem stemmed from my previous club Derry City, who reported me to the Irish Football League for receiving illegal payments from them whilst registered as an amateur player. At the time, a number of top English clubs where chasing me and when I decided to join Colraine and retain my amateur status, Derry missed out on a substantial transfer fee. Two years later, when they saw that Colraine were about to cash in, they decided to report me to the League.”
Eventually the Irish League appointed a five-man committee to investigate the case and on 30th January 1959, after two months of deliberation they announced their verdict. Derry City were fined £256 and Johnny Crossan was ‘suspended permanently from taking part as a player or in any way in connection with Irish Football League affairs’.
“Incredible as it may seem,” recalls Johnny, “All I ever received from Derry was £3 a week. Even that was in lieu of lost wages because I had given up Saturday morning work to play for them. At the time I was totally bewildered and even today I find the judgment, which effectively meant I was banned from playing football in the United Kingdom, difficult to understand. Nevertheless, whether I liked it or not, I had no alternative but to go abroad and play so I signed for Sparta Rotterdam in Holland before eventually moving on to Standard Liege.”
And it was with the Belgian club that Johnny’s career really took off in a big way. In his first season they won the League Championship and to his astonishment, he was picked to play for the full Irish team against England at Wembley even though he was still banned from playing league football in Britain!
The following season, 1961-62, saw Standard Liege enjoy a marvelous run in the European Cup, reaching the semi-finals where they came up against the great Real Madrid side that included the likes of Puskas, Gento and, of course, the great Alfredo Di Stefano.
“He was some player,” recalls Johnny, “and in the first leg he was absolutely brilliant. I was actually given the job of man-marking him and although I think I did a reasonable job, they ran out comfortable 4-0 winners, which left us a mountain to climb in the second leg. Nevertheless, we gave a great account of ourselves on our own soil and were desperately unlucky not to get an early goal – I actually hit the woodwork twice in the first half – but they eventually beat us by 2 goals to nil. At the end of the game we were all presented with an engraved gold wristwatch to commemorate the two games and to this day, it’s one of my proudest possessions.”
Back in England however, Johnny’s exploits on the European stage had attracted the attention on Sunderland manager Alan Brown who made no secret of the fact that he would love to sign the Northern Ireland international. The chairman at Roker Park at the time was Syd Collings, an England selector with considerable influence in the game, and it was he who set the wheels in motion to have the ban lifted.
The first indication that Collings had been successful came in September 1962 when Crossan was allowed to play for Standard Liege in a friendly against Sunderland to open Roker Park’s new floodlights. A few weeks later a cheque for £30,000 was in the hands of the Belgian club and Johnny Crossan was a Sunderland player. He made his home debut against Grimsby Town at Roker Park when a certain Brian Clough scored a hat-trick, although Johnny was soon to discover that his new team-mate was always ready to speak his mind!
“It was after my third or fourth game for the club,” recalls Johnny, “We were all sitting in the dressing room when Cloughie shouts to me: ‘Young man – do you realise this club has paid £30,000 for you to get goals for me and since you arrived you’ve not created one chance! At the time I was really annoyed but once we started working together it was great and we soon became good friends. It was a tragedy when he was finished through injury because as a goalscorer he was phenomenal – he could put them in from anywhere.”
With Clough now missing from the Roker attack, Crossan assumed the role as the club’s main striker and in his first full season, 1963-64, he finished top scorer with 27 league and cup goals as Sunderland clinched promotion back to Division One. It was a season that also saw the club enjoy a tremendous run in the F.A. Cup culminating in three epic games against Manchester United in the 6th round. In the first of these Johnny was up against Scottish international Pat Crerand but he produced a brilliant performance, which should really have clinched a place in the semi-finals.
“As an attacking midfielder Crerand was brilliant,” says Johnny, “But defensively he had very little and on the day I gave him a torrid time. George Mulhall gave us the lead in the first half, I weighed in with a couple in the second and with only minutes remaining we were leading 3-1. The referee that day was Arthur Holland and I remember asking him how long was left to which he replied: ‘Don’t worry Johnny, there’s only a couple of minutes to go – you’re home in a boat.’ But amazingly, right at the death, they scored twice to force a replay – it was heartbreaking.
“There were about 100,000 people trying to get into Roker Park for that match and I’ll always remember seeing all the lost shoes lined up outside the ground the following morning! Again it was a game we should have won comfortably, but ended up drawing 2-2 after extra time and they eventually beat us 5-1 in the second replay at Huddersfield.”
The following season saw Johnny realise his lifetime ambition of playing in the English First Division but following the shock resignation of manager Alan Brown, and the appointment of George Hardwick as his replacement, he suddenly began to realise that his days at Roker Park were numbered.
“Hardwick made it clear from the start that he didn’t rate me,” recalls Johnny, “And to be perfectly honest I didn’t think much of him either. In fact as a manager I thought he was a complete waste of time. It all came to a head when I was picked to play for Northern Ireland against Scotland at Hampden Park. The day after the game I travelled home on the train with Martin Harvey and Middlesbrough’s Bobby Braithwaite. When we arrived at Newcastle Central Station I picked up a morning paper, turned to the back page, and immediately saw the headlines ‘Crossan in reserves at Workington’.
“At that moment I decided that I had to move on and within a couple of months I’d signed for Manchester City. It was a big wrench to leave Sunderland because the fans up there were brilliant but the situation within the club had become impossible.”
Johnny spent two and a half years with the Maine Road club before returning to the north-east to join Middlesbrough in August 1967. A second spell with Standard Liege followed before he finally retired from the game and returned home to Londonderry to open a sports shops which he still runs to this day.
“Looking back, I suppose I had a pretty good career in the game,” reflects Johnny, “and the ban was probably a blessing in disguise because, as a result, I enjoyed some marvelous years playing in Europe, in fact an incident towards the end of my career really brought home to me what I had achieved in the game.
“I was at a Sportswriters Dinner at the Café Royal in London and as I was heading up the stairs to the function room I spotted Alfredo Di Stefano surrounded by a group of journalists. As I was about to pass him, he pushed one of the journalists to one side and shouted ‘Standard Liege!’, grabbing hold of my hand at the same time.
“It was a marvelous moment and I couldn’t believe that a player of his standing had remembered me after all of those years. It was probably the finest compliment I ever had.”
Sunderland Former Players were saddened to hear of the passing of Corny O'Donnell. Corny's Funeral arrangements are as follows:-
Friday 9 March, 11am St Augustines, Wealcroft, Felling NE10 8QS
12.00 Saltwell Crematorium, Saltwell Road, Gateshead, NE8 4TQ