Northern Ireland continue their World Cup qualifying bid against Poland on Saturday at Windsor Park and old-timers’ memories will be rekindled by an historic night there 47 years ago when a young Derryman returned from enforced and shameful football exile to steal the show.
Johnny Crossan, known as Jobby, now 70 and proprietor of a sports store in his native city on the banks of the Foyle, scored one of the classic goals of all-time at our international football stadium as Northern Ireland defeated Poland 2-0 (aggregate 4-0) in the European Nations Cup second leg. They labelled it a goal in a million.
More than 40,000 packed the ground on Wednesday, November 28,1962 when captain Danny Blanchflower, making his 56th and final appearance, was presented with a gold medal by Irish FA President Harry Cavan, to mark his election to the elite 50-cap club. The fans, predecessors but not so numerous as today’s Green and White Army, had only one topic of conversation as they exited the ground — Crossan and that wonder goal, one of 10 including three penalties and a hat-trick he collected on the 24 occasions he wore the green jersey.
Let’s turn the clock back not to that victorious night but Friday January 30,1959, when heavy fog enshrouded Londonderry. Crossan, a 20-year-old inside forward controversially signed by Coleraine from Derry City, made his way to a newspaper office to take a telephone call. He became ashen faced as he listened. His normal smile, his humour and banter vanished. Those six words — banned for life from British football — was a stark message which stabbed him like a dagger through the heart. He had been found guilty by the Irish League of being paid as an amateur and asking for more than £750 signing-on fee. He genuinely didn’t know what it was all about
The punishment, sparked by a row between Derry and Coleraine over his signing, appeared harsh even then and incredible in the light of today’s scenario: FOUR clubs within the last nine months were each fined for admitting they paid amateurs in the documentation seeking membership of the reconstructed Premiership!
It was a disaster for unemployed Crossan. There was only one solution — going European to earn a living from the magic in his boots. He joined Sparta Rotterdam, in 1959 worked during the day at the docks and trained twice a week on Tuesday and Thursdays before moving in 1960 to Standard Liege , where he settled and, in the process, learned three foreign languages.
He had been capped against England at Wembley in November 1959 while with Rotterdam — a move frowned on by the English FA who vehemently opposed selecting a player while banned. Repeated requests to the Irish League to lift the suspension fell on deaf ears but, thanks to behind-the-scenes diplomacy by Harry Cavan and talks with Sunderland chairman Sid Collinge during an England match in Lima, Peru, the groundwork was set to free Jobby from officialdom’s shackles. He duly signed for Sunderland and a month later was back in the Irish squad.
Northern Ireland’s first manager Peter Doherty, who kept a close watch on local football, particularly in the North-West, predicted to me when we were discussing his merits on a bus journey during the Sweden World Cup: “Watch young Crossan — he will become a world-class player and that is no exaggeration.”
How right he was but what a pity that ban, in retrospect absurd in its severity, and ignited by internecine strife between two clubs, should deprive him of so many international appearances at the height of his career..
Crossan’s ninth minute goal laid the basis of the 2-0 win, Billy Bingham consolidating it with the second in the 63rd. Now roll back the film and drool in the conception and execution of that goal. A midfield inter-passing spell between Bobby Braithwaite, Derek Dougan and Bingham ended with the Everton winger floating the ball into the middle.
It landed 25 yards out into the path of Crossan who hammered it past the keeper.
“I got both feet off the ground continental style and volleyed it home,” recalls Crossan.
“It was one of the most memorable goals of my career.”
Crossan in that one moment had won the hearts of fans and with Burnley’s Jimmy McIlroy, prince of inside forwards, produced a quality of football which appealed to the most discerning of critics. Here we had two orthodox players who mastered the fundamentals of the game and exploited them with devastating effect.
Let us hope some of Nigel Worthington’s squad will give us a repeat to keep those hopes alive of qualifying for the South Africa 2010 World Cup finals.