MENTION the name Sunderland and today’s Derry City supporters will immediately link the “Black Cats” with local lad, James McClean.
But 53 years ago, the North-East of England club was also prominent on the lips of Derry City supporters when another of the city’s great footballing sons appeared to be on his way to a professional contract on Wearside.
As it turned out, John “Jobby” Crossan did not transfer to Sunderland because difficulties arose with the financial side of that proposed transfer.
And those difficulties saw Derry and, indeed, the Irish Football Association, turn against the Derry man eventually forcing him into Continental exile due to a Sine Die ban from the British game, a ban sponsored by the IFA.
Over the years, many sports commentators have revisited the controversy, most recently by BBC Radio Foyle sports reporter, Richie Kelly in his book “Sporting Greats of the North-West.”
Interestingly, every one of those investigations suggest that the Derry man was hard done-by and the clear-cut victim of what was considered a draconian sentence.
Football was so different back then with so many players performing as amateurs and, as such, were not allowed to receive remuneration for their efforts . . . but that law was certainly not always adhered to by the players or, indeed, the clubs.
In those days a promising young player would turn professional literally hours before he transferred to cross-Channel club. As a result, the player would always receive his share of the transfer fee.
In Crossan’s case, Sunderland were prepared to pay £6,000 to Derry City and the club made an agreement with the player that should he sign a professional form, he would receive £3,000 from the deal, the club also gaining £3,000.
Although this arrangement was against every rule in the football handbook, it was widely accepted that as both the club and player would equally benefit from the deal, a ‘blind eye’ was regularly turned.
However, in this case conflicting stories emerged. In the first instance, Crossan was reported not to be happy with the 50-50 split. Having cost Derry nothing, he allegedly offered the club £1,000 from the deal, while he wanted the other £5,000.
Derry City took exception to Crossan’s proposal and refused to budge and thus followed a major fall-out between the parties.
The player has always denied such suggestions, claiming that an extra £2,000 had been tabled by Sunderland and he felt he was entitled to his share of the improved transfer fee. But, he claimed at the time, Derry would have none of it.
The move to the “Black Cats” fell through and the player opted to see out his amateur contract before deciding on his future.
Predictably, frustration set in, Crossan’s form dipped and when he was dropped from the Derry team to face Ballymena United in an Irish Cup semi-final, the end was in sight.
In May, 1958, Crossan’s amateur contract expired and he opted to leave Derry City - but not for life in the English game. He signed another amateur contract with north-west neighbours, Coleraine, a move which did not go down well in the Brandywell.
With English scouts continuing to court the now 20-year-old, the bad feeling between Crossan and his home town club intensified and took a turn for the worse when Derry reported both themselves and the player to the Irish League authorities for illegally offering payment to their former inside forward.
That move would not only land the club in trouble, but also Crossan himself. Derry claimed they had paid their former player £1.50 per match despite him being an amateur!
And they insisted that should Crossan move to a cross-Channel club from Coleraine, they would demand a thorough I.F.A. investigation – neither Crossan nor Coleraine were aware of the documentation sent to the IFA, but it wasn’t long before they got wind of the situation.
Shortly after the transfer to Coleraine, Crossan turned professional with the “Bannsiders” before agreeing to transfer to Bristol City, but the Derry man never graced the pitch at Ashton Gate.
Coleraine accepted an offer of £7,000 for Crossan in October, 1958, just weeks after his arrival at the Showgrounds.
Jobby agreed that the move “may have been lined up” while he was at Derry City “but that was unknown to me,” he claimed despite the fact that Coleraine boss, Kevin Doherty, was a brother of the legendary Peter Doherty, the then manager of Bristol City.
Derry City – and the IFA – then moved into action and the English League’s tough secretary, Alan Hardaker, informed both Bristol and Coleraine that he was aware of a complaint from Ireland and the move hit troubled waters.
Bristol City were subsequently informed that the registration of one J. A. Crossan was not to be accepted and, indeed, would not be accepted by any other English League club in the future!
Coleraine complained bitterly suggesting that the transfer bid was “on the level” and that “the boy (Crossan) was being deprived of his livelihood. He has been victimised.”
However, the English F.A. President, Joe Richard, countered: “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.”
Banned for life
Jobby returned home to await the result of an investigation which, incidentally, was hurriedly convened by the Irish Football Association.
He was summoned to Belfast on several occasions to give evidence to “The Commission” which was made up of members of Irish League clubs, who eventually announced their verdict on the matter.
Coleraine, for putting the wrong date on a form, were fined £5; Derry were fined £100 for the match fees they had illegally paid the player and a further £155 for offering him a cut of his proposed transfer fee to Sunderland.
Crossan, guilty of the same offences as Derry (in reverse) and without actually receiving one penny of the proposed £3,000 split of the fee, was sensationally banned for life from playing all forms of football in every country!
Predictably, that decision caused uproar. Commentators couldn’t believe the severity of the sentence.
In fact, the N. Ireland International Supporters’ Club wrote to the IFA protesting in the strongest possible manner, highlighting their disgust at what was considered a vicious and savage sentence.
The player appealed against the verdict. Derry City did not, although the club said it was very aggrieved at the severity of the Irish League penalty placed on them.
Meanwhile, the appeal, which was held by the same people who decided the penalty, was unsuccessful although this time Crossan would be allowed to play for clubs outside the British Isles.
In August, 1959, Jobby Crossan moved to Sparta Rotterdam and, interestingly, he made his debut for N. Ireland in November of that year against England at Wembley – representing countries where he had been judged something of a pariah!
Crossan then joined Standard Liege in 1961 and played for the Belgian side in a European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid having scored twice against Rangers in the previous round.
He continued to fight the lifetime ban without success and in May, 1962, two months after the Irish League had discussed the issue again, they decided not to take any action.
Sunderland, meanwhile, having kept an eye on Crossan’s progress on the Continent, hadn’t lost interest and when England played a friendly match against Peru in Lima on their way to the World Cup Finals in Chile, a meeting of minds appeared to signal changes at a high level.
Sunderland chairman and England selector, Syd Collins, opted to take Irish F.A. President, Harry Cavan, out for a drink and the former asked how the Crossan ban could be conveniently ended.
And while these “powerful people” took an active interest, wheels were set in motion. In July, then Sunderland manager, Allan Brown, flew to Belgium to discuss a deal. In September the Irish League agreed to lift the ban and on October 20th – the day the ban was lifted – Crossan finally moved to Wearside for a fee of £27,500.
Jobby’s return to British football signalled a highly successful eight year spell in England which also saw him captain Manchester City and also play for Middlesbrough before finally ending his career at Belgian club, Tongren.
During that “colourful” career the boy from Hamilton Street, who joined his home town club at 15 years of age, won 24 Northern Ireland senior caps and netted one of the best goals ever seen at Windsor Park when striking a volley from 25 yards against Poland in a European Championship qualifier.
To this day, Jobby claims there “was no row” with Derry City and he accepts the fact that the directors had probably been protecting the interests of the club.
However, as a ‘free agent’ having fulfilled the terms of his amateur contract, he felt he was entitled to play for whoever he wanted.
In Richie Kelly’s book, “Sporting Greats of the North West,” Jobby tells his side of the story for the first time.
“I was led to believe that Derry City were offered another £2,000 on top of the £6,000 that had been agreed. That was the stumbling block,” he maintained.
“I then wanted my part of that deal, another £500. I was utterly determined to get my share of that extra money. Derry refused, point blank, insisting that they hadn’t been offered an extra penny.
“But I knew different. I knew precisely what was going on. Another £2,000 was on the table and I was entitled to my cut. Some of that money was mine; it was my valuation as a player that was pushing up the price.”
And Crossan said his ‘take’ on the controversy was confirmed when he eventually joined Sunderland years later.
“When I became a Sunderland player, I was told the full story of the proposed transfer,” declared Jobby.
“It was confirmed to me that the extra money was, indeed, there, so the information I had been given at the time was spot on.
“What irritated me greatly was Derry telling me that no extra money had been offered when I knew it had been,” he added.
These days, the 73-year-old, who still plays “indoor football” a few nights a week, looks back on his career with extreme enjoyment.
“Despite the difficulties, I enjoyed a great career having experienced playing football at the top level in Holland, Belgium and England.
“Yes, there were times when I became angry and frustrated during those difficult times but, all in all, I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of my football career.
“Thankfully I feel fit and healthy and it’s always nice to look back,” he concluded.