​​​​Johnny Crossan – A Tale of Survival

Councillor Eamonn McCann stands with his back to Free Derry Wall and announces, ‘over there in that ditch is where I lay on Bloody Sunday’. Up the road in the Rathmore Estate Raymond McCartney is busily working ahead of the British General Election, Raymond spent 53 days on Hunger Strike during the troubles, today he is a member of the Stormont Parliament. 

This is Derry, situated in the North West of Ireland the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement in Ireland and a city sadly scarred by the events of January the 30th 1972The air is full of injustices on the Messines Road in the centre of a group of local shops sits a sports shop, among the trophies inside, the wall is filled with photos of Di Stefano, Puskas and Best: names of a bygone era.

With Eamonn McCann, Derry Civil Rights, March 1968. Derry

Behind the small counter stands Johnny ‘Jobby’ Crossan a man who felt the wrath of football injustice. A son of Sparta Rotterdam who tormented the Rangers at Ibrox and a man who wore the ‘Red’ of Standard Liege marking Alfredo Di Stefano in the cauldron of the Bernabéu in the European Cup semi-final of 1961. Crossan made his name in the stadia of Belgium and Holland, not by choice but by necessity.

In 1957 as a teenage starlet for his local club Derry City Crossan was the up and coming wonder boy of Irish football. With scouts hovering over his every touch Derry City were approached by Sunderland F.C. for the young candystripe, the Wearside club offering £10,000 for Crossan’s services. Crossan who was being paid a paltry £3 a week at Derry was made aware of Sunderland’s approach.

As he states from the centre of his sports shop ‘Derry City would receive 5k and I would get £5k’, however, Johnny had a change of heart and decided to sign for rivals Coleraine. He wasn’t long kicking football in the coastal town when the great Peter Doherty then managing Bristol City came knocking in October 1958, a fee of £7k was agreed and Jimmy headed to Ashton Gate.

The board of Derry City vented their anger by informing on Crossan, and incriminating themselves in the process, to Alan Hardaker then Secretary of the English FA; their main gripe Coleraine would now receive a fee and not Derry City. Crossan’s ‘crime’ was that he had received payment from Derry City even though he was an amateur. Peter Doherty broke the news to the teenager as they travelled home together after training.

Johnny left broken hearted returning home to Hamilton Street to face the wrath of the IFA and in January 1959 they announced wee ‘Jobby’ was banned for life – ‘Life…’ he exclaims ”To this day I never received a letter nothing from them…’.

The story made both front and back pages with young Johnny still six weeks short of his 20th birthday left with no way of earning a living and not able to kick football competitively ever again. Of course, Johnny appealed, and the ban was lifted to only include the UK so Johnny could go foreign to play the game he loved. The Continent was calling.

A wandering nomad by the name of Denis Neville had been managing on the continent since 1948 and by 1959 was managing Sparta Rotterdam, then champions of Holland. He would later go on to manage the Dutch National team. More importantly for Johnny, Neville contacted him offering him a chance of redemption with the then Dutch champions. Crossan jumped at the chance.

There was apprehension ‘…of course I was apprehensive I didn’t even have a passport’, one was sourced with the help of Eamonn McCann’s friend John Hume, Crossan was on his way to the land of Oranje. Johnny made his debut against Fortuna 54 and would play in the fifth season of the European Cup with the red and white gladiators, De Rood-Witte Gladiatoren, as they are known in Dutch Football.

Brian Clough and Johnny were great friends and used to go and watch cricket together.

Sparta received a bye in the preliminary round and faced the Swedes of IFK Gothenburg in the second round who had overcome a Linfield side featuring an aging Jackie Milburn in the first round. The two-legged affair finished 4-4 and Jimmy and Sparta were off to Bremen in West Germany for a play-off to determine who would go through.

Sparta won 3-1 with Crossan scoring a 23rd minute debut European goal meaning Glasgow Rangers awaited them in the quarter finals. On the 9th March 1960 referee John Kelly blew his whistle as 53,000 souls in the Sparta Stadion cheered on their side. Rangers ran out 3-2 victors on the night, but Johnny ‘still banned from football in the UK’ and Sparta would have their revenge in front of 100,000 at Ibrox with a 1-0 victory.

With the tie finishing all square at 3-3, the play off was set for Highbury, London home of Arsenal football club. Within the space of a fortnight ‘Jobby’ had played in Ibrox and Highbury, not bad for a man who was banned – ‘lunacy I know’ he exclaims. 

In front of the Sparta fans who stood on the North Bank that night Rangers won 3-2 with Sparta helping the Glasgow giants greatly with two own goals. Johnny’s European Cup adventure was over but Crossan had been noticed by next door neighbours Standard Liege, then champions of Belgium.

There would be more European adventures for Johnny as he joined ‘Les Rouges’ in 1961 and on the 6th September, he lined out again in the European Cup against Fredikstad of Norway winning out 4-1 over the two legs. In the next round Liege dismissed Haka of Israel 7-1 on aggregate and Johnny found himself facing the Rangers again in the quarter finals, the difference this time was that he would taste victory.

In front of a 36,000 crowd, Crossan of Hamilton Street in Derry would net twice in the first leg as Liege ran out 4-1 winners at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne. Rangers would win 2-0 at Ibrox in the second leg but Liege had done enough to advance. On the 22nd of March 1962 Johnny Crossan walked out on to the hallowed turf of the Bernabéu to face one of the greatest European Cup teams of all time. 

Real Madrid v Standard Liege team line ups.

Johnny was tasked with marking the great Alfredo Di Stefano, on the wall in the sports shop is a picture of the Real Madrid team from that fateful night, ‘Puskas, Gento, DelSol, Tejada…’ he calls out as he points at each player. Real Madrid ran out 6-0 winners over the two semi-final legs the greatest team of the 1950’s and early 60’s and a class apart. 

The blinkered blazers of the IFA took note of Crossan’s European adventure and Malcolm Brodie reporter of the Belfast Telegraph had been out to the lowlands to interview Johnny. Even though banned from club football in the UK, Crossan represented Northern Ireland against England in November 1959 at Wembley with Munich air disaster survivor Harry Gregg in goal for the Irish.

The Crossan affair was finally resolved in 1962 in Lima, Peru of all places when Harry Cavan of the IFA bumped into Syd Collings a director of Sunderland AFC ahead of a friendly between Peru and England. Collings asked Cavan about Johnny Crossan and suggested the Black Cats were still interested in signing the Derry man. Cavan outlined if Sunderland came to play Linfield at Windsor Park the ban would be lifted and the Lima side street deal was duly agreed.

Crossan captaining Manchester City in 1965.

Sunderland came to Belfast to play that friendly and Johnny Crossan left Liege for Wearside a lengthy three years since the club’s initial approach to Derry City. Crossan joined a then Division Two Sunderland in October 1962 and played alongside Brian Clough; indeed he was on the pitch that Boxing Day when Clough’s career came to a shattering injury-induced end.

Clough would go on as a manager to have his own European success ’A great man…genius…what he did with Nottingham Forest amazing’ he states.

Sunderland were promoted in Johnny’s first season and he would stay on until January 1965 when he was transferred to Maine Road, Manchester. Johnny joined Manchester City who were in the embryonic stages of building a great championship winning side with the names of Summerbee and Bell soon to shine. Crossan became the darling of the Kippax End captaining City to the Division Two championship in 1966, meanwhile across the way a kid by the name of Best was also starting to make headlines.

George Best had made his Northern Ireland debut against Wales in 1964 playing outside right and next to him on the field playing inside forward was a certain Johnny Crossan. The pair would become friends as the swinging sixties hit Manchester, although Crossan’s wife Barbara wouldn’t let him out with George! Johnny smiles at the memory.

Johnny Crossan at the Brandywell, home of Derry City, the club who helped ban him.

It’s lunchtime and along the Messines Road in Derry, a now-80-year-old Johnny shuts up shop with the Bogside below him and the Creggan above him; the man who duelled with Di Stefano and was King of Liege; the man they couldn’t ban.   


Flag of Friendship Film Bio:
Johnny Crossan was interviewed for the film ‘Flag of Friendship’. The film tells the story of the ‘Big Lily’ flag which was created by Keith Norris and Martin Cleary during the troubles in Northern Ireland to bring a group of football supporters together.
The Big Lily Film is the story of a Catholic Martin Cleary and a Protestant Keith Norris from Carrickfergus who created a Manchester United flag called ‘Big Lily'( it measures 100ft by 60ft). The name came from the ‘Easter Lily'(Nationalist Side) and the ‘Orange Lily’ (Unionist Side) – during the troubles a Manchester United supporters club was setup in Carrickfergus. It was setup in a Loyalist bar so Martin could not join and would not go to meetings, given this Keith and Martin came up with the idea of the flag and the name to unite people in the group.
The flag has become well known worldwide and just after the Good Friday agreement enjoyed notoriety as Manchester United won the treble.
Keith Norris was born in Derry in 1967 a year before the Civil Rights Movement in the city.
Martin Cleary died in 2007 and the film is dedicated to his memory, we worked with Marty Lyons muralist recently to create a mural about the flag on the peace wall in Belfast – covered here by the Belfast Telegraph.


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