THE COLD SIX THOUSAND
My most significant anniversary of the year came on November 29th, when Jobby Crossan turned 80.
In parts of the North, Jobby is remembered in sharp definition even by people who couldn’t tell you a thing about him except that he scored two for Standard Liege against Rangers at Ibrox in the quarter-final of the European Cup.
That was in 1962, by which time Jobby was as well-known as any Irish sportsperson in the world, and everywhere the subject of hot-and heavy debate.
You can’t fully understand the development of the game if you don’t know that Jobby supplied a major plot-point in the narrative which stretches from the codification of the rules in the 1870s and ‘80s to the riches and glitz of today.
Jobby was from Hamilton Street in the Brandywell area. The Crossans were a footballing family. Jobby’s elder brother, Eddie, played inside forward for Blackburn Rovers. Younger brother Jimbo was later to play centre half for Derry City.
From an early age, Jobby was recognised around the street and across local soccer as something of a phenomenon. As the scouts began to cluster, the Express referred to him as “the wonder boy of Irish soccer… Ireland’s Jimmy Greaves.”
Jobby was playing as an amateur for Derry City, and thus couldn’t be transferred for money. Standard dodgy practice if an offer came in for an amateur was for the player to sign a professional contract, allowing the club more or less immediately to agree a transfer – naturally, for as big a fee as they could coax from the buyer.
Sunderland offered £6,000. Derry made Jobby an offer – sign here and we split the six grand. Jobby could have walked away – all amateur contracts were for one year only – and trousered all of the Wearsiders’ dosh at the end of the season. He suggested an alternative – a grand for the club and five for himself?
There was outrage among directors at the cheek of an urchin from Hamilton Street presuming to haggle with pillars of the community such as themselves. He was dropped, and didn’t play until the end of the season, when he signed amateur forms for Coleraine. Enraged, Derry directors reported themselves to the authorities for having offered to split the Sunderland fee – and asked for an additional offence to be taken into account – they’d been paying him £1.50 a game under the counter.
A few months later, a commission of inquiry established by the Irish Football Association announced its verdict: Coleraine was fined £5 (for a wrongly-dated form), Derry City was hit with £100 for paying an amateur, and £155 for having offered to split the Sunderland fee. The director who had offered Jobby the split was fined £0. Jobby was banned from football for life in every country in the world. He was 17.
The secretary of the FA, Alan Hardaker, weighed in from London, warning that any weakening in the Crossan case would damage the credibility of disciplinary systems everywhere.
A Guardian editorial described the ban as “sickeningly unfair,” evidence of “a lack of humanity and justice.” The Coleraine Chronicle spoke for a consensus among Irish football fans: “Young ‘Jobby’ has become the most talked-about player in the British Isles. There is strong public sentiment that the sentence is much too severe and should be reviewed in with a view to drastic reduction.”
When the IFA’s commission met in January 1959 to hear an appeal, they will have known they were being watched. They lifted the ban to allow Jobby to play in Europe: back then, the notion of playing in Europe was fanciful.
But Sparta Rotterdam came in for Jobby. Two seasons later, he moved to Standard Liege. |He was a top player in Europe. With every game, the ban on him playing in Britain became more untenable. Jobby returned, had a distinguished eight-season career in the top division, played with distinction for Sunderland, captained Manchester City, earned 28 NI caps.
Much else was happening in the game, reflecting shifts in society generally. Change didn’t come just because of Jobby. But he was an omen, a harbinger. Change would have come dropping more slowly had he not kick-started the process.
The chairman of the Professional
Footballers’ Association, Jimmy Hill of Fulham, later and for many years presenter of the BBC’s Match Of The Day, commented: “Unless I am mistaken, the cruel situation into which this talented Irish minor has blundered has more than any other single event in the history of soccer illustrated to the public the fundamental illogicalities and restrictive practices which a professional player is forced to accept… One day, when the archaic regulations on which he foundered are finally and irrevocably abolished, I hope that the members of our association will express their everlasting thanks to John Crossan.”
My personal interest at this time of year in rooted in the fact that around New Year 1959, in the period between Coleraine and Rotterdam, Jobby, kicking his heels at home, sometimes joined in a kickabout in the street. Even tinier urchins could sortie in and rush around like mad trying to get a kick.
Thus it was that I caught Jobby Crossan with kick on the leg. He didn’t go down. He may not have noticed. But it does mean that around New Year long ago, I, too, might have changed the course of football history.