FLASHBACK: John Crossan’s night to remember against Real Madrid

It was 1962. Standard Liege’s John Crossan now faced what were to be two of the most memorable games of his dramatic career.

By Richie Kelly
Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 6:00 am
John Crossan in action for Sunderland in the early 1960s.
John Crossan in action for Sunderland in the early 1960s.

A European Cup semi-final tie was on the horizon and it was against one of the great clubs of world football: Real Madrid.

The men from the Bernabeu won the first five European Cups – 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960. The big worry for Liege ahead of the semi-final tie was the potency in the Real front line. Many contend it was the best ever to compete in the great tournament. Madrid’s devastating strike force involved not one, but two, of the greatest frontmen – perhaps the most lethal pair to grace the great world game: Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.

Accordingly, an enormous challenge now confronted the Northern Ireland international and his Standard Liege teammates. The Belgian club’s first ever appearance in the last four of the European Cup couldn’t have been more awkward, tactically. How is opposition of that quality stifled? The sheer individual brilliance that existed in the all-white outfit from Spain’s capital city was sobering.

Di Stefano was a player of amazing versatility, often dropping back to direct play or defend. He was an incredible, all-round forward combining speed with superb technique, stamina, tactical insight and an ability to score goals.

Puskas scored 84 goals in 85 internationals, an incredible achievement. He amassed 514 goals in 529 games in the Hungarian and Spanish leagues, and, of course, he led the Hungarian team to the final of the 1954 World Cup. He is the only player to have scored four goals in a European Cup final.

If that wasn’t sufficient to intimidate the opposition, there was also Luis Del Sol in the midfield who went on to represent Spain in two World Cups in the 1960s. The Real Madrid left winger on that team was one of the quickest of all time - Francisco Gento, who, when his career ended, had appeared in eight European Cup finals and earned 43 caps for Spain. Gento is the only player in history to have won six European Cups in his career. His pace earned him the nickname ‘El Supersonico’.

So, this was the quality of footballer in the Real Madrid team that John Crossan and his Liege teammates came up against in the 1962 European Cup semi-final. It indicated how far John Crossan had come in the great game after initially being thrown out completely; ostracised, left lying permanently in the football gutter. He had overcome ignominy to patrol the same football arenas as the game’s immortals. Has there ever been an Irish football story like it?

Unbelievably, John Crossan was earmarked as one of the key men the coach believed could maybe stifle some of the genuine world class thoroughbreds the Belgian club was now set to confront.

The opening away leg, in particular, presented a formidable challenge for Liege, not least because 110,000 people were to crowd into the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid to see the game.

‘I don’t think in all my career I ever experienced an atmosphere like that,’ said John Crossan. ‘It was literally frightening. I have to admit this: their team was far superior to our side. They were in a different world. They were full of confidence. We were apprehensive.’

It says much for John Crossan’s outstanding all-round talent as a footballer that, in the top club competition in the world, he should be singled out by the coach to man-mark arguably the greatest player in the world.

Because he was athletic, strong in the tackle and with endless stamina and an all-round, accurate passing game, the Brandywell man was handed the job of trying to subdue Di Stefano.

John Crossan admits frankly the ploy didn’t work: ‘They won 4-0 and they were a really top side. I felt I might have been able to do something if I had been playing in the role I normally occupied in midfield, instead of the more restricted duty I was set. I definitely think it would have been better if I had been left to do the things I normally did in that area.

‘It was hard to mark Di Stefano tight. His talent and energy was such that he moved all over the park. It was tough trying to get tight to him. And then he had these magnificent players around him. Puskas and Del Sol were buzzing about to take and give the ball. I’m not saying it would have changed the result, they were the better team and would have won no matter what we did. I think our shape would have been better if we’d played as we normally did.

‘There was an incredible atmosphere. I’ve played in a lot of memorable football matches but I don’t think I’ve ever been in such an exhilarating environment. It was an experience that lives with you forever. And the quality of the opposition all over the field.....special.’

In the return leg in Liege, John Crossan was back in a more familiar central midfield role and, as a consequence, he was a major contributor to a much-improved Standard Liege performance in which the Belgian club lost 2-0 to make the aggregate 6-0 over the two legs.

It was 0-0 after the first 45 minutes but Puskas, five minutes after the break, and De Sol, on the hour, wrapped up the scoring.

John recalls: ‘I hit the woodwork – I think it was the crossbar, and I remember that we played very well.

They were dominant at times but we gave them a real game second time around.

But wouldn’t it have been marvellous if that shot had gone in? To score against such opposition in a game as crucial as that – that would have been special.’

There was in those days a banquet after the games and John Crossan was sitting at the same table as the legendary Ferenc Puskas. In fact, they were next to each other and, of course, there was the usual football banter.

He, however, recalls an amusing incident at the table.

One of the other diners, the manager of one of the smaller footballing nations, wanted Puskas to do him a favour. John says he repeated the request several times throughout the meal and it was obvious Puskas was becoming irritated.

Eventually, the great Hungarian told him to put the request in writing whereupon he asked Puskas for his address.

John Crossan remembers the reply: ‘Send it to Puskas, Madrid!’

‘The Man They Couldn’t Ban: The John Crossan Story’, by Richie Kelly, is published by Colmcille Press. Richie previously published the acclaimed sporting

history, ‘Sporting Greats of the North West’ (Guildhall Press) in 2011. Kelly was known as ‘The Voice of Sport’ at BBC Radio Foyle for more than 30 years.