FOR almost 22 years, Malcolm Crosby has enjoyed his place in history as the last Sunderland manager to lead out his side in a cup final at Wembley. Had the boyhood Sunderland fan not listened to his heart, however, he would never have taken up the offer to take over at Roker Park.
Initially appointed as caretaker boss after Denis Smith’s dismissal at the end of December 1991, South Shields-born Crosby took over a team languishing in the bottom half of the old Second Division.
His first four matches all resulted in victories, and he quickly embarked on an FA Cup run that featured wins over Port Vale, Oxford, West Ham and Chelsea before Norwich were vanquished in a semi-final at Hillsborough.
Less than a fortnight before the cup final, and on the morning of an away game at Blackburn Rovers, the Sunderland hierarchy offered him the permanent manager’s position, but it came with a caveat.
He was only being offered a one-year deal. Given that it took Sir Bob Murray’s board almost five months to come up with that proposal, it was safe to assume he was still not regarded as an unequivocal choice.
“If I’m being honest, I still don’t think the whole thing was done particularly well,” said Crosby, who was in Darlington yesterday to support his former player, Martin Gray’s, attempts to spearhead Darlington Football Club’s return to their hometown. “I was really appointed out of the blue when we were playing away at Blackburn, that was how it was announced.
“But at the end of the day, whatever happened, I wanted to be manager of Sunderland. I was told by a lot of people in football not to accept the job because I was only offered a year, but I wanted to manage Sunderland.
“If they’d have said, ‘We’ll give you it for four months’, I would still have taken it. I wanted to try to do what was right for me and my family, but most of all I wanted to be the manager of Sunderland. It was a fantastic achievement for me to actually get the job. I was incredibly proud to be Sunderland manager.”
That pride increased tenfold when he was able to walk out of the Wembley tunnel ahead of an FA Cup final with Liverpool.
Due to their Second Division stats, few gave a Sunderland side containing the likes of Tony Norman, John Kay, Brian Atkinson and John Byrne much of a chance of progressing through a competition that, in the pre-Premier League era, was still regarded as the very pinnacle of the English game.
Yet after replay victories over both West Ham and Chelsea fuelled Wearside optimism, Byrne’s semi-final winner completed a remarkable journey that saw the striker score in every round leading up to the final.
The secret of Sunderland’s success? According to Crosby, it would be wrong to overlook the effect of his wife, Carol’s, fry ups.
“Even though I was the boss, me and my wife were still running the hostel where all the young lads would stay,” he said. “All the crazy young lads like Martin (Gray) and Brian (Atkinson) were living there at the time.
“When we travelled away, especially in the cup competitions, we would train on the Friday and then all the lads would head back to the hostel and my wife would do them sausage, egg, bacon and all the works. Then we’d get on to the coach and off we’d go.
“The lads loved it, and it became a bit of a ritual. It was all part of the cup trips, and at the time, it worked. But you can do a lot of things when you’re winning. Mind you, it wasn’t a bad thing – the bacon was good and the sausage was always canny.”
As the cup run gathered momentum, so the excitement on Wearside grew. In the last week, Crosby has found himself fielding calls about tickets for next month’s Capital One Cup final against Manchester City. That is nothing, however, compared to the maelstrom of attention he was engulfed with 22 years ago.
“I remember after the semi-final draw, they were selling tickets first thing in the morning for the semi-final,” he said. “A friend of mine rang me up at 10pm the night before and said, ‘You want to get round Roker – they’re all queueing up now’.
“It was late at night, so I went round to have a chat with a few of the fans and it was great. I was thinking, ‘God, these people are going to sit up all night in the freezing cold, just to get a ticket to see my team play’. That just shows how fanatical they are.”
In the week before the cup final, Crosby took his squad to their team hotel on the banks of the River Thames, away from the feverish excitement that was building in the North-East.
Their preparation could hardly have gone any better, but ultimately they were unable to upset the odds and topple a Liverpool side boasting stars like Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Molby, Steve McManaman and Ian Rush.
“Everything was done right,” said Crosby. “The preparation couldn’t have been any better, I just wished I could have picked a team to win.
“I got all the help I needed from the board to try to get it right. It’s like any game, you’re always nervous before any game whether you’re a manager or a player. You’re nervous because you want to win. It’s a great occasion for everybody, but unfortunately we came second. Sadly, that’s what people remember.”