As A lifelong Sunderland fan, Malcolm Crosby appreciates better than most the importance of the football team to its city.
And while taking the Rokerites to the 1992 FA Cup final earned him a permanent place in the hearts of the club’s supporters, it was his qualities as an ordinary human being which did most to endear him to fans and players alike.
Twenty-two years on, Crosby has made the long journey from Oxford to support Darlington Football Club, and his former players.
The Quakers are publicising next season’s groundshare with Darlington Rugby Club – a return home after two years in Bishop Auckland – and although he never played for, coached or managed the club, Crosby is only too happy to help. He spends a good few hours flitting between the cold of the stands and the warmth of the clubhouse posing for photographs and conducting interviews with anyone who wants them.
Despite moving away from the area and taking a job scouting for Birmingham City, the 59-year-old from South Shields still instinctively appreciates the importance of football to the region.
“It alters the whole mood,” he says. “When your club is not doing well, you go home and you’re not particularly happy. It can affect family life because that’s the love of the football club.
“When you get to Wembley, though, the whole area’s in a good way. Everyone’s happy. It does have a big effect if the team is being successful.
“It’s just good for the locals.”
Crosby was given a graphic demonstration when, as caretaker manager, he led Division Two Sunderland to the last four of the FA Cup for the first time since their famous 1973 win.
“I remember after the semi-final draw, they were selling tickets first thing in the morning,” he recalls. “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’.
“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.
“It’s the same with Newcastle. I know I’m Sunderland-daft, but I genuinely think all the North East supporters are fantastic. They’re brilliant and they really do get behind the team.
“People maybe criticise Newcastle a bit too much for my liking. Alan Pardew has got them 37 points. In a normal season, everyone would be delighted with that. Just because they’ve had a bit of a bad run, you haven’t got to be over-critical because it’s a tough league.”
That down-to-earth approach made Crosby as popular with his players. Three members of the 1992 squad are on Darlington’s coaching staff – manager Martin Gray, first-team coach Brian Atkinson and goalkeeping coach Tony Norman – and their affection for their old boss is clear. He knew the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
“Me and my wife (Carol) were still running the hostel where all the young lads would stay,” says Crosby. “All the crazy young lads like Martin and Brian were living there at the time.
“When we travelled away, especially in the Cup, 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. 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!”
So were the performances. Crosby is careful to share the praise around, but there is no hiding the contribution of goalkeeper Norman.
“Without Tony’s performances, we probably wouldn’t have got to the Cup final,” Crosby admits. “When you get to a cup final, you need somebody to be a hero, and Tony was that in two or three of those games.
“He was man of the match against Chelsea, and probably West Ham away as well. He was fantastic. That’s not taking anything away from the rest of the players, but if you’re going to get to a cup final, you need a goalkeeper to perform well. And he did.”
Given his popularity and success, it is amazing how Crosby was treated in 1992. Asked to mind the shop after the sacking of Denis Smith in December, he kept the team clear of relegation and led them to Wembley – where they lost 2-0 to Liverpool – but was only given the job permanently less than a fortnight earlier. “I don’t think that was done particularly well to be honest,” Crosby admits. “I was really appointed out of the blue when we were playing away at Blackburn. But 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. 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 to actually get the job. I was incredibly proud.
“It was very difficult (to become caretaker) because I’d worked with Denis since being a player. It was very hard, but to be fair to Denis he said, ‘Take it’. I got off to such a good start, I think I won my first five games. It’s just a shame I couldn’t have carried that on, eh? To win five games off the bounce, nobody does it any more.
“I was fortunate because the players were fantastic. Whoever we came up against, they beat them. The players did fantastic for me.”
Even now, it is easy to see why.