Gary Crosby’s cheeky pickpocketing of Andy Dibble in 1990 still adorns highlights reels to this day. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/Guardian
Gary Crosby looks slightly baffled when asked what he thinks comes up when his name is typed into Google. “I don’t know, I’ve never looked myself up once,” Burton Albion’s assistant manager says. “I’ve never watched any games back that I’ve played in – no point. So I haven’t got a clue. ‘Joiner’, hopefully, because that’s what I am.”
A friendly and refreshingly down-to-earth character, Crosby has been talking candidly at Burton’s Pirelli Stadium for nearly an hour, reminiscing about the days when he was running down the right flank against miners one week and signing for Brian Clough and upsetting Alex Ferguson the next. Plucked from non-league football at 23, the winger racked up more than 150 games for Nottingham Forest between 1988 and 1994, in a period when cup finals were so commonplace for Clough and his players that Crosby has no idea how many times he appeared at Wembley.
The answer takes a lot longer to find on the internet than the footage that has arguably defined Crosby’s career. It features one of the most controversial goals in English football and was scored against Manchester City, who just happen to be Burton’s opponents in Wednesday night’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at the Etihad. “Oh right,” says Crosby, sounding a little surprised after learning “Andy Dibble” is the answer to the Google question. “Of course, that was Man City also, wasn’t it?”
Even now, almost 29 years on, Crosby’s cheeky goal is seared into the minds of a generation of football fans. It was the first thing the commentator mentioned on Match of the Day last month when Alexandre Lacazette sneaked up behind David de Gea, who was weighing up what to do after claiming a cross, and headed the ball out of the Manchester United goalkeeper’s hand before rolling it into the empty net, only for the goal to be disallowed. Dibble, in almost identical circumstances, was not so fortunate when he unwittingly served the ball to Crosby.
It was a league game in March 1990 but Crosby can picture the scene as if it were yesterday. “I can remember it being a deep cross, going around the back, maybe with Andy Hinchcliffe, and I got nowhere near it and went to the [advertisement hoardings],” he says.
“And then all I thought as I got up and started running back on to the pitch was: ‘He’s got to have that ball in two hands.’ So then I just did that [stoops to head the ball]. I don’t think I even touched his hand. Whether the referee actually saw it, or to what degree he knew what had happened, I don’t know.”
City were furious. Their manager, Howard Kendall, remonstrated angrily with Roger Gifford, the referee, who was surrounded by City players. Dibble joined them and looked devastated when it was clear the goal – the only one of the game – would stand. Not surprisingly, it has featured on just about every sporting blooper video and DVD since. “I can never escape it,” Dibble said in an interview 14 years later.Crosby remembers some City supporters staying behind and giving him “a bit of abuse” when he walked to his car after the game, but says that everything soon died down. As for Dibble, he later gave the glove in question to Steve Sutton, the former Forest keeper, to auction at his testimonial, and there has never been any ill-feeling about the incident. “I’ve seen Dibbs about enough over the years that it’s just a laugh,” Crosby adds.
If that goal somewhat unfairly shaped the perception of Dibble’s career, it feels as though the same is probably true for Crosby, albeit without the ridicule. “Maybe. It’s the one thing you get remembered for,” says Crosby, who was a League Cup winner with Forest in 1990. “But I had some fantastic times at Forest. Just to play in Brian Clough’s side for four or five years, that’s my biggest achievement – to be picked by him. I wasn’t always the favourite but I must have been doing something right.”
Crosby had been working as a joiner for six years when Clough signed him from Grantham Town in late 1987, on the back of a recommendation from Martin O’Neill, who was the non‑league club’s manager. Nicknamed “Meat Fly” by the Forest fans because of his slight build, Crosby was thrust into a whole new world. “I first played for Forest against Villa reserves at home on a Wednesday night [in a trial match],” he says. “When I walked into the dressing room – because it was the 1980s and I used to have long hair – Brian came in and said to me: ‘You know those places with red and white poles outside?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘It’s about time you visited one.’
“Then, straight after the game, he said he’d like to sign me. I said: ‘Oh, brilliant. The only thing is I’ve given my word that I’ll play for Man United reserves on Saturday.’ Brian said: ‘If you go anywhere near Manchester United, there’s no contract here.’ So I said: ‘Where do I sign?’ On Friday evening there was a phone call from Sir Alex Ferguson, saying what a mistake I’d made and that I’d given him my word I would go there. But I couldn’t take the chance of not having something. And it was the best thing I ever did, obviously.”
Crosby played with Nigel, Brian’s son, at Forest and they got on well off the field too, so much so that they discussed going into management together long before an opportunity came up in 1998 at Burton, who were in the Dr Martens Premier League, on the sixth tier of the pyramid, at the time. It says much for their friendship that they are still working alongside one another 21 years later, in their second spell at the club, after stints at Derby and Sheffield United. “That’s about trust, I would say, as much as anything,” Crosby adds. “Nigel’s incredibly loyal, just like his dad was. He never thinks about himself. He’s just honest and genuine, and everything that he does has the club’s interests first. There is no thought of personal gain.”
Although Crosby is Clough’s number two, he is often elsewhere on a matchday, looking at potential transfer targets or scouting opponents as Burton try to use their resources as effectively as possible. Perhaps wisely, Crosby has opted against watching Pep Guardiola’s side and it soon becomes clear the 54-year-old has been in the game far too long to be persuaded that a footballing miracle could happen. “The miracle has already happened,” Crosby says. “I think people are still in a state of shock. I am, personally. You see that draw, you see Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Burton – it just looks ridiculous.”
The same could be said for a certain goal. “I bobbled it in as well,” adds Crosby, smiling. “Nigel always laughs at that. The couple of goals I did score were always bobblers. I couldn’t finish like him.”
The Guardian Sport
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