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Interview: Mark Crossley

12 August 11 interview: Al Needham
photos: Dom Henry

Mark Crossley - known as ‘Norm’ during his thirteen years as Forest’s goalkeeper, due to a resemblance to Norman Whiteside - started his career being hated by his own supporters. Then he nearly became the hero of the 1991 FA Cup final and a club legend. Nowadays he’s a player-coach at Chesterfield, an after-dinner speaker, and - as of this month - his own publisher...

So, your autobiography’s coming out soon...
It's a bit more than, 'I've won this, I've won that, I've won this.' To be honest, I didn't really win a lot anyway, in trophies. It’s more about the characters in the game. What happens in the dressing room, and things like that. But mainly it's about the person I am, the characters I've played with and the managers I've played under. All twenty one of them.

We’ve seen so many Forest autobiographies from the glory years of the late 70s and early 80s, while yours is one of the first to cover the end of the Clough era and its aftermath.
That’s right. I had the gaffer's last six years in management, which were my first six years. I speak quite a bit about it. Then obviously I move on to the era where Platt came, and I didn't see eye to eye with him. So I'll speak a little bit about that. And I speak about, obviously, being in bother with the law, and growing up. Things like that really.

Virtually every football autobiography since the dawn of time has been ghostwritten, to some extent. So how much input did you get?
Well, it's written by Ray Yeomans, who’s worked for the Evening Post for years. So he knows a lot about me – including some things written or said about me I didn't know about. I've not held anything back; I've spoken about my own divorce, what a career in football cost me, and been upfront about things that fans wouldn’t know, like what happens when you go in to sign a contract. How you negotiate a contract. I've spoke about the money that was around at the time, what money I could earn at the time, what money people are earning now... I've just completely gone for it and told the truth about the lot.

So how long is the interview process with books like this?
I've sat down with Ray for four to five hours at a time, probably about fifteen times so far. I actually carried a Dictaphone around with me through my career, and that’s helped a lot. Ray said he could have written a book just off the Dictaphone.

One of the really interesting aspects to the book is that you’re taking the self-publishing route.
Yeah, I'm funding it all myself. Everything's coming out of my pocket. Basically, I've got Ray, I've got another guy who’ll print the book, and we're going to go to an independent bookbinder. If I make any money at the end of it, I intend to make a donation to a grass-roots football charity or a children's charity.  

Your career with Forest and their supporters didn’t exactly start on the right foot. What was it like in town after you’d had an off-game?
Not good. I didn't go out in town after an off-game, put it that way. I basically came into the team really young, and you’re always going to make mistakes at that age. Looking back, you could say that the gaffer probably should have taken me out of the team when I was on the back end of a bad spell, which there were a few of. But he didn't; he stuck by me and kept me there, and I thank him for that now, because if I hadn't have come through that, I wouldn't have gone on to have the career I had.

You really had some big shoes to fill at Forest – Shilton, Chris Woods…
…Hans van Breukelen, Steve Sutton… but I think to be at a club for 13 years, I can't have done too bad.

The Trent End really used to get on your back at times.
Yes they did, but I stuck at it and kept going, and I tried to build a relationship with the supporters. I'd go into the Meadows, into their pubs, and have a drink with them on a Sunday dinner. And I think they appreciated that, and the relationship got better and better. I've always been someone that's gone out in the community - if anybody's ever asked me to do anything, to help anybody, I've always done it.

So where were you living when you were playing at Forest?
Well, I lived in Barnsley, and that's obviously when I had a lot of trouble with the law. I've never been a saint, and back then I got into trouble, on numerous occasions, and it was just through idiotic stuff. There was a lot of jealousy.

You'd assume it’d be ‘local lad made good’. But there's always someone wanting to have a go, right?
Exactly. That's right. Always. Look, I’d signed for Forest in '87, which wasn't too long after the miners strike. So I was getting called a scab for working in Nottingham. I was young, I was playing football, I was in the public eye and, to be honest, I loved it but I couldn't handle it. And if someone had a go, then I had a little go back. Like my dad used to say, if anybody gives you any trouble, you never back down. And I never did. I went through a shop window in Barnsley. I got in trouble for having a really horrible do with a bouncer. And I was looking at going away on a long jail sentence. So the Gaffer got me in and said; 'You've got a week to buy a house. In Nottingham', and I bought Steve Chettle's house off him.

You actually joined made your debut in 1989, the season of Hillsborough. Were you there on the bench?
No, but I was stood on the Kop. It was the time when sub goalies still weren’t allowed on the bench, so I was watching with family and friends. We didn't know exactly what was going on till the actual bodies started piling up. It was just shocking to be there; God knows what it must have been like to be on the pitch.

What was the mood like at Forest in the weeks afterwards?
It was, 'How did it come to this?' Everything about the rest of the season – even the replay - was forgotten about; all we could do was grieve for the people that lost their lives. At a football match, which is still incredible. It's something I try not to think about if I can help, to be honest.

By the next season, you were a firm fixture at the club. Did you go out drinking with the rest of the players?
Yeah. We used to have a great social life. A lot of the time it was players and wives, but the lads would have their days and nights together, there's no doubt about that. Apart from the city centre, the Black Orchid was the place to be back then. Usually on a Monday night. Student night. We were lucky back then; even though we were rarely out of the top half of the top division and would be recognised by the general public more than today’s Forest squad, we were allowed to mix with them and not be as insulated as players are now.

Who were your drinking buddies at the time?
Ian Woan, Steve Stone, Kev Campbell, Gary Charles...who else? Steve Chettle was and is very family orientated. Actually, Stan Collymore too. Monday night used to be a night out for all the lads, and it was openly encouraged by the managers.

We’ve heard a lot about the drinking culture of Forest – Cloughie getting the team battered before Cup Finals and that. Was it really like that?
Not really. They used to let you have a beer because you thought that made you sleep better. Now, you know what it's like to have one beer, y'know what I mean? Now, if you go and have six or seven it's a totally different matter. As far as a drinking culture went - yeah, every Saturday night after the game there'd be four or five of us out, and then on a Sunday I'd nip into the Meadows, have a couple in The Crown, and then straight out on the Monday night. But then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you were preparing for the game on Saturday.

What’s the most memorable piss-up Forest had?
I can’t remember. A piss-up's a piss-up, in’t it? I mean, what do you do at a piss-up? You get pissed up.

Virtually every book about Forest comes up with new anecdotes about Clough that we’ve never heard before. We love Steve Hodge’s claim that he’d regularly divert the coach to East Midlands Airport after away games and make the team wave at it.
That was a regular thing. That was any game south of East Midlands; he'd divert the bus and then sit and watch the planes, and say 'Not be long before we're on there.'

So what new anecdotes are you bringing to the table?
I'll give you one; on match days we used to pick him up from a hotel in Sandiacre. One time, the day before Mother’s Day, we saw him in someone's front garden ripping roses off a bush. Then he went up to the letterbox, pushed a load of cash through it, got on the bus, gave every player a red rose, and told us to give it to our mum or wife or girlfriend. We were to say; ‘Brian says thank you for letting him have me on Mothering Sunday weekend’.

Were people scared of him?
I wasn't scared of him; I was in awe of him. And when you're in awe of someone, that brings a certain amount of fear with it, but I wasn't one of these who'd be walking down the corridor, see him and turn the other way. I was more of a 'Morning Boss - get yer a cup of tea?' type person, and I think he liked that. I once signed a blank contract because he asked me to. Why? Because I wanted to play for Nottingham Forest, I wanted to play for Brian Clough, I trusted that he would fill in the contract, and I wanted him to trust me. I had a reputation for trouble, but I think he thought that I was a decent person deep down.

The 1991 FA Cup Final, then. Was saving Gary Lineker’s penalty the absolute highlight of your career?
It's definitely up there. It would have been better if we would have won - then it would be been the highlight. It’s in the record books as one of only three penalty saves in the Cup Final. Was two, now it's three, because Cech did it last year, didn't he?

You’re also the only goalie to have ever save Matt Le Tissier penno.
Someone told me I've got the best record of saving penalties in the Premier League in one season - 57% - which I didn't even know about. Typical me. But I think also scoring for Sheffield Wednesday when I went up for a last minute corner...for some reason, I’ve always wished that it had been for Forest. But scoring a goal as a goalkeeper…it's unexplainable, the feeling. I didn't know what to do, or how to celebrate, or anything. I'd never done it before.

It’s generally assumed that Clough would have retired if Forest had won the FA Cup that year, and Forest’s recent history could have been so much different. Would you agree with that?
Possibly. I do know that we wanted to win it for him; it wasn't about us, it was about him. I think it probably hindered us a little bit in the end, because it was constantly being highlighted as the only cup Cloughie's never won, so everybody was obsessed with winning it for him - which as players we wanted to do in any case, y'know.

Everyone second-guesses his decision not to come out for a team talk in extra time. What was that about?
Well, I wasn't looking for him, to be honest. We all went over for drinks and that, and we were confident we were going to win it. All a manger does when he comes on anyway is just stand there and say; 'Come on! Keep it going!' and so on. There's not really a lot to be said, when you're going into extra time. It didn't surprise us that he never came on the pitch. It was just his way.

What was it like in the dressing room afterwards?
Quiet. We all sat there. Not a lot was said at all. The Gaffer said, 'You give your all, that's all I can ask for. Wasn't to be.' Then we sat there in complete silence for at least half an hour before we went and got in the baths, then on the coach and straight home. We had a party arranged, but it didn't really happen. Some players went home, some stayed. When you get beat, what is there to party about? Getting to the final? Not really.

Did your opinion of Gazza change as a result of that game?
Not really. I feel sorry for him. He's got an addiction. But that day...I couldn't believe the madness in him. Even in the tunnel, you could see it in his eyes. But I've got great admiration for him, he's one of the greatest players I've ever played against, y'know, and I admired him as a player. He made two mistakes and he was lucky to stay on the pitch, there's no doubt about that. He'd probably admit that himself. And had he been sent off we would probably have won the Cup. But it's no good thinking about what could've happened.

There are still Forest supporters of a certain age who can't find it in themselves to forgive him for the Gary Charles tackle, regardless of what state he’s in now.
Listen, no-one is ever going to take away how brilliant a player he was in his prime. I loved playing against him, and I loved playing with him - he was one of the world's best. What happened that day…it was a shame. And he probably shouldn't have been on the pitch. But he was, and these things happen in football, so there's no point in reminiscing about it.

Two years later, and Forest are getting relegated. What was it like being a part of that?
You could see it coming, couldn't you? You could see it coming. We didn't have the best start, and we didn't sign any players. People say the Gaffer had lost it by then, but he was still as wise as ever. I just think... I think the same as everybody thinks, really; it was just probably a year too long for him, God bless him. His health had deteriorated, and to be honest, the players weren't performing for him either.

The general opinion amongst the media and a lot of fans was that Forest were too good to go down. Did the players think that, too?
I think we did. Until it was too late. Yeah, we did.

So was there a particular moment that stands out as the tipping point of that season?
Do you know summat? It's a blank to me. Most of that season is a blank to me now. What I do know, as someone who’s had coaching experience, is that English football tends to work in five-game plans. And when you don’t win in those five games, that's when it becomes a rut. That's when the supporters become hairy - they're not happy, start to voice their opinions. And certain players start to hide. And unfortunately, that season, without mentioning any names, we had too many of them.

But only Forest under Cloughie could make such a big celebration out of getting relegated.
Oh, that final day was amazing. I didn't play in the final game, Andy Marriott did. I remember Sheffield United fans singing, 'There's only one Brian Clough.' Which was unbelievable.

What was Frank Clark like?
I thought he was different class. Best appointment we could have made, after the Gaffer, like. I didn't know anything about the bloke, but as soon as I met him at pre-season training, I just got that feeling that this is the start of a new era, and a good one. And it was. They employed the right man, they gave him £4 million quid to spend on two strikers and we were straight back. To get us promoted, finish third in the Premier League, and then get us to the quarter finals of UEFA Cup…that was a brilliant achievement.

So how did it end with you and Forest?
Basically, it was Platt, who took over in 1999. He offered me a new contract that summer, and I didn't think the deal was right. So basically I said I was going to leave my options open. I had nothing against him, personally, but I just couldn't get over his arrogance. I read a piece in the paper saying his first job was to get rid of the dead wood. To me, that was meself, Woany and Chettle. I felt like we were judged before we'd even been given the chance to impress – and when I got the new contract offer, it was half of what I was earning.

That was nice of him.
Yeah. So I said to him, 'OK, let's just carry on the way that we are, I'll say goodbye at the end of the season and that'll be it.' I was actually hoping that by then he'd have got sacked and someone else would've come in and made a new offer. But I played up to Christmas with him, and I was doing fine. Form was good. Then all of a sudden, he pulled me over on a Friday morning, while we were going through set pieces, and he just said, 'You're not playing.' I said, 'Why?' He just said, 'I'm putting Bez in.' Nothing against Dave Beasant – he was a good keeper. But I didn't feel justified. And the next day I got handed an envelope in the dressing room saying my contract offer had been withdrawn by the assistant manager. He didn't pull me in the office and say, he handed me a letter. And that was it. But then I had to get brought back into the team at QPR away, because Bez had to miss the game.

That’s when you said goodbye to the supporters.
Yep, that's when I did the thing with the t-shirt, because I knew it was the only way I could express my feelings toward the Forest fans. I decided to get a t-shirt printed that said, 'No matter what what happens to me I'll always love the supporters of Nottingham Forest Football Club. Love Big Norm.'

That’s a big t-shirt.
It was, yeah. And small print! I had to put it on in the toilets in case he saw it, and took my goalie shirt off after I ran out of the tunnel. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have done it, but I just thought, well, I'm going to be leaving anyway.

David Platt is an absolute hate figure amongst Forest fans. Is that justified?
I don't hate him. Like I say, I couldn't see past his arrogance. I think he was a good coach, but as a man-to-man manager…probably not very good. Everybody remembers the three signings he made a couple of weeks before the season started and it just killed him. And there was no way of coming back from that, in my opinion.

Being a goalkeeper, you can’t help but hear what the fans are saying. Has there ever been anything someone's said behind you that really wound you up?
Never. I've always been a believer that a supporter pays their money, and is entitled to their opinion. At the end of the day that's their prerogative, that's what they're there for.

But have you never been tempted to turn around and go, 'Look, do you not realise that there are things going off behind the scenes that are affecting this club, you twat?’
Nah, I've never been one to call supporters and think that they're out of order, because they're not. At the end of the day, they're paying your wage, so they're entitled to their own opinion. And me as a coach now, when I'm watching Chesterfield, I think I'm better than them eleven players on that pitch. And so does every supporter.

Forest-Derby: how seriously did the players take it?
Cor…it’s massive. It's the biggest game of the season. If you did well against them, it was never forgotten. I used to get some right stick playing there. But I used to love it, 'cause I used to give as much back as what I took. I'd give them the fingers behind my back and everything. I probably can't say this... Nah, sod it; you've got the Derby support behind the goal, you go to retrieve the ball, you're getting spat on and everything. So obviously I'm giving it all that back and “Fookin’ sheep-shaggers” and all that.

Really?
Course I am! And then they want to attack you and kill you! When I saw the lad Nathan Tyson running along with the flag - that brought proper memories back to me. I should have been saying; “Ooh, that's out of order,” but I'm like “Go on! Go for it!” I wish I’d have done summat like that.

Big Norm: The Mark Crossley Story will be officially launched at the City Ground on 28 August before the Forest-West Ham game, and is currently available to order from Mark’s website


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