Cross the colossus majestic in promotion-winning season with the Albion

GRAHAM Cross won promotion from the third tier in successive seasons – one with Brighton & Hove Albion, the next with Preston North End.

They came after a record-breaking 15-year spell with his hometown club Leicester City.

Cross was a tower of strength and ever-present in Alan Mullery’s 1976-77 promotion-winning team. He was so consistent that his fellow professionals named him and fellow Seagulls Brian Horton and Peter Ward in the division’s PFA team of the year.

One standout performance I recall was in a cracking League Cup replay at the Goldstone against Division 1 side Ipswich Town on September 7 1976.

Despite the Albion being down to 10 men, having had Phil Beal carried off injured after sub Ian Mellor had already come on, Cross scored the winning goal two minutes from time to give Albion their first competitive victory against a first division team for 43 years!

“Graham had an absolutely tremendous 1976-77 season for us and I can’t speak too highly of him,” Mullery told Shoot! “When I first started planning for the new term I reckoned on having him in the side for our step up into the Second Division.”

However, when he realised he could land the highly promising 20-year-old Mark Lawrenson from Preston for £112,000, those plans changed.

Lawrenson had played brilliantly against the Albion during the promotion season and was eager to take the step up so he headed south together with full back Gary Williams and Cross and left back Harry Wilson went in the opposite direction.

“I wish him well at Preston and can assure their supporters they are getting one of the most honest lads in the game in Graham,” said Mullery.

Cross certainly played his part as Preston earned promotion from the third tier – one of his teammates was centre forward Michael Robinson, who joined Albion in 1980 – but in the following season the magic touch eluded him when he played 19 times for Lincoln City but didn’t manage to stop them being relegated to the Fourth Division.

Cross had been part of the furniture at Leicester and the meashamfox blog recalls how he scored on his debut on 29 April 1961 against Birmingham City in a 3-2 win at Filbert Street.

He was a real ‘Mr Versatility’ who played in eight different positions, although mostly  in midfield – the history books describe him as an inside forward or wing half – and at centre back.

During all the hullabaloo surrounding Leicester’s remarkable Premiership title win in 2016, there were flashbacks to the last time a Leicester side went that close to clinching the league title – in 1962-63 – with Cross a member of that side.

In an interview with the Leicester Mercury, his former Scottish international teammate Frank McLintock spoke about a so-called signature move called ‘the switch’ Leicester employed whereby Cross dropped back and McLintock bombed past him.

“It was a load of rubbish, really,” McLintock told the paper. “It was just that I was really fit and Graham, who was a great player, would be a bit puffed out when he got back. We just swapped positions for a bit.

“The opposition would get confused with who was picking up who. Even Bill Shankly copied it later on at Liverpool.”

Unlike the 2016 vintage, the 1963 side blew their title chances by losing their last four league games. However, they did reach the FA Cup Final that year. Cross was in the side that lost 3-1 to Manchester United. He was also in the Leicester side that lost the 1969 final 1-0 to Manchester City.

His performances in 1963 were good enough to earn him a call up to the England under 23 team, making his debut in a 0-0 draw with Yugoslavia at Old Trafford. In the return fixture two months later, he scored a penalty to supplement an Alan Hinton hat-trick as England won 4-2.

He was a permanent fixture in the side for 10 matches (including a 4-1 win over West Germany, when future Albion colleague Peter Grummitt was in goal). But in November 1964, Leeds’ Norman Hunter took over the no.6 shirt.

Cross was recalled for one more game, in April 1966, when the under 23s beat Turkey 2-0 at Ewood Park. Two of the side that day – Martin Peters and Roger Hunt – would go on to be part of the England World Cup winning team three months later, but Cross never progressed to the senior England team.

Nevertheless he did pick up a  League Cup winner’s medal when Leicester beat Stoke City in 1964 but was a loser the following year when they were beaten narrowly by a Chelsea side containing Barry Bridges and Bert Murray.

Three years before joining Brighton, Cross received a long service clock to mark 500 first class appearances.

Throughout this period, he was also one of that rare breed who played county cricket too.

A right-arm medium-fast bowler, he played 83 first class matches for Leicestershire between 1962 and 1976 and took 92 wickets at an average of 29.95. His top batting performance was a knock of 78.

I am indebted once more to the meashamfox blog to learn that it was Cross’ dual sporting prowess that eventually brought his Leicester career to an end.

In the summer of 1975, he was part of the Leicestershire side captained by Ray Illingworth that won the county championship and the Benson and Hedges Cup, making him the only man to have played in cup finals at Wembley and Lord’s.

But the Leicester board took a dim view of him carrying on playing cricket instead of reporting back for pre-season training and he was suspended.

He was sent out on loan to Chesterfield and played 12 times for them in the 1975-76 season, before being released.

He arrived at the Goldstone on May 25 1976 at the same time as full back (and future manager) Chris Cattlin.

Manager Peter Taylor had impeccable contacts in the Midlands and in Cattlin, from Coventry, and Cross, from Leicester, he acquired two experienced campaigners who had played at the top level in the game for many years.

Taylor’s intention was that Cross would have the sort of impact at Brighton that the ageing Dave Mackay had on Derby when Taylor and Brian Clough signed him from Spurs.

Taylor had tried to sign Cross before, in the pair’s early days at Derby. Leicester even accepted an £80,000 bid but Cross prevaricated over the move and they turned their attentions elsewhere. He admitted his regret at missing out on the £4,000 cut of the deal but told Goal magazine: “I’m happy in Leicester and I’m pleased that I decided to stay.”

That decision would ultimately lead him to become the all-time appearance record holder for Leicester, having played 599 games; a feat still not surpassed.

Clough and Taylor were renowned for building their sides on solid defences and, having already captured Grummitt, Graham Winstanley, Andy Rollings and Wilson, Taylor added Ken Tiler, Dennis Burnett, Cattlin and Cross.

Taylor, of course, didn’t hang around to see how Cattlin and Cross would contribute. With only four weeks to go to the start of the season, he decided to quit and renew his partnership with Clough, this time at Nottingham Forest.

One of the first images fans saw of his replacement, Alan Mullery, showed him embracing Cross and Cattlin at the pre-season press photocall.

Cross mostly played alongside Rollings, with Burnett and Winstanley filling in when Rollings was sidelined.

Interestingly, Cross never actually moved to Brighton during his spell with the Seagulls: the deal he agreed allowed him to continue to train with Leicester because he and his wife had business interests in the Leicester area.

The meashamfox blog declared “Graham Cross was Leicester City’s finest ever player” although the author was also sad to report how in February 1993 “he had been jailed for using post office funds to pay off his gambling debts”.

The blog concluded: “Despite this blip in his life, for me ‘The Tank’ Graham Cross is a true Leicester legend.”

Pictures from my scrapbook show:

  • A full page colour photo in Goal magazine when at Leicester.
  • A cracking Argus picture and headline record the winner Graham Cross scored against Ipswich in the League Cup.
  • Celebrating his inclusion in the PFA division 3 team of the year with Brian Horton and Peter Ward at the annual awards dinner.
  • Another Goal article, from 1973, marking a clock presentation to Cross in recognition of 500 senior appearances for Leicester.
  • Cross in the Preston team line-up alongside Michael Robinson, who would eventually join the Seagulls via Manchester City.
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