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Byline: Joe Bernstein

HE'S been written off more times than Jeffrey Archer, but at the age of 32 Mark Crossley suddenly looks like a proper international goalkeeper.

The famous gaffes and off-field antics have been replaced by a new consistency borne out by Middlesbrough's eight clean sheets in their last 14 games.

Next on the agenda for Crossley - who played in an FA Cup Final for Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest at the age of only 21 - is to become the regular Wales No.1 at last.

"I was in line after Neville Southall retired," he explains. "I kept a clean sheet against Ireland and then got a bad back injury which kept me out for two years.

"That gave Paul Jones the chance to stake his claim and he took it. But I'm not old for a goalkeeper. My coach at Boro, Paul Barron, rejuvenated the career of David James last season at Aston Villa and now he's done the same for me.

"I joined Middlesbrough as their No.2 but now I've been told the place is mine to lose, even though Mark Schwarzer is fit again."

Crossley, a Yorkshireman whose international career was shaped by having a grandfather from Wrexham, has never shirked meeting up with a Welsh squad, despite winning only three caps in a decade.

Today he will be Boro's last line of defence for a relegation six-pointer against Bolton at The Riverside.

Although marriage has tamed Crossley off the field - "I admit I used to be a party animal and got into trouble with the law a couple of times, something I don't like to dwell on now" - he insists being slightly mad on the field is an advantage to goalkeepers.

"Earlier this season we played Liverpool and Gary McAllister accidentally kicked me in the head. I needed eight stitches and the wound went right down the side of my temple to my cheek. Next week I ran out against Everton and was kicked in exactly the same place when I dived at someone's feet," he says proudly.

"I still didn't miss any matches. My wife looked at the wound and scrunched her face up a bit but it didn't stop me. And if Michael Ricketts is running at me on Saturday, I will do exactly the same again."

Crossley has had the good fortune to work for some of the biggest names in football during his 12 years at Forest and two at Middlesbrough.

The managerial roll call of Brian Clough, Dave Bassett, Stuart Pearce, David Platt, Bryan Robson, Terry Venables and now Steve McClaren is bound to help him in his bid to claim an official coaching badge.

His first six seasons were under the legendary Clough, who has left a lasting impression.

"I'll always remember the coach rides back from London in mid-winter," says Crossley.

"He used to order the coach driver to go via East Midlands international airport. He would stop the coach and we'd all have to watch the planes taking off for warmer climes!

"Some of the international lads like Des Walker would be going mad - they just wanted to be getting home rather than stuck in an airport lay-by.

But Brian would say 'Don't worry lads, that will be you taking off before too long'. And at the end of every season, he would take us all away on holiday to Minorca."

Crossley had one big chance to leave Forest when Howard Wilkinson came in for him at Leeds. He decided to stay at the City Ground - and Wilkinson snapped up Nigel Martyn the following week.

While Leeds went on to bigger things, Forest flopped under a series of post-Clough managers.

Crossley admits his choice was the wrong one but at least he got a testimonial for Forest before moving to Teesside. Again, Clough had a vital role to play.

"I had only sold 7,000 tickets for the match against Derby so I rang Brian and asked if he could come to see the game and do a tour of the pitch with the European Cup. I wasn't sure how he would react, but he said 'Son, it would be a pleasure for you'.

"As soon as people knew he would be there, tickets sold like hot cakes and I ended up with 18,000 in the ground."

You couldn't get more opposite from Clough than the quietly-spoken McClaren, Crossley's current manager. But the former Manchester United No.2 is arguably the most impressive coach of his generation and a major reason Crossley is in negotiations about extending his contract.

"Steve has a massive future in front of him. It is difficult to keep everybody happy at a Premiership club, particularly one who are struggling. But he has managed it," he says.

"My own training has helped enormously. A few seasons ago, goalkeepers would get sent to the corner of the field with a couple of footballs and basically had to amuse themselves. Now we train together under a specialist and then join in for eight-a-sides.

"Goalkeeping coaches will be an even bigger thing in the future and I can see my career going that way.

"It's been great to play against Blackburn a couple of times this season and get a 'well done' from Mark Hughes.

"You get written off easily in football. A couple of mistakes I have made are on the videos of football gaffes - one I put over the line myself against Bradford and a cross that I dropped in an FA Cup quarter-final with Portsmouth.

"You can never say you'll never make a mistake again - but I feel far more in control.

"Paul Barron has already turned David James into the best goalkeeper in England and if I carry on working with him, there's no reason I can't be Welsh No.1 as well."


ON PARADE: Mark Crossley (main picture) and the night Brian Clough came back with the European Cup
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 19, 2002
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