An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Coventry City on 16 September 2017.
If you ask any of the old-timers who were around in the early 1960s about the most skilful men they’ve seen in amber and black, the name of Sam McCrory will crop up as often as not.
He wasn’t the speediest thing on two legs – he was once described as ‘a deliberate moving but highly gifted inside forward’ – and he was getting on when he arrived at the Abbey in the summer of 1960 – but the fiery Sammy had a trick or two up his sleeve.
Ask the England team of 1957.
At Wembley on November 6 of that year, the Southend schemer and marksman won his only cap for Northern Ireland against an England side boasting the formidable likes of Duncan Edwards, Billy Wright, Tommy Taylor and Johnny Haynes.
The fact that McCrory was 33 years old at the time was not lost on the English lads, some of whom delighted in pointing out his geriatric status.
Sammy had the perfect answer to the uncharitable and unwise chirping: his country’s second goal, with a ‘glorious drive’, in a 3-2 win. The English were forced to swallow their taunts.
Sam McCrory had worked long and hard for that delicious moment.
Born in Belfast, he had played in the same Scouts team as the boy who would go on to skipper the Irish to that Wembley victory: Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower. He won two Irish Cups with Linfield before crossing the water to ply his trade with Swansea, Ipswich and Plymouth.
But it was at Southend that he achieved hero status: among his 91 goals in 200-odd games was the first at the Shrimpers’ new Roots Hall ground, in 1955.
Manager Alan Moore persuaded McCrory to sign for the U’s in the face of a player-managership offer from a League of Ireland club. The club certainly got its money’s worth over the next two seasons.
With the exception of his first Ipswich match, McCrory had scored on every debut throughout his career, and he duly netted United’s Southern League Premier first goal of 1960/61, against Hinckley.
He followed up with a hat-trick in a 7-3 FA Cup trouncing of March Town United, but then came the first in a series of sendings-off that would set a U’s record.
Dismissal at Hinckley in December 1960 was followed by another in October 1961 at home to Romford; both were for protests at the refs’ failure to recognise handball when they saw it.
But in between the dismissals there were sublime moments like the winner in a 3-2 East Anglian Cup victory over the Norwich second string in November 1961: after mesmerising his marker with sleight of foot, he hammered a ferocious drive into the top corner.
Having scored 27 U’s goals in 98 games – goodness knows what he would have achieved if he hadn’t incurred six weeks of suspensions – McCrory went home in the summer of 1962 and player-managed Crusaders for a while.
He and wife Rita later ran the Port O’Call bar in Donaghadee, welcoming a certain George Best to perform the opening ceremony in 1969. He died in 2011, leaving many a United supporter staring wistfully into his beer.