Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Lord of the Wing

Celtic Manager Jimmy McGrory always liked to keep an eye on the reserve side to assess if any new talent was ready for the first team. On a chilly October day in 1961 McGrory, puffing his usual pipe. watched the Celtic second string take on St Johnstone at Celtic Park. As the teams trotted out at a near deserted stadium, he couldn’t have failed to notice the skinny wee boy with the flame red hair who looked more suited to schoolboy football than the muscular challenges of the professional game. He watched with interest to see how the young lad his scout, John Higgins, had told him about would cope. The game got underway and it soon became obvious that the lad was indeed a player. He turned the St Johnstone full back inside out and laid on three of Celtic’s four goals that day. He also managed to score the fourth himself. McGrory left his seat deciding there and then that he would sign this lad that very evening. The wee lad’s name was James Connolly Johnstone.

The Celtic which teenager Jimmy Johnstone joined in 1961 was a club which lacked direction. They had an enormous fan-base and some very talented players coming through the ranks but were brittle and disorganised at times. They had a Chairman in Sir Robert Kelly who thought nothing of telling Manager Jimmy McGrory who to play in his first team and who to leave out. A talented batch of youngsters was emerging but they needed moulding into a team which believed in itself.  Johnstone’s first team debut against Kilmarnock in 1963 showed all of these flaws. A bright opening by the visitors was soon forgotten as a very useful Kilmarnock thrashed them 6-0.  Despite such inconsistency the team had fought its way to the 1963 Cup final though few gave them much hope against the dominant Rangers team of the era. In front of a huge Hampden crowd Celtic raised their game and matched the odds on favourites for the 90 minutes, earning a deserved 1-1 draw. The Celtic support had watched Johnstone give the Rangers defence the run around and felt they had a  real chance of ending a six year trophy famine in the replay. Astonishingly Sir Robert Kelly told McGrory to drop Johnstone for the replay. Rangers won 3-0 and the Celtic support was livid. Jimmy was in and out of the first team over the next two seasons and despite Celtic’s struggles was developing into an excellent winger who’s dribbling skills were mesmerising defenders and fans alike. Like many great talents, Jimmy was a complex man and did have spells in the reserves and dark days when he thought of giving up football altogether. On one occasion as the Celtic reserve team trotted off at Easter Road for the half time break the Hibs Manager said to him...

‘What are you doing here Jimmy? You should be in the first team showing those skills off to thousands.’

The Hibs manager knew a player when he saw one and few would have guessed the remarkable journey both on and off the pitch those two would have in the years ahead. His name was Jock Stein.

Volumes have been written by far better writers than I about Jimmy’s achievements on the pitch once Stein arrived at Celtic Park and put his ideas about how the game should be played into practice. Jimmy became one of the greatest players of the era and saved some of his best displays for the big occasions. His destruction of the Rangers defence on numerous occasions, his wonderful display against Leeds United in the 1970 European Cup Semi Final or his tormenting of England full back Paul Reaney as Scotland beat England in 1974. Who can forget his display in Lisbon in 1967 when Celtic reached their greatest heights? Then there was the time he had 100,000 Real Madrid fans chanting ‘Ole’ every time he glided past one of their demoralised defenders. Jimmy flourished under Jock Stein’s fatherly influence as did the whole Celtic team. They became one of the greatest club sides in European history and amassed 25 major trophies under Jock. Yes, Stein had to work hard to keep him disciplined and fit and Jimmy drove him to distraction at times, but there is no doubt that Jock loved the Jimmy and recognised his talent as being a unique one.

Those of you lucky enough to have seen the wee man in the prime of his career were blessed indeed. He was and remains in the eyes of many the greatest player they ever saw. This accolade for formally bestowed when Celtic fans voted him the greatest ever Celtic Player in 2002. As he stood on the stage at the SECC with his old comrades from the Stein era and modern heroes like Henrik Larsson, he beamed with delight despite being in the midst of his courageous fight with Motor Neurone Disease. This wonderfully gifted footballer basked in the genuine affection of the Celtic faithful that evening, many of whom had never seen him play in the flesh. They chanted the song which had echoed around the football stadiums of the 1960s and 70s…..

‘Jimmy oh Jimmy Johnstone, oh Jimmy Johnstone on the wing!’

Jimmy Johnstone lost his battle with Motor Neurone Disease on 13th March 2006. It was the one defender he could not get past. There was an outpouring of genuine grief about the loss of one of the great players and characters of Scottish football history. The week after his passing, Celtic played in the League Cup Final and every player in the team wore the number 7 shorts in tribute to the great Jimmy Johnstone. The fans chanted his name throughout the final as they still do on occasion at matches. In December 2009 a statue of Jimmy Johnstone was unveiled outside Celtic Park’s front entrance. It captures Jimmy as we remember him, in mid-flight, ball tied to his toe and perfectly balanced. In the background is the statue of Jock Stein holding the European Cup who might be echoing those words of so long ago…

‘What are you doing here Jimmy? You should be in the first team showing those skills off to thousands.’

The wee man might reply… ‘I did Boss, I did and by God we were the best!’

You were indeed Jimmy and the Celtic faithful will never forget your sheer brilliance nor the contribution you made to the club you loved as much as we do. You played the game with a smile and you lit up the lives of those who saw you play. Rest in peace wee man, our Lord of the Wing.

James Connolly Johnstone
Celtic Legend. 


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