From the Celtic end I could see the flash of red as the Referee raised the card. He was off and the odds of Celtic winning this titanic struggle with Rangers just increased. There was an ugly mood among many of the Celtic support on the huge open terraces of Hampden. The team were playing well and the Referee had infuriated the green clad supporters with some of his decisions not least of which was a soft penalty decision which gave Rangers the lead at a time Celtic were looking the more likely winners. Aitken and Butcher were giving as good as they were getting from each other but the six foot three Englishman threw himself to the floor and the referee pointed to the spot. Now the referee was sending off a Celtic player and virtually sealing our fate. As I watched the blonde Celtic striker trot off the field much to the delight of the baying hordes in blue in one half of Hampden he did something which infuriated them. He blessed himself. In any other country this is a gesture which passes without remark. In Scotland it is taken as an insult by the bigoted minority who have yet to leave the dark ages. Supporters who had filled the air throughout the game with songs insulting the Pope and glorifying being ‘ Up to their knees in Fenian blood’ were incensed. In the packed Celtic end we watched as the game descended into farce. Referee Syme sent off Tony Shepherd for apparently striking him when he was clearly nowhere near the bumbling official. When it was pointed out to him that he had been struck by a coin from the crowd and not the Celtic player he rather embarrassingly changed his decision. How a Referee can red card a player for an incident he clearly didn’t see, because it never happened, was beyond us all.
The player sent off that day was of course Maurice Johnston and some among the Celtic support saw his actions in blessing himself as he was sent off at Hampden as a two fingered gesture to the poisonous bigotry that poured from the covered end of Hampden. Few of the 74,000 fans at that match could have envisaged that this quintessentially Celtic player and such a figure of hate for many Rangers fans would one day be sitting beside Graham Souness in the Blue room at Ibrox being introduced as Rangers first Catholic signing in a lifetime. This summer marks 25 years since Maurice joined Rangers and that act still raises strong opinions in many. The manner in which Maurice joined Rangers hurt and angered many among the Celtic support. Yes, the Celtic board mishandled the deal to bring Johnston to Celtic Park by parading him to the media before the contract was signed. But consider the words of Maurice as he clutched a Celtic shirt and beamed at the prospect of returning to Celtic Park…
‘I’ll finish my career here, I don’t want to play for any other club’
Indeed the boyhood Celtic fan and former pupil of St Roch’s school in the Celtic mad Garngad district of Glasgow had actually written a sarcastic paragraph in his biography during his first spell with Celtic…
‘"I might even agree to become Rangers' first Catholic if they paid me £1m and bought me Stirling Castle. Let me spell out where I stand. I am a Celtic man through and through and so I dislike Rangers because they are a force in Scottish football and therefore a threat to the club I love. But more than that, I hate the religious policy they maintain."
Maurice must have known the fury and pain his decision to jilt Celtic at the altar and head for Ibrox would cause. Money played its part as did his Agent, Bill McMurdo, an Orangeman and Unionist who hates Celtic and all it represents. That McMurdo was instrumental in informing Souness that he could steal Johnston from under Celtic’s nose is not in doubt. But Johnston only had to say no and keep his promise to re-join Celtic. Many looked on in disbelief as he sat smiling in the Blue Room as Souness introduced him as Rangers’ new striker. Outside Ibrox the more bigoted elements burned scarves and ripped up season books. Some of them would never accept Johnston as a Rangers player. David Miller, general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, told the Glasgow Herald:
"It's a sad day for Rangers. I don't want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox."
Across the city the Celtic fans’ confusion eventually gave way to anger at this shameful ‘betrayal.’ ‘Judas’ had sold his soul for Murray’s gold, dripping as it was with a century of sectarianism. Johnston had almost uniquely managed to become a figure of hate for sections of both the Glasgow Clubs fans. His life at Ibrox would include frostiness from players wedded to old sectarian ideas of what Rangers was about and hostility from many of his new club’s supporters. Indeed some refused to cheer when he scored a goal. One said to me at the time, ‘For me Rangers didn’t win nine in a row because I don’t count any goals scored by that bastard Johnston.’ Such hostility must have made his life difficult both on and off the pitch. His goal in the final seconds of an Old Firm game at Ibrox was a bitter pill for the Celtic support who were watching a very promising team begin to drift apart. Johnston had been allowed to escape to Ibrox. McClair left for Manchester United and Murdo McLeod left for Germany. There was a brief renaissance under Billy McNeil in the Centenary season but Rangers, true to Murray’s Thatcherite principles, were outspending Celtic massively and set for a decade of domination. There is no doubt that Celtic’s lack of success in the years after Johnston’s ‘betrayal’ made some supporters more visceral in their hatred of him. The reception he received in games at Celtic Park was as hostile as any I have ever witnessed a visiting player receive. The boyhood Celtic fan would have become a Celtic legend had he rejoined Celtic and helped them challenge big spending Rangers. Instead he chose to insult them in the greatest and most hurtful way he could. Few can square his statements of undying affection for Celtic with his decision to join their ancient and most bitter rivals. Yes, it signalled and end of Rangers policy of not employing Catholic players but the manner this was done was, in the eyes of many Celtic fans, an unforgivable betrayal.
It is now 25 years since Rangers signed Mo Johnston and many Catholic players represented the club before its demise in 2012. The new club playing at Ibrox is continuing to play a mixed team and that is only right in the modern game. Sadly some among the support still harbour the same outdated prejudices which saw them burn scarves and season books outside Ibrox 25 years ago. A great opportunity was missed by Charles Green when he bought the assets of the dead club and founded the new one. He could have had the moral courage to tell fans of the old club that they were welcome to support the new club but that the bigotry and prejudice of the past was not welcome at Ibrox. Instead he pandered to the more lumpen elements among the support and encouraged a myth that bigoted forces had kicked Rangers when they were down. Of course this risible nonsense was more to do with selling season tickets than reflecting reality. Murray, who led Rangers into the abyss, had allowed his ego to inflate like the club’s debt and in the end it killed Rangers. The same money grabbing attitude which encouraged Johnston to join Rangers 25 years earlier was still at work. Green played the Ibrox support like a violin before leaving with his bank account considerably healthier.
For those of you too young to remember the fuss caused by Maurice Johnston’s signing for Rangers it must be difficult to comprehend the anger this caused to both sides for very different reasons. For some Celtic followers Johnston totally betrayed Celtic and their support. He was one of us, how could he do that to us? For the more Neanderthal amongst the Rangers support, one of ‘them’ had signed for their club and in time honoured fashion the bigot falls back on their old prejudice. In terms of the history of the Scottish game and Scottish society, someone had to be the first Catholic in over 70 years to join Rangers and end their abysmal and immoral apartheid system. However the manner and context of what happened 25 years ago still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many Celtic fans. Johnston can talk about breaking down barriers or historical moments in Scottish football but the truth is he was probably motivated by more prosaic issues such as money. For any Celtic fan selling out the club we love is unthinkable and that is why in the eyes of many Maurice Johnston remains unforgiven.