Thursday, 12 March 2015

Waiting for the whistle

Waiting for the whistle

The car glided to a halt and parked quietly outside an unassuming house in  a quiet Lanarkshire town. Former Rangers and Scotland winger, Willie Henderson stepped from it and walked up the path to the front door. He knocked it and it was answered by the equally talented Jimmy Johnstone formerly of Celtic. Both men had long since retired from the game but liked nothing more than a chat about the good old days when they ruled Scottish football like some kind of sporting royalty. ‘Aw right Jimmy’ Henderson smiled, ‘Need a wee chat pal, ye spare five minutes.’ Jimmy waived his erstwhile rival through to the living room, ‘Come in Willie, good tae see ye pal.’ The two ex-pros sat on the couch in Johnstone’s modest living room, ‘Jim’s no doing well Jimmy, in fact he’s fading fast. Two liver transplants and now the cancer.’ Johnstone nodded, ‘Jesus, I mind I couldnae catch him in my first old Firm game. Baw tied tae his toes, running the show.’ He shook his head sadly. Henderson nodded, ‘Tell me about it, I trained wi him every day. He’d be out half the night drinking and chasing burds and still be brilliant on the park.’ Jimmy smiled slightly, ‘Ye mind he destroyed England  at Wembley in 67?’ Henderson sighed, ‘He was some player Jimmy, the best I played with. Rangers coaching staff knew he getting drunk most night’s but as long as he did it on the Park they didny care.’ Jimmy looked at his friend, ‘It was different at Celtic Park. Jock seemed tae know every bar owner in Scotland. He used to phone up and ask for me and then shout doon the phone, ‘get yer arse up the road ya wee bastard.’ They two old friends laughed. The former Rangers winger adjusted his glasses and said ruefully, ‘He was some man Jock, if we had him at Ibrox I think we’d have won the European Cup.’ Jimmy smiled, ‘No way he’d take that job wi the board telling him tae check what school players went tae. Jock hated that side of things.’ Henderson nodded, ‘Aye, how daft was that? We missed oot on some great players. Changed days noo thank God.’

The two old timers chatted away a bittersweet hour remembering the triumphs and disasters, the laughter and tears of a lifetime in Scottish football. As Henderson rose to leave he looked at Jimmy, ‘I’m going over tae see Jim next week wee man, he’d be thrilled if you came along to say hello.’ Jimmy smiled, ‘I’d be delighted Willie and stop calling me wee man am an inch bigger than you.’ As Johnstone waved Henderson off he thought wistfully that it would be less of a ‘hello to Baxter and more of a ‘goodbye.’ A small boy in a Celtic shirt was passing the house and called out, ‘Aw right Jimmy, ma Da says you were the best ever!’ Henderson retorted without breaking his stride, ‘Tell yer Da he was third best after me and slim Jim.’ The blonde haired lad watched confused as the little man with the big cigar got into his car and drove off before turning to Johnstone. ‘Who was that Jimmy?’ Johnstone smiled, ‘One of the best wee man, one of the best.’

Saturday the 7th of April 2001 dawned bright and breezy. Jimmy was up early getting ready for his trip to see his old friend ‘Stanley.’ They had called Jim Baxter ‘Stanley’ after Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter and joked with some truth that slim Jim was funnier. Today was also the day that Celtic played St Mirren in a match which could decide the title. Three more points and Martin O’Neil’s powerful side would be champions. Willie Henderson’s car pulled into Viewpark at 10am and Jimmy watched the wee man exchanging jokes with some Celtic fans up early for the game. He was respected by both sides of the old firm divide perhaps because he was a good player but more likely because he was a good guy. Jimmy was soon sitting beside him as the car headed for the M74 and onwards towards the south side of Glasgow. ‘Think the Celts will clinch it today?’ Henderson smiled. ‘Aye,’ Jimmy replied, ‘St Mirren are no great shakes.’ Jimmy was quiet for a moment before asking, ‘How is Stanley, I mean is he on heavy sedation?’ Henderson shook his head as he turned onto the motorway, ‘He’s sharp as a tack Jimmy but he knows the game’s in injury time. He’s just waiting on the final whistle.’  The car cruised through the empty streets and came to a halt outside a neat house on a quiet suburban street.

Henderson knocked the door which was opened by a pale woman who looked drawn and tired, ‘Aw right Norma, brought an old pal over tae see Jim.’ The woman shook Johnstone’s hand, ‘No introductions needed, how are you Jimmy?’ Jinky nodded, ‘I’m good Norma, thanks.’ She smiled and led them to a bedroom in which Jim Baxter lay on a large bed, a plethora of tubes protruding from him. ‘Visitors for you Jim,’ she said before closing the door and leaving them alone. ‘Aw right Willie,’ he smiled weakly, who’s that you’ve brought wi ye?’ Henderson grinned, ‘Ye no recognise wee Jinky? Ye roasted his team in yon 63 Cup Final.’ Baxter’s eyes lit up with genuine affection, ‘Jimmy! How are ye? Great tae see you.’ Jimmy sat on the bed and looked at his old adversary and old friend. ‘I’m good Stanley, how are you?’ The former Scotland star smiled bravely, ‘Game’s up for me pal but I’ve had a good run. No complaints.’

On a quiet Saturday morning three grey haired, ex footballers laughed like teenagers again as they recalled the antics and adventures they got up to when time was long and all things possible. It was in its own way a golden few hours for them, a time to forget advancing years and the onset of illness. Their laughter echoed around the room as one story after another poured from them and they relived the lost days of their youth. In a strange way they were happy despite knowing that one of their number was soon to leave them. Jimmy saw the acceptance in his eyes but he also saw the courage. It was the same courage which got him through some games when the opposition use fair means and foul to stop him. Stanley had made his peace with the world. He had no regrets.

Later that day Jimmy watched Tommy Johnson slam home the only goal of a nervous match with St Mirren to clinch the 2000-01 title for Celtic. The old stadium was going wild as he watched from the stand. Players come and go, he thought to himself, but Celtic goes on. New heroes appear, that was the way of things. Men like Jimmy, Willie and Stanley had had their day and if some remembered them fondly then they were glad.
He looked at the happy faces all around him in his beloved Celtic Park and was happy for them all. Celtic had deserved this title and had played some great football. Even Stanley would agree with that.

A few months after Jim Baxter passed away, Jimmy Johnstone was was diagnosed with MotorNeurone disease.He lost his courageous fight a few short years later and one of the last people to speak to him was his old friend Willie Henderson. They were fierce rivals on the pitch and proud of the clubs they each represented but friends when the game was over.
Slim Jim and Jimmy were two greats of the Scottish game. Remembered with pride.

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