Saturday, 25 April 2015

Heart of a Lion

Heart of a lion
I once watched Jimmy Johnstone utterly destroy a full back in a game at Celtic Park. Over and over in those torrid 90 minutes, he jinked left or right, dropped the shoulder and was gone. To his credit the full back tried to play him within the rules and was the first to shake his hand when the final whistle sounded. For Jimmy the skills he was blessed with made him a target for many less scrupulous defenders. In Old Firm games the Rangers defenders seemed to foul him on a rotational basis until the referee eventually booked someone. In the more physical game of the 1960s and 70s the offence had to be fairly serious to merit a booking. Jimmy would often be left in a heap by some of the hammer throwing types who liked to think they were tough guys but every time he’d get up and demand the ball before running at them again. The punishment he took in his career was immense but the wee warrior never knew the meaning of giving up.

As a lad, I watched from the Jungle on a spring evening in 1974 as the thugs masquerading as football players from Atletico Madrid singled Jimmy out for some of the most brutal treatment I’ve ever seen a player receive. Knee high challenges, two footed lunges and body checks left Jimmy on the turf in obvious distress but once the trainer had rubbed him down with the ubiquitous ‘magic sponge’ he was on his feet and back at them again. The Atletico team had obviously done their homework and knew he was a real danger to them and stopped him in the most callous manner time and time again. After the game, which saw 3 players from Atletico sent off, Jimmy was assaulted at the tunnel and his team mates flew into the thugs from Madrid. Amid astonishing scenes, punches flew and the Police physically intervened to stop they mayhem. Dixie Deans recalls two police officers in the tunnel holding Argentinian player Ayala by the arms and inviting a couple of passing Celts to mete out some retribution. Dixie didn’t hold back and the Atletico player received some rough justice in the form of a few well-placed hooks.

Jimmy’s treatment at the hands of those other desperados, Racing Club of Argentina, was similarly shocking. Scythed to ground regularly in all three of those ill-fated ties, the wee man was on his feet and back for more. The spitting was often more infuriating to the Celtic players than the fouling and poor refereeing and Jimmy had to wash the saliva from his hair at half time. I once spoke to the late, great Bobby Murdoch about those ties and he said that the team were simply amazed at the punishment Jimmy took and the scant protection the referees game him in South America. By the time the third match came around, Bobby was adamant that Celtic would give some back to the thugs. Of course the game ended in a brutal farce as a weak Referee allowed it to descend into a chaotic battle. Again Jimmy was the target of some ugly challenges.

Anyone who watched video footage from that golden era of Scottish football can’t fail to be impressed by the skills of Jimmy Johnstone. His ball control and amazing balance allowed him to weave past defenders in that mesmerising way of his. He was the quintessential Scottish winger blessed with great talent but matched by his great heart. Few players took the punishment Jimmy did and came back for more. Yes, his temper got the better of him and on occasion he’d lash out at defenders who’d gone too far and be given his marching orders. In one old firm match he was fouled repeatedly by defenders with seeming impunity before one particularly rough tackle saw him react and he was off. Players from smaller clubs often verbal abuse to try to unsettle him and Bobby Lennox commented that Rangers players seldom used foul language towards Celts but some players at other clubs did use sectarian terms to try to upset players like Jimmy.

Jimmy Johnstone was not the wee waif some folk imagine. He worked hard on his physique and was at his peak a solid, muscular little athlete. He loved playing for Celtic and Jock Stein’s man management skills ensured that he managed over 500 games in the Hoops. His off field issues are well documented and the drinking culture of the time didn’t help him but to see him in full flight was to see a true great of the game. Willie Waddell, Rangers manager gave an insight into the difference in philosophy between Celtic and Rangers in those days when he said….

"Rangers like the big strong, powerful fellows, with a bit of strength and solidity in the tackle, rather than the frivolous, quick moving stylists like Jimmy Johnstone, small, tiptoe-through-the-tulips type of players who excite people.’’

Perhaps he rued those words on occasion as Jimmy saved many of his greatest displays for games with Rangers. His old adversary John Grieg who faced him on numerous occasions was more respectful…

“In terms of his playing ability he was as good as any player I came up against. His was a special and unique talent. From a Rangers perspective, although our support always wanted the team to better their rivals, they appreciate talent. I know that in the Rangers support of a certain generation, there was a real appreciation for the talent of Jimmy Johnstone - he was that good.”

Jimmy won 9 league titles, 4 Scottish cups, 5 league cups and of course the European cup while at Celtic. He mesmerised defenders from Madrid to Motherwell, from Leeds to Lisbon. Serious connoisseurs of the game recognised his genius and knew he was one of the greats of the game. His tally of just 23 Scotland caps is hard to explain even in those days when Scotland was blessed with a multitude of good players. However Jimmy would probably be delighted with a career which brought such glittering prizes to his beloved Celtic. He once said of Lisbon…

“Picture it, who were we? We were nobody, just a bunch of guys. Here we were, in Lisbon, playing against the mighty Inter Milan. If you remember, they had won the European Cup and the World Championship twice. I'm proud that I was part of the greatest club in the world. To be the first British team to win the European Cup, but more so to be part of the greatest Celtic team ever, that's something else, isn't it?”

In memory’s view he drifts past defenders, jinking this way and that as his adoring fans roared him on. Socks round his ankles, no shin guards worn he’d race towards the opposition with no fear of what they might do to him. When it came off and the ball was in the net he’d often turn to the Celtic support with that smile of his and punch the air. We knew he was one of us and if he wasn’t wearing that famous shirt with such distinction we knew he’d be on the terraces cheering Celtic on and that’s why we loved him.

Rest in peace our Lord of the wing.


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