The Jewel in the crown
September 30th 1944 was a time of great upheaval in Europe as the war dragged on but in the working class district of Viewpark near Glasgow there was some cheer as a baby boy was born to Matt and Sarah Johnstone. He was their first child and four siblings would follow in the fullness of time. They named him James Connolly Johnstone. That baby born into a time of hardship and worry would grow up to become one of the greatest footballers these islands have ever produced. We know him of course as the magical Jimmy Johnstone and those who saw him play at his peak were blessed indeed.
As a boy he dribbled around milk bottles until he had a mastery of the football that few players of his generation possessed. He would run with pit boots on and swore it added two or three yards to his speed when he played games without them. He performed well and stood out in his Primary school team before going onto St John’s Secondary school were one of his teacher’s, Mr Cassiday, used his friendship with former Celtic player Sammy Wilson to get the Celtic mad youngster a role as a ball boy at Celtic Park. Being a ball boy was a way to get involved in the Celtic youth set up and Jimmy McGrory wisely signed up the flame haired youngster. Jimmy Johnstone had arrived at his spiritual home and he would dazzle supporters over the coming years with his virtuosity and willingness to fight with all he had for his beloved Celtic.
He was a skinny teenager yet to make a senior appearance when Celtic faced the mighty Real Madrid in a challenge match in 1962. The Spanish Champions and five times European champions had an almost mythical quality about them in those days. This was especially so in Glasgow where they had won the European cup 2 years earlier by destroying Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 with a devastating display of attacking football. 72,000 supporters watched as a talented young Celtic side put up stirring resistance against their illustrious opponents and despite going down 3-1 Celtic were cheered from the Park. The young hopeful looking on at the brilliance of Di Stefano, Santa Maria and Gento could never have dreamed he could play in such illustrious company and yet less than 5 years later Celtic’s misfiring but talented young team came of age and conquered Europe.
For most of the Celtic team who defeated Inter Milan in 1967, the chance to face Real Madrid in the Bernabeu stadium was an opportunity to display to the aristocrats of European football that these pale lads from north-west Europe could play football of the highest order. Many of them were in the side which lost 3-1 to Real in that challenge match in 1962 and now had the chance to show how the power dynamic of European football had shifted and that their success in Lisbon was no fluke. For Jimmy Johnstone, that match in Madrid in June 1967 demonstrated to the world that he was a world class footballer. He turned in a display which was mesmeric and full of the inimitable brilliance his fans in Scotland knew he was capable of. It was his stage, his chance to shine and as he tore the Real Madrid defence to shreds the knowledgeable Spanish supporters in the huge crowd warmed to him. There were chants of ‘Ole’ as he left another defender in wake. Some defenders used rough house tactics to try and stop him but he picked himself up and ran at them again. It was in many ways the pinnacle of a remarkable season for Scottish football; Celtic were European Champions, Scotland had beaten World Cup winners England at Wembley and now a Scottish side was outplaying Real Madrid in their own stadium.
The late Bishop Joe Devine used to tell a story of a freezing day at Celtic Park in the late 1960s. Celtic was playing a league match and Jimmy Johnstone had led the left back on a merry dance for the whole game. On one occasion Jimmy turned the full back inside out 5 times in as many seconds and a slightly inebriated fan sitting beside the then Father Devine turned to him and said, ‘Father, forgive me the bad language but see that wee man, is that no sheer fuckin poetry?’ The football Jimmy played when he was on his game was indeed poetry, it elevated football to an art form and those of us lucky to see him play knew at the time we were in the presence of greatness. Not that the ordinary boy from Viewpark had any airs and graces. Off the field he was just one of the lads but once he pulled that hooped shirt on; he elevated many a grey Saturday afternoon for the watching supporters into the happiest part of the week.
It helps supporters bond with a player when he has undoubted talent but with Jimmy it was more than that. He was Celtic to the core and had he not been on the field creating history with his team mates he would have been on the terrace cheering the team on. Hugh McIlvanney said of Jimmy…
‘’Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’’
There are so many wonderful tales to be told about Jimmy Johnstone that no article can do them justice. The destruction of Don Revie’s Leeds, his display against Red Star Belgrade, his tormenting of Rangers in so many derby games and his ability to make supporters gasp at his skills on a wet afternoon in the midst of a Scottish winter. The brutality of Atletico and Racing Club left their mark on him literally and metaphorically but as he washed the spit from his hair at half time in Buenos Aires not once did he complain or ask to be substituted. Nor did death threats on the phone in his hotel room in Madrid in 1974 stop him playing in the match. Jimmy was all heart and we loved him for it.
Jimmy’s brilliance was undeniably coupled with a more erratic side away from football. It can be hard when everyone is your friend and the pints are lined up. His time after football wasn’t always plain sailing and he knew dark and despondent periods in his life. There are players today who retire as millionaires and in honesty couldn’t lace his boots. However any time he strolled up to Celtic Park or joined his old comrades for a function he was embraced by the love the Celtic supporters still felt for him. He was Jimmy, their Lord of the wing, the jewel in the crown of Stein’s fabulous Celtic side. More than that though; he was one of them. It was fitting that a player who epitomised the Celtic way of playing should be voted by the fans as the greatest ever Celtic player. His old adversary John Grieg was given a similar accolade from Rangers supporters and demonstrated the different mind-set among fans of that club. Indeed Willie Waddell once 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."
Given the damage Jimmy did to Rangers in that era one wonders if Waddell had a grudging respect for Jimmy who was a tough competitor as well as a supremely gifted footballer. Most Celtic supporters would far rather win with the artist and entertainer such as Jimmy in the side than adopt the muscular approach Rangers often took.
Jimmy’s death from Motor Neurone Disease in March 2006 was cruel ending to a life which gave so much to others. The outpouring of emotion and affection for Jimmy that spring was as heartfelt and genuine as it gets. We knew we’d never see his like again and it was hard to let go of a man who gave so much of his body, heart and soul to Celtic. He faced that awful illness with the same courage and determination he demonstrated when he faced the more ruthless defenders he took on. It was the one adversary he couldn’t get past and he left us in March 2006 aged just 61.
Generations of young Celtic supporters will see his image immortalised in bronze on the Celtic way and will ask the older generation ‘What was he like?’ As one lucky enough to have spent my childhood years watching him play I can tell you that he was the best. We never forget our heroes at Celtic Park and as long as Celtic exists Jimmy will be remembered with pride.
In memory's view he is weaving past defenders, turning this way and that as the crowd roared out for more. From the old Jungle the refrain pours onto the field… Jimmy oh Jimmy Johnstone, oh Jimmy Johnstone on the wing….’
Rest in peace wee man there was no one like you and I doubt there ever will be.
Jimmy Johnstone (1944-2006)