JIMMY JOHNSTONE, the Greatest-Ever Celtic Player, as voted by the Hoops supporters, was born on this day in 1944.
Author Alex Gordon asked for comments from the little winger’s Lisbon Lions team-mates in his book, ‘The Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary’, which was published in 2007.
Treat yourself to a Sunday sitdown and enjoy the exclusive views of the legends talking about an icon…
WHEN Jimmy Johnstone had his dander up he was just about unstoppable. Those truly astounding, spectacular serpentine-weaving runs had to be seen to be believed. England and Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes once complained of having ‘twisted blood’ after facing the Wee Man in an international at Hampden Park in 1974.
He was lucky – he wasn’t even Jinky’s direct opponent that day. Mike Pejic, of Stoke City, was the England left-back who had that dubious distinction. That was to be Pejic’s fourth and final appearance for his country after being torn apart by Johnstone as Scotland won 2-0.
Jinky, as his team-mates were only too well aware, was a highly temperamental bloke and you upset him at your peril. Scotland trainer Walter McCrae couldn’t have been too aware of that side of the Wee Man as he prepared the international squad for an important game against England in 1968, the year after the Scots had overcome the world champions 3-2 at Wembley.
The Home Championship back then was being utilised as a qualifying section for the European Nations Cup Finals – now the European Championships – to be held later that year in Italy. Scotland, in typical fashion, had carelessly thrown away their advantage after securing two points against Sir Alf Ramsey’s side. A victory was a must at Hampden for the Scots, but it was going to be achieved without the help of Scotland’s most skilful player, Jimmy Johnstone. Injury had prevented him from playing at Wembley in 1967 and, on this occasion, the international manager, Bobby Brown, had made up his mind to go with Chelsea’s Charlie Cooke in preference to the Celt.
The blissfully unaware McCrae then conjured up his outstanding faux pas as Scotland trained at their HQ at Largs. As luck would have it, Celtic were along the Ayrshire coast at their usual haunt at Seamill at the same time. The SFA asked for permission to play Celtic in a bounce game against the international line-up as a special training session. The Parkhead powers-that-be agreed, but Jimmy was far from happy.
“I’m no’ interested,” he said. “I’m no’ playing.” However, the Wee Man dutifully turned up to watch the session and McCrae then, unintentionally, made one of football’s great blunders – he asked Jinky to be a linesman!
Tommy Gemmell, with the Scottish squad, recalled: “I think you could say Jimmy let Walter know he was not interested in running the line, in any shape or form. For a start, two of his best pals at Celtic at the time were Bobby Lennox and Willie O’Neill. They would have been taking part in the game and Jinky would have been running up and down the touchline with his wee flag. You couldn’t make it up.
“Lemon and Pumper would have made his life unbearable when they got back to Parkhead. Footballers, in the main, are terrible mickey-takers and Jinky must have realised he would be on the receiving end for some considerable time. Jimmy Johnstone? A linesman? Oh, dear!
“Quite apart from anything else, I suspect any world-class player would rebel, as Jimmy certainly did, at the idea of being used as a linesman. Would someone at the English FA have asked Bobby Charlton to run the line? Would anyone at the Irish FA have been daft enough to ask George Best to act as a linesman? Of course, not. Walter McCrae put his foot in it big-style and a week later would later pay a terrible price.
“The international game, which ended in a 1-1 draw and effectively ended Scotland’s interest in Europe, by the way, was played early in late February to make sure all the qualifiers would be known by the time the summer finals would be played. So, on March 2, 1968 Celtic turned up for a league match at Rugby Park to play Kilmarnock, where Walter McCrae doubled up as the club’s trainer.
“Celtic hammered them 6-0 with, as I recall, Willie Wallace scoring four goals with others from Bobby Lennox and young substitute Jimmy Quinn. But everyone’s Man of the Match was, without question, Wee Jinky. He tore their defence to shreds. He played like a man possessed. We all knew the capabilities of our wee genius, of course, but that afternoon he went into overdrive and only an Elephant Gun could have stopped him from running amok. He twisted, teased and tortured the Killie back lot and I knew what was going on in his mind – he was going to make Walter McCrae suffer.
“The Wee Man looked fairly pleased with himself as we came off at the end. I was walking beside him when he spotted McCrae in the home dug-out. “No’ bad for an effin’ linesman, eh, Walter?” beamed Jinky.
Stories of Jimmy Johnstone are the stuff of legend. One of the greatest accolades Jinky earned, however, wasn’t at his beloved Paradise or even on these shores. On June 7, 1967, Celtic, still basking in the reflective glory of their excellent European Cup triumph, took the team to the Bernabeu Stadium to provide the opposition for the legendary Alfredo di Stefano. Just to be inviited to play in such exalted company in a game for one of the world’s greatest-ever footballers was an honour. To go to their fortress and win 1-0 while pulverising the opposition was quite unbelievable. Even the normally-hostile Spanish fans had to applaud Celtic that balmy evening.
“Ole! Ole!” was the cry that rang round the stadium, but it wasn’t a Real Madrid performer being showered with praise. The standing ovations that night were for Jimmy Johnstone. He was unstoppable – a 5ft 4in bundle of mischief and magic that bewildered a Spanish rearguard that wasn’t too used to being taken apart, especially in front of their own support. However, Johnstone never embraced a great respect for reputations and he simply dismantled the line of defenders who were put in front of him that evening.
It was a virtuoso performance that would have been more than fit to grace a World Cup Final. If Pele or Maradona or Cruyff or Best or even di Stefano had delivered such flamboyant entertainment it would have been hailed as the most outstanding individual display ever witnessed. “It really was that good,” added Gemmell.
Forget that this was labelled a Testimonial Match. Real Madrid had won the European Cup the previous year, beating Partizan Belgrade 2-1. They wanted to let everyone know they were still the true rulers of all they surveyed. In their minds, they were still the best in Europe and not a bunch of upstarts from Glasgow. Real gave it their best shot, but Johnstone and Co were not to be denied another moment of glory. They, too, were at the Bernabeu to win and they did just that when Bobby Lennox flashed a low drive into the net from 12 yards after a sublime pass from, you’ve guessed, Jimmy Johnstone. Game, set and match to Celtic. The accolades went to a fiery little red head who thrilled fans everywhere he went.
Another soccer great who admired Johnstone’s style was Eusebio, the former Benfica superstar. “I was privileged to call Jimmy Johnstone my friend,” said the Portuguese legend. “He always played football with a smile on his face. When Celtic reached the European Cup Final in my country in 1967 I supported them against Inter Milan. They were a great, attacking force and, of course, they had that special little genius on the right wing. But Jimmy Johnstone was not just a great player in Scotland. He was known throughout the world.”
Rangers’ Willie Henderson, who was Johnstone’s main rival for the outside-right berth in the Scotland team in the Sixties, recalled: “I was on top of my game at the time and I had quite a few caps under my belt before Jimmy actually came on the scene. He was a wee bit later in coming into the Celtic first team. I was definitely dislodged from my Scotland position after that. Billy Bremner, I believe, went to one of the Scotland managers and asked if there was a way he could fit both Jimmy and I into his team. “No chance,” Billy was informed. “We can only play with one ball!”
Bertie Auld is convinced his team-mate should have won more than his meagre haul of 23 caps for his country. Auld offered this angle: “He didn’t make as many international appearances for one simple reason – he was a Celtic player. If he played for any other club he would have won 100 caps for his nation. I am convinced of that. However, to be fair to Jimmy, he never grumbled. You knew he was only interested in playing for one club and that was Celtic. That was all he needed and that kept him happy.”
Auld, in fact, remembers one of the first times he clapped eyes on Johnstone. “This wee lad with the big red curls turned up one day for training,” said Bertie. “I thought he might be a fan. There wasn’t an awful lot of him at the time; a wee, frail figure. He would sit in the dressing room and say nothing. He actually looked to be be somewhat embarrassed to be mixing with some of the players. Well, that was until he got out onto the pitch and then we all knew who Jimmy Johnstone was. What a talent. He was like a rubberball. Defenders would bowl him over and he would just keep bouncing back to his feet.
“You could see the fear in the eyes of our opponents when they looked at the Wee Man when he started to make a name for himself. They were frightened of what he could do to them. That fear was a real compliment to Jimmy. There was no disguising it, either. Those opponents knew they were in for a torrid time.”
Celtic fans probably won’t recognise the title La Puce Volante, but that was another nickname that came Johnstone’s way on his travels. This time it was conjured up by the appreciative French supporters of Nantes back in 1966 in the second round of the historic European Cup run. Nantes were an excellent team and, among a host of other exciting individuals, boasted the national captain Robert Herbin, who had led France in the World Cup Finals in England the previous summer.
It would be fair to say they thought they would take care of Celtic, who were, after all, playing in the premier European competition for the first time in their history. Johnstone, once again, wasn’t interested in being a bit-part player.
He shredded a frantic defence, set up chance after chance after some dazzling touchline trickery and goals from Joe McBride, Bobby Lennox and Stevie Chalmers eased Celtic to a 3-1 victory which they emulated at Parkhead in the second leg to go through to the quarter-finals. La Puce Volante – or The Flying Flea – was born that evening and it was a tag that followed Johnstone around Europe.
One title remains above them all – The Greatest-Ever Celtic Player. The inimitable Jimmy Johnstone is worthy of that immense honour. He paid his own tribute to the fans who encouraged him through his 14 remarkable years at Celtic, enjoying his “great job”, as he often described it. He took the microphone before one game, gave his usual cheery wave to the thousands and uttered 12 little words: “You will always be in my heart. I will never forget you.”
The Celtic support will never forget him, either.
We are very fortunate there is so much wonderful footage of the Wee Man in action during his playing days. Film has captured all those marvellous images of Jinky doing what he did best, entertaining the fans. Those supporters were always so important to him.
He loved it when they sang: ‘Jimmy Johnstone on the wing’ and he would just keep playing away, ensuring they didn’t stop! When people who haven’t been fortunate enough to witness the Wee Man in the flesh see film of him playing they will understand why so many folk raved about him. Jinky was a Celtic man through and through. He was a genuine working-class hero and I don’t think for a second he will mind me saying that. He was a Celtic fan who played for Celtic. He was one of the lads. Success and adulation never went to the Wee Man’s head.
Jinky played in an era where there were an awful lot of skilful players, talented individuals and colourful characters. But Jimmy Johnstone was the king of them all.
I still laugh at the memory of Jinky the morning after we had played Real Madrid at the Bernabeu Stadium in the Testimonial Match for Alfredo di Stefano. Jinky had arranged to go on holiday with his wife Agnes right after that game.
Jinky could do no wrong that night and I well remember a Real Madrid defender, Grosso, I think, came racing out of defence in an effort to clatter the Wee Man. He had had enough of Jinky’s one-man show and he was going to sort him out.
Yes, he did wallop Jimmy, but if he thought that was the end of Jinky’s meanderings that night he was so wrong. I recall him trotting back into defence, thinking to himself: “That takes care of that.” His face was a picture, though, when he looked over his shoulder to see the Wee Man bouncing back to his feet to take the free-kick. I suppose he thought his opponent would fold under such treatment, but he didn’t know our Jimmy Johnstone.
The following day, Wee Jinky was in good form as he prepared to go on holiday. I helped him down with the suitcases and he and Agnes jumped into the waiting taxi. I had assumed he was going to the airport, but I heard him say: “Benidorm, driver!”
The taxi driver almost fainted. Possibly geography wasn’t one of Jinky’s strong points, but from Madrid to the holiday resort it was about 300 miles as the crow flies. Some hire!
I also recall a time when we were invited to play in some charity match in Iceland. There were two planes at the airport for the journey – the big one was an eight-seater! The other was a six-seater. Now, we all know Jinky wasn’t a big fan of flying. Anyway, we headed for these diminutive aircraft and Jinky was sitting up front in the six-seater. He didn’t look too comfortable and it didn’t get any better when the door to the cabin opened and out stepped the pilot.
Jinky looked up: “Are you the pilot?” he almost shreiked. “Yes,” came the reply. “Where’s the other pilot?” “There isn’t one.” Jinky looked aghast. “That’s all we bloody need. You’re the only pilot? What happens if you have a heart attack?” The pilot nonchalantly produced a booklet, handed it to Jinky and said: “There are the flying instructions – they’ll tell you all you need to know about flying a plane!”
I’m sure I heard the wee man praying all the way home.
As Cairney says, it was well known that Jinky had a fear of flying and I know why. He was travelling back early from the States during the club’s summer tour in 1966 with right-back Ian Young. They were both due to get married and the club had allowed them to go ahead of the rest of the party.
Now, Wee Jinky may have been afraid of nothing on a football park where he often took some terrible punishment, but he really didn’t like getting up among the clouds. The journey back from the States seemed to have been fairly uneventful with everything going according to plan. I think they had already been flying for about an hour. Jinky and Ian were discussing where they would be going on honeymoon and so on. And then the plane lurched as it hit an air pocket.
Jinky would look you straight in the eye and say: “Tam, it must have fallen for about two minutes!” It must be said that the wee man was prone to a bit of exaggeration every now and again. “All I could see were all these dinners suspended about two feet above the heads of the other passengers.” There was no point in confiding in Jinky that if the plane had, indeed, dropped for about two minutes he may not have been around to tell the tale!
A smashing lad and missed by all.
I got to know Jinky fairly well during the early days because I was his unpaid chauffeur! I used to pick up Davie Hay in the mornings at Uddingston Cross and then we would make the short drive to Jinky’s place. The Wee Man could keep you waiting about 15 minutes while he got ready. I would be looking at my watch and wondering if he was going to keep us late and earn a rebuke from Big Jock.
Then out would step the bold lad and jump into the passenger seat beside me, with Davie sitting in the back. The first thing the Wee Man did when he got into the car was immediately switch off the radio! He never explained why. The next day I would turn up with Davie and say: “Watch this, the radio’s going off.”
Sure enough, Jinky would come in and immediately turn off the music. He never ever explained why he went through that routine, day after day. I guess he just wasn’t a morning person!
But what a player. He had the heart of a lion and it was a pleasure to play in the same team as him. I wouldn’t have fancied facing him, that’s for sure.
Jinky always said his heart was broken when he left Celtic in 1975. He didn’t see it coming, but changes had to be made and he moved on. He was never the same player after that. Celtic Park was, indeed, his spiritual home. That’s where he believed he belonged.
Tommy Gemmell and I had him for all of three months at Dundee. We threw him a lifeline because we thought he still had a lot to offer, but, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. That was a great pity when you realise Jinky was only 32 at the time. He still had all the touches and trained exceptionally hard, but he struggled with the reality of no longer being Celtic’s No.7.
He was a very modest guy and I know he was surprised when the supporters voted him The Greatest-Ever Celtic Player. His family revealed he was convinced it would go to Henrik Larsson! That sums up the Wee Man.
One of Jinky’s many great strengths was his ability to take the ball for a walk. He was invaluable when you were under pressure. You could give him the ball and he would simply hold onto it.
There was no way our opponents had a clue what he was going to do next because I’m pretty sure the Wee Man didn’t, either! However, once he had that ball no-one was going to get another touch until he was good and ready to part with it.
We could all step back and take a breather while Jinky when through his many routines. He was a marvellous guy to have in your team. He would have graced any side in the world.
Wee Jinky was so incredibly strong that he rarely sustained any kind of serious injury – and when you consider the amount of kickings he took that speaks volumes. Yes, the Wee Man enjoyed life, as we all did, but he never abused his body. He looked after himself, trained hard and I always thought he resembled the build of a light-middleweight boxer.
People often compared Jimmy to George Best as both were so skilful and born entertainers. But George had his injury problems while Jinky soldiered on. The Wee Man, Bestie and Denis Law were the type of players back then who played with flair and invited tackles from the opposition. Denis, too, had injuries and, of course, missed the European Cup Final in 1968 after undergoing a cartilage operation.
So, no matter what you might hear about Jimmy Johnstone, believe me he never cheated on the football pitch. I used to marvel at him later in his career. He actually developed into a different sort of player. Maybe he had lost a bit of his pace or trickery to get down that wing, but he became a lot more aware of what was happening all around the pitch. He was pinging long-range passes all over the place and, once again, he underlined what a fine player he was.
He may only have been 5ft 4in, but he had a superb leap on him, too. He scored a few with his head which left 6ft-plus defenders wondering where on earth he had materialised from. In a word, the Wee Man was majestic..
Jinks was the man. He had a special gift and he worked on that gift. He had all the talents in the world, but he also trained hard to make sure his fitness levels were high.
Stanley Matthews, the legendary Stoke City and England outside-right, and Real Madrid’s Alfredo di Stefano were two of his particular favourite players as he grew up. He bought a book by Matthews on how to play on the wing. He must have absorbed everything and added a few chapters of his own unique skills.
And it gave him great pleasure to be with the Celtic team that played in Di Stefano’s Testimonial Match shortly after we won the European Cup. The Wee Man was unbelievable that night. He always knew how to rise to the occasion.