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Football News: Legends of the Game Part 7: Jimmy Johnstone

Legends of the Game Part 7: Jimmy Johnstone
Image from: freelargeimages.com

Jimmy Johnstone 'Jinky' 'The Wee Man' 'The Lord of the Wing' 'Flying Flea'


"I would love to have kicked Jinky, but I couldn't get near him!" - Terry Cooper

James Connelly Johnstone was the youngest of 5 children born to Matthew and Sarah Johnstone in Viewpark, Scotland. It was at primary school that he first got noticed, though his older brother Pat, known as Blondie, was the one who was highly rated in their younger days, with Celtic watching him, until a cartilage problem picked up playing for his local boys guild team ended his career before it even began.

Primary school was where Jimmy first came to prominence, with Jimmy playing for a St Columba's team that won 3 trophies in the 1953/54 season, but the step up to secondary school saw him playing in a much worse team, so he was not able to add more trophies at that level. What St John's did do was give him the opportunity to travel down to Manchester to face Manchester United's boys' team and while there he was to learn about Stanley Matthews.

Stanley Matthews quickly became Jinky's idol and he would spend hours practising the techniques Matthews laid out in his autobiography to improve his game. He would spend hours each day dribbling around milk bottles laid out in his hallway to perfect his skills. Having read about Matthews walking to Blackpool's ground wearing heavy boots to strengthen his leg muscles, Jimmy started wearing pit boots for sprinting and playing football. He later said this "probably added about three yards onto my pace".

"For my first European match, I travelled as a linesman to France for a Nantes' UEFA Cup match. Whilst there, I was introduced to the legendary Just Fontaine, the leading goalscorer of all time in the World Cup finals. He asked where I was from and, when I said Glasgow, Fontaine's excited response was: 'Ah, Glasgow Celtic! Jimmy Johnstone - fantastique, fantastique.'" - Willie Young

His PE teacher at St John's, Tommy Cassidy, was a friend of Sammy Wilson, the Celtic player, and got Johnstone a spot as a ball boy at the club, though he left to play football for his local Boys Guild team. The school team made a second trip down to Manchester, where a Manchester United scout watched him and showed interest in signing him for United, but the school chaplain, Frank Cairney, was a Celtic fan and told United that Jimmy had his heart set on joining Celtic.

Cairney then contacted a Celtic scout he knew, John Higgins, and told him about Man Utd's interest in Jimmy. Higgins persuaded Jimmy to sign for Celtic and he would train with the team 2 nights a week before he was farmed out to Blantyre Celtic on loan, straight after making his reserves debut, where he scored 1 and made 3 goals in a 4-2 win over St Johnstone. Then Celtic manager Jimmy McGory had been watching and jumped in immediately to sign him. While out on loan, Celtic scout Jimmy Gribben tried to persuade the club to recall him after watching Johnstone play for Junior Scotland against Junior Northern Ireland.

"One player who sticks in my mind is the little red haired winger Jimmy Johnstone. He had such skill and was the kind of player I always enjoy watching." - Pele

Jinky's size counted against him in the early days, and it was only Jimmy Gribben's backing that saw him given a chance. Gribben's son, Billy said later: "My father Jimmy was a scout and coach at Celtic when Jimmy first arrived at Parkhead and told me all about him. Bob Kelly and Jimmy McGrory both felt he was too small to make the grade but my father convinced them to stick with him and Jimmy would prove them wrong."

Bertie Auld remembers him getting promoted to the first team: "This wee lad with the big red curls turned up one day for training. 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 somewhat embarrassed to be mixing with some of the players. Well, that was until he got out onto a pitch and then we all knew who Jimmy Johnstone was. What a talent. He was like a rubber ball. 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."

The little winger finally got his shot towards the end of the 1962/63 season, in a 6-0 away defeat to Kilmarnock on 27th March, but it was a month before he got a second chance, again in a defeat, but this time he scored his first goal and he performed well enough to earn a place in the Scottish Cup final against Rangers. Johnstone played well in a 1-1 draw, having a goal disallowed, but was still dropped for the replay, which Celtic lost 3-0.

"I was always an entertainer. The pitch was my stage, the whistle meant it was showtime." - Jimmy Johnstone

The following season he managed to establish himself as a regular, but Celtic were struggling and 1965 saw Jock Stein arrive to take charge. Initially Stein was not keen on Johnstone, seeing him as too individualistic and not enough of a team player, but Jinky soon won him round. By then he was already a Scotland international, having made his Scotland debut in 1964 in a British Home Championship match with Wales, which Scotland lost 3-2.

His second cap came later in the same month against Finland in a World Cup qualifier, but he struggled in that match and his passing was described as lacking accuracy. He did not play for Scotland again until April 1966, when he scored his first 2 goals for his country in yet another defeat, this time to England 4-3. Celtic headed off to the USA for their preseason tour ahead of the 1966/67 season and it was there that Jimmy developed a morbid fear of flying which was to affect him for the rest of his life.

Prior to the Celtic team flying to Bermuda, Bertie Auld had borrowed £20 off Jimmy. Whilst they were in mid-air the plane hit heavy turbulence and the passengers were instructed to stay in their seats and fasten their seat belts. Everyone did so and then suddenly Jimmy threw off his belt and is haring down the aisle to where Bertie is sat, saying, "Ten, ten! Give me my score back just in case!" Bertie had to point out that Jimmy would have no need of the £20 if the worst happened.

While that memory was fresh in his mind still, he flew back early from the pre-season tour for his wedding to Agnes and that flight also suffered severe turbulence. Jimmy never got over it and always hated flying from then on. Something Jock Stein did use to his advantage on occasion to get a performance from the dimunitive winger.

"I don't think he knew what he was going to do next, so what chance did the opposition have?" - Tommy Gemmell

The 1966/67 season was to be a great one for Celtic and Johnstone. Though it could have easily gone all wrong in March 1967 when, after particularly rough treatment even for the time, Jinky snapped in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup, in front of special guest Sean Connery. Facing Queens Park and leading 5-3 in the 89th minute, Jinky had been roughed up from kick off and retaliated against Miller Hay with a headbutt. The referee booked both players (booked them! Can you imagine if that happened now?) but Stein was furious with Johnstone's loss of control and immediately substituted him. On his way off Jinky said something to Stein on his way past and Stein chased him up the tunnel. Urban legend has it that Jinky locked himself in the toilet until Stein promised not to hit him. Instead he was ordered to be dressed and in front of the directors in half an hour, where Stein's recommended punishment of a week's suspension was agreed to.

Despite this, the season was a huge success, Celtic cleaned up domestically and won the European Cup in Lisbon, the so-called 'Lions Of Lisbon', which he played a huge part in. His European performances earned him the nickname of the 'Flying Flea' in the French press. Though his wife Agnes was not there for the final as she was giving birth to their first child Marie. Two weeks later Celtic were in the Bernabeu Stadium for Alfredo Di Stefano's testimonial, supposedly a friendly but it was anything but friendly in reality.

100,000 people saw a bad tempered game with both teams going all out to win, as Celtic's Bertie Auld and Madrid's Amancio were sent off and Jinky stole the show with a performance so outstanding that even the Madrid fans were giving him the oles. It was a performance so good that it has gone down in history and Jinky's Celtic team-mates always claimed that Madrid tried to sign Johnstone afterwards. After the game Jimmy is captured on film hopping into a taxi to take his wife Agnes on holiday. Rather than a short ride to the airport, he was heard uttering the words, "Benidorm mate!", as he preferred an 8 hour car journey to a 1 hour flight. His performances that year saw him come 3rd in the European Player of the Year standing.

"I was signed to Celtic from 1971 to 1976 and I remember Jinky as a wonderful wee man, always cheery. As a footballer he was the best I've played with. He was a wonderful player and man, who didn't deserve to suffer the way he did. The memory which most sticks out in my mind is the way he played against Atletico Madrid in 72 or 73. I was a reserve and saw him get his legs cut to shreds by tackles, he just got up and took it. He played on." - Jackie McNamara

Johnstone and Stein developed a father/son relationship of sorts, though, like any relationship it was not without its fractious moments and there were times when Stein dropped Jinky due to disciplinary issues. There were a couple of moments that particularly stand out, in particular one in October 1968 when Jinky was having a poor game and was taken off. After he was substituted he threw his shirt at the dug out in disgust and hit Stein in the face! Jinky later explained what happened: "I wasn't having the best of games and I admit I was struggling for form. Big Jock would have been better off leaving me out but he kept playing me. Anyway, I wasn't too happy when I got the shout that I was coming off in this game. I didn't think as I raced off the pitch, frustrated and angry, and I threw my shirt at the dugout. I was running up the tunnel when I heard this growl behind me, 'Johnstone - I want a word with you!' I didn't know what to do. I could either run into the dressing room or try to hide or just keep running out of the main door in the general direction of Parkhead Cross. I was convinced the Big Man was going to do me! He didn't, I'm glad to say, but he did fine me. I had no complaints."

His skills, which Jinky had worked so hard to develop, even working on his balance by walking around the top of the fence surrounding his local football pitch as a child, saw him become a target for the very worst excesses of opponents. When the Celtic team played against Racing Club of Argentina in Montevideo, during an Intercontinental Championship (the forerunner of the Club World Cup) play-off, Jinky had to wash the spit out of his hair at half-time and he was sent off in the second half.

Feyenoord took a different tack when they faced Celtic in a European final and double marked Johnstone, keeping him quiet on their way to a 2-1 win over the Scots. Other times he could not be stopped, as against Leeds United when Billy Bremner said: "One of the greatest exhibitions I have ever seen. Jimmy had one of those games where he was unstoppable." Stein had to work hard to keep Jimmy playing well using many different tactics to do so, even playing on his fear of flying ahead of a first leg European tie against Red Star Belgrade at home. He told Jinky that he would not have to travel with the team for the second leg if they won by 4 goals. Johnstone was outstanding, scoring two goals and assisting the other three in a 5-1 win. He then danced round the pitch shouting: "I don't have to go, I don't have to go!" Stein was not amused.

"Money could not buy Jimmy's talent. He destroyed Terry Cooper, who was England's left back at the time, when we met Leeds United in the semi-final of the European Cup in 1970. A few years later, we went back to Elland Road for a testimonial for Jack Charlton and Jimmy turned it on again. My father-in-law, James Farrell, got a tap on his shoulder during the game. It was Michael Parkinson, who asked: 'do you see this every weekend?''Of course', was the reply. 'God you are so lucky,' said Parky." - Jim Craig

Johnstone's performance in the 1971 Scottish Cup final replay was so good that the game has been forever after known as the Jimmy Johnstone final. The first leg of the 1974 European Cup semi-final against Atletico Madrid at Parkhead, Jinky had been left covered in cuts and bruises and 3 Atleti players were sent off as they brutally hacked at him all game. Ahead of the second leg he was sent death threats but he played anyway, though Celtic ended up losing 2-0. At one point he was such a star that AC Milan offered £100,000 for him but Stein said that was only enough to get him for one game.

In December 1969 Celtic faced Dundee United and beat them 7-2 and, though Jimmy was the only Celtic forward not to score, he was so good that the Dundee United players lined up to shake his hand afterwards. The ex-Rangers winger Davie Wilson gave him a bear hug.

But all his off-field issues and trouble he caused Stein finally got too much for the manager and, on 10th June 1975 chairman Desmond White told Jinky that he would be given a free transfer. Jimmy left the meeting in tears, heartbroken to have his dream ended. He did get another chance to play for Celtic though, as he was given a joint testimonial with Bobby Lennox in May 1976, when Celtic played and beat Manchester United 4-0. At the end of his lap of honour Jimmy stopped and threw his boots into the crowd at 'the Jungle', again in tears. He was never the same in any other colours but his beloved Celtic.

"People might say I will be best remembered for being in charge of the first British club to win the European Cup or leading Celtic to nine league championships in a row, but I would like to be remembered for keeping the wee man, Jimmy Johnstone, in the game five years longer than he might have been. That is my greatest achievement." - Jock Stein

His time as an international was not as happy as his time with Celtic. In fact he once said: "I preferred playing for Celtic. I had a couple of bad experiences playing for Scotland, when I was booed by our own fans. I may have been playing a stinker, but I didn't feel right after certain fans booed me because I was a Celtic fan." Tommy Docherty rated him highly even joking that "on my first day as Scotland manager I had to call off practice after half an hour, because nobody could get the ball off wee Jimmy Johnstone." Other national managers did not love him so much, Walter McCrae particularly upset Jinky at the Seamill training camp they were sharing with the Celtic side of the time.

McCrae, with a game against the 'Auld Enemy' England in the offing, arranged a match between the Celtic and Scotland sides, but Jimmy was not interested in playing against his beloved Celtic, so McCrae asked Jimmy to be a linesman. "I think you could say Jimmy let Walter know he was not interested in running the line, in any shape or form," said Tommy Gemmill. "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."

Johnny Giles, the Leeds United legend, claimed in his autobiography that Jimmy hated playing for Scotland so much that he once got off the train at Carlisle when on the way down to face England at Wembley. The fact that it is believable that he would do so tells you a lot about the way he was treated by Scotland managers, and fans, who simply did not know how to handle him the way Jock Stein did.

Things really came to a head in 1974, during the build up to the World Cup that year. The Scotland team were together in May preparing for a British Home Championship match against England that was just a few days away. The whole Scotland team had a drinking session in their hotel in Largs, Ayrshire, then decided to go out to the shore. There they found a rowing boat which Jinky jumped into and immediately the rest of the players pushed him out to sea. When they realised the boat really did have no oars and jumped in another boat to go after him, they found that boat had a leak. By this point Johnstone is being swept out to sea by the tide and the Coastguard had to be called in to rescue him.

The incident dominated the headlines over the next few days, with Jimmy furious about Willie Ormond's reaction to the incident, but he stepped out against England and turned in an outstanding performance as Scotland beat England 2-0. After the game Jimmy went over to the sidelines and stood in front of the press box and gave the assembled journalists the 'Vs'. While it never stopped Ormond from picking him for the World Cup squad, another incident involving drink stopped him from getting a game according to the commentator Archie Macpherson.

"I put Wee Jinky into a cab and said to the driver, 'be careful, he's second only to Jesus Christ here.' And the driver replied, 'no, he's in first place, Jesus is second.' He's the biggest character I've ever met, and I've met a few." - Robert Duvall

In his book Macpherson claimed that he and John Motson were sat in a student bar in Oslo having a drink, while there to cover a Scotland World Cup warm up game. Then a heavily inebriated Johnstone and Scotland captain Billy Bremner burst in singing, breaking Scotland manager Willie Ormond's curfew. Macpherson wrote: "Motson and I were sitting in the student bar having a pleasant chat and sipping our beer when we heard the sound of raucous singing that caught the ears. Down the short flight of stairs leading in to the well of the bar came the Scottish captain Billy Bremner, his arms round the shoulders of his great mate Jimmy Johnstone. They were, as the Bard would have it, 'uncofu'. They saw us and made a beeline towards our table. We held still and they thumped down beside us, Bremner's arms round Johnstone's shoulders and singing straight into his face. Johnstone, the better singer, was trilling like a linntie as they say, but in between they were encouraging the bewildered students to join in."

In the end Jimmy won just 23 caps for Scotland, which is incredible when you consider how talented a player he was. That a player who was compared to the legendary George Best, sometimes even favourably, can win just 23 caps for Scotland is shocking, no matter how strong the pool of players was to pick from at the time. That pool was strong, Scotland had some truly immense footballers in this era, but Johnstone was one of the best ever players the country has produced and it has to register as a disappointment that they were unable to find a way to get the best out of him.

"I was on top of my game at the time and I had quite a few caps under my belt before Jimmy actually came onto 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 if there was a way he could fit both Jimmy and me into his team. 'No chance,' Billy was informed, 'we can only play with one ball!'" - Willie Henderson

Jimmy's big problem was similar to that of the man he is so often compared to, George Best. Like Best he struggled to cope with fame and would hide behind drink. Lots of drink. His life was full of drink and he would often go pubbing alongside close friend Tommy Gemmell, but he was also prone to going out on his own. Jock Stein developed a network of Celtic-supporting informants who would let him know when Jinky was out drinking. Stein would then call the pub Jimmy was at to tell him to get home. Pub landlords all over the area tell tales of how Jimmy's face would turn white when he realised the phone was Stein for him.

Jock Stein said of him: "He is not a bad boy with regard to being against authority. It is just that if there is trouble, or a problem, Jimmy seems to be in the thick of it." Part of that was down to Jock's handling of Jinky as, according to Jinky's wife Agnes "Jimmy was pigging terrified of him." That fear kept Jimmy from straying too far from the straight and narrow, despite a life full of drink and women. Though even Jock Stein's mother once rebuked him over his treatment of Jimmy saying: "I think you're very hard on that wee fellow."

Jimmy was also fond of singing and had a voice good enough to record a song called 'Passing Time', which was used as the B side to a Celtic single. Jinky was also known for being a bit of a pest to his team-mates and liked to pull high jinks. Such as when the Celtic team were using Seamill as a training base ahead of a big game, which they often did, a lot of the players would take their golf clubs with them and use the opportunity to play a round or two. Jimmy never played, but he did spend a lot of time on the golf course, hiding behind bushes or trees, waiting for a shot to hit the green and then he would nip out of cover, grab the ball off the green and throw it in to a bunker before disappearing back into the woods.

"At his peak George [Best] was a better all-round player than Jimmy Johnstone, but for individual skill Jinky was streets ahead. Bestie was like the great Alfredo Di Stefano, similar in the way he could see things happening, but for pure ability there was no one like wee Jimmy, at his greatest he was unstoppable. I'm glad I only had to face him in training games. However, I count myself fortunate to have seen both in action when they were at the top. They were both incredible." - Tommy Gemmell

After leaving Celtic, Jimmy headed to the USA to play in the old NASL for the San Jose Earthquakes in 1975. His best performance for the Quakes was against New York Cosmos after their star man, Pele, ran the length of the pitch just to shake Jinky's hand and pat him on the back. Jinky was delighted and it inspired him to a classic performance.

His time in the States did not last long and he was soon back in the UK to play for Sheffield United for 2 seasons, though it was not a peak Johnstone they got in Yorkshire. It was then on to Dundee to join former team-mate Tommy Gemmell who had just been made manager, though Jinky admits his heart was never in it and he lacked motivation following his release from Celtic. He played alongside a young Gordon Strachan there, with Strachan saying many years later that he was still recovering from a night out drinking with Jinky.

"Growing up I had two real heroes, George Best and Jimmy Johnstone. One week I'd say Jimmy was the best and the next I'd say it was George. Unfortunately we've lost both of them. I don't think many people will know I actually played with Jimmy at Dundee. It was the smallest right side of midfield the club ever had. People say he lived life to the full on and off the pitch - I lived life to the full with him just one day. We went out in Dundee and my liver is still recovering. It was only one day out but it felt like a week. Fact is my wife never spoke to me for a week afterwards but it was great fun. I'd never give that day back." - Gordon Strachan

After Dundee, there were short spells in Ireland with Shelbourne and Elgin City, but he was no longer the Jinky who had been such a star with Celtic. His retirement, and subsequent employment as a lorry driver, were both marred by his alcoholism, which caused him severe problems throughout the 1980s. His life ended up bottoming out in around 1992 when he tried to sell his medals to Celtic fan and businessman Willie Haughey. Rather than just buying the medals, Haughey helped Johnstone with guidance and support through his addiction and the pair became close friends.

After his recovery he was regularly seen around Celtic Park on matchdays, often working as a matchday host for the club, a legend in the flesh that people could meet and enjoy his stories of the past. Johnstone was brought in to consult on a film about a second division Scottish team, a film which starred Robert Duvall as the lead and Ally McCoist as a Celtic player, of all things. Jinky and Duvall struck up an instant friendship, with Duvall calling him the greatest character he had ever met.

"I was embarrassed to come off the pitch. Jimmy Johnstone absolutely crucified me." - Emlyn Hughes after an England - Scotland match

Sadly in 2001 Jinky was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and spent a lot of time afterwards campaigning for stem cell research, despite it being too late for that to help him in his battle with the disease. In 2002 he gained another accolade, on top of Alfredo di Stefano's rating as the best player to never play at a World Cup, when he was voted Celtic's best player of all time by the fans. Typically modest, he was just surprised Henrik Larsson never won it instead of him.

A documentary on his life led to him getting a great honour in 2005. Carl Faberge's great-granddaughter Sarah saw the film 'Lord of the Wing', narrated by Billy Connolly, and it inspired her to produce 19 jewelled eggs related to Jinky, making him the first living person since the time of the Russian Tzars to have a Faberge Egg designed in his honour. Thankfully he did live to see them released in June 2005, but sadly he died in March 2006 aged 61. His battle with MND had finally beaten him.

Since his death, Celtic had a bronze statue of him in action created by Kate Robinsion at the main entrance to Celtic Park and his former school also had a statue of him made and placed inside a special memorial garden in 2011. Perhaps the best tribute was from another legend, Portugese superstar Eusebio who said of Jinky: "I was privileged to call Jimmy Johnstone my friend. 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."


Suggested by Roro1892

For the previous Legend of the Game article on Edgar Davids click HERE

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Written by Tris Burke July 28 2019 12:23:32


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