Monday, March 13, 2006

Jimmy Johnstone 1944-2006

June 10th, 1967 and the final whistle blows on the Alfredo Di Stefano testimonial at the Bernabeu Stadium. Celtic have beaten Real Madrid 1-0. The ball is where it has spent a large proportion of the previous ninety minutes - at the feet of Jimmy Johnstone. The Celtic winger picks it up and holds it in the air with one hand, taking the acclaim of 100,000 Madrilenos, whose tribute to their own retiring great has turned into a showcase for the mesmeric talent of the diminutive redhead in the Celtic no.7 jersey. The home support had cried "ole" at every dribble, flick and feint, and Di Stefano insisted on Johnstone joining his commemorative photograph along with Puskas, Santamaria and Gento.

I saw footage of this famous night in a video produced in the early 1990s, simply entitled Jinky. These pictures, and all the other footage included in the video, were a core text in my house growing up - a sacred catechism that was viewed repeatedly until the images of Jimmy Johnstone's brilliance in the muddy arenas of the late 1960s and early 1970s became indelibly imprinted onto my psyche. For my generation, who had never seem him play, these clips were to be treasured, primary evidence of the talent of the man who, even today, is regarded as the club's greatest ever player.

But the Di Stefano testimonial has always stood out for me in regards to memories of Jinky, even more so than the European Cup Final of the same year or the semi-final against Leeds in 1970, which also figure heavily in the video. Indeed, the latter two-legged tie was one of his crowning glories, when his genius bamboozled the formidable Leeds defence of the day, leading to the following exhange between Terry Cooper, the Leeds full-back and Johnstone's main victim, and the notorious Norman Hunter:

Hunter: "Kick him!!"

Cooper:"Kick him?! I can't get near him to kick him - you come out and kick him!"

Hunter duly tried, and met with as much success as his colleague, as Johnstone inspired Celtic to a famous 3-1 aggregate victory.

I remember the clips of the Di Stefano testimonial with fondness, however, because it seemed to feature Johnstone where he truly belonged - bestriding a pantheon of greats, and being showered with the recognition of legends, peers and fans alike. Because he played his football in one of Europe's smaller leagues and, internationally, for a Scottish team which did not qualify for a World Cup while he was at his prime, his greatness is often forgotten outside of the Celtic family and Scottish football.

At the time his reknown was spread throughout Europe. In France he became known as the "Flying Flea" after Celtic defeated Nantes in 1966. Then there is the story of the famous night when Celtic played Red Star Belgrade in the home leg of a European Cup tie at Parkhead. Jock Stein, aware that Johnstone was terrified of flying, promised him that he would excuse him from playing in the second leg if the winger helped create enough of a lead in the home leg in Glasgow.

True to form, Johnstone played out of his skin in Glasgow, scoring twice and making three of the five goals that would render his trip abroad unnecessary. The Yugoslavian pressmen begged him to play in the return leg, for the benefit of the locals' viewing pleasure, but Johnstone steadfastly refused.

Where George Best's pop star looks and flamboyant lifestyle embellished his legend as surely as his own wonderful talent, Johnstone's glory resided purely in his ability. Not only in the jaw-dropping insolence of his dribbling, but in the sheer courage of the 5ft 4inch winger's spirit in enduring the brutal treatment from defenders which was permitted at that time. Indeed, the deep love that the wee man inspired in Celtic supporters was partly due to the lionhearted way he refused to allow the savagery of his opponents to prevent him from embarking on yet another run.

It was a courage that he exhibited until his death this morning at age 61 from motor neurone disease, bearing his suffering with good humour and dignity. A hero to the end.

Rest in peace, Jinky.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first time I saw him was in the very early sixties before he made his debut for the first team.
It was a foggy and frosty friday night at parkhead when a Celts XI took on the might of Throttur of Iceland in some sort of charity match the match was a bit of a farce with celts running out 9-0 winners but it was the mesmeric display of a wee ginger heided boy that was to prove a lasting memory of the birth of a Ghod he eventually brok into the first team taking the right wing position from Stevie Chalmers no slouch as many will remember I also recall him getting a came against the Gers in a league Cup final the game was drawn and johnston was not played in the replay which we lost 3-0 if I remember correctly . by the time he was fully established in the first team the great years had begun and a legend was born but he was more than that he represented the joy of the beautiful game which has sustained my love of the game and Celts through great years and bad the epitome of the celtic philosophy of attacking and entertainment.
We owe it to the coming generations of footballing afficionados to ensure that his name remains in the pantheon of the all time greats.
I extend my sorrow to his family with the hope that they will be comforted by the love and respect that Jimmy was held

4:06 p.m.  
Blogger Tom the Tim said...

A fitting tribute, Tom. You have captured the essence of the wee man.
I recall his debut on a miserable, wet night in Kilmarnock. My father,brother and I made the journey solely to see "this wee red headed boy" who was making his first team appearance. The fact that Celtic got stuffed 6-0 did not detract from the feeling that we were witnessing something special, though no-one could even guess how good he would become.

Another abiding memory of Jimmy coincidently involves Kilmarnock.

At a Scotland training session, held before an upcoming match against England, Jimmy was obviously not going to be selected, as was often the case as attested by the paltry 23 caps he gained.

The Scotland trainer,who would be called the physio today, was Kilmarnock's Walter Mc.Crae.He instructed Jimmy to "run the line", confirming the fact that he wouldn't play at Wembley.

Jinky promptly told him where to place his flag.

The following day's papers duly reported that JJ was being left out as he was "not mentally attuned".

Later in the same season, Jimmy inspired Celtic to a 6-0 thrashing of Killie at Rugby Park and as he left the pitch he called into the Kilmarnock dugout, " No'bad for a f*****g linesman,eh Wattie."

Rest in Peace, Jimmy.

8:02 p.m.  
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