Jimmy Johnstone’s widow remembers life with Celtic genius

Jimmy Johnstone, voted Celtics greatest ever player, in action during the 1970 Scottish Cup final. Picture: SNS
Jimmy Johnstone, voted Celtics greatest ever player, in action during the 1970 Scottish Cup final. Picture: SNS
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As Agnes Johnstone remembers it, the legs lasted longest. It seems fitting these same 
legs that withstood such 
violence for so long proved so hardy.

Full-backs, sent dizzy by their opposite man’s genius, were often reduced to simply swiping him down, providing they could get close enough.

Some consider the statue outside Celtic Park, wonderful work of art though it is, depicts Jimmy Johnstone’s legs as too muscly, too big. According to Agnes, his widow, they were 
in fact deceptively spindly-looking, even before the 
debilitating effects of motor neurone disease.

But while scarred and bruised by Atletico Madrid defenders, among other
assailants, the winger’s legs were still powerful. “So 
strong!” remarks Agnes, during an interview in the Uddingston house where Johnstone died ten years ago.

A nurse would visit to help Johnstone exercise, his hands and arms having failed first. “She told him from the very beginning he had good strength in his legs, he liked that,” recalls Agnes. “He felt the weakness in his hands first. His legs were the last to go. As time went on… you could see everything just closing in.”

Had he not been struck down by illness, had he beaten the alcohol demons that plagued him and plenty other footballers of his era, Johnstone would be set to turn 72.

On Friday at 9.30pm, to mark this anniversary of Jimmy’s birth, BBC Alba will be showing Jimmy Johnstone, a new documentary produced by purpleTV, whose previous outstanding work includes films on 
Scottish football legends Jim Baxter and Hibs’ Famous Five forward line.

It is pleasing to have reason to delight in footage of the jinking Johnstone again. Some scenes, including where the young Johnstone is seen dribbling round milk bottles, are re-enacted by his and Agnes’ 16-year-old grandson, Jack. “He is quite blonde,” she says. “They sprayed his hair to make it ginger. We were kidding him on: ‘You should keep it like that!’

“He is also quite tall, so he found it hard to do that in-between-the-bottle-thing. He takes a nine shoe. Jimmy was only size six. Jack was a 
nervous wreck: ‘Aw gran, I keep knocking the 
bottles over’.”

The documentary portrays the man in full. It is a tear-jerking watch and one abiding impression from an 
initial viewing, on top of re-confirming his twisting skills, is just how incredibly likeable Johnstone seems, despite the faults. No one knew this better than Agnes, his wife and tower of strength, sometimes literally. Their long relationship began inauspiciously, Johnstone being mistaken for “the roll boy” by Agnes’ mother when he called in to see his new girlfriend. “We used to get rolls delivered in the morning. I will never forget that day. ‘Is he not awfy wee?’ We are all really quite tall – my mother’s father was 6ft 6in!”

Johnstone used to rely on the loftier Agnes to help hoist him on to the perimeter fence at nearby Thorniewood United’s ground, which he then tip-toed along to hone the balance required to evade defenders.

Agnes has fought her own battles, having recently been given the all-clear 
following breast cancer. It is something to celebrate along with her approaching 70th birthday, in April.

Her late husband is Celtic’s greatest-ever player, as voted in 2002. She would surely win the title of Lanarkshire’s most glamorous great grandmother (she has four, along with seven grandchildren).

Marie, the eldest of her and Jimmy’s three children (Eileen and James are the others), turns 50 in May, when the Celtic family will be toasting another special 50th – the anniversary of the European Cup final win in 1967.

By his own admission, Johnstone had a quiet night in Lisbon against Inter Milan when compared to the havoc he often wrought on continental opposition. Not so Agnes, who had a screaming baby daughter to cope with, if few visitors.

“‘Nae visitors, this is terrible!’ I was thinking,” recalls Agnes. “The next thing all my brothers come down, drunk the lot of them.”

Unusually, only the eldest, Pat, was even into football. “But they’d been celebrating in the house,” continues Agnes. “I was flushed, my blood pressure was sky high with them! There was no TV, the nurses came in and let me know the score updates from the radio.”

As well as looking after Johnstone during those years when he fought illness, Agnes also provided support when he sought solace in the bottle after parting ways with his beloved Celtic; this period proved the battle before the battle.

The documentary is unflinching in its portrayal of Johnstone’s struggle with alcohol. James remembers locking his father in the house in an attempt to stop him drinking. Johnstone would just climb out the window.

Agnes, too, makes no effort to sugarcoat things. Johnstone was his own worst enemy. She is not even sure what would have become of them had Johnstone been spared such a cruel illness.

“I don’t know if I could have handled it any more if he kept on drinking, you get too involved,” she says. “You want a peaceful life, don’t you? I had even stopped going out with him anywhere. I just went out with my friends. People were just wanting to talk to him, to buy him drink.”

It didn’t help that Johnstone became mine host of a pub, the Double J in Hamilton. “The guys used to say the more vodka you drink the better player you are. And I was like: ‘for god’s sake don’t tell him that!’”

The Johnstones ran the pub for ten years. “It is knocked down now,” says Agnes. “We sold that when we went to California. He’d finished at Celtic by then. I used to work there, one of my brothers used 
to help run it. Jimmy would come in at the end of the night and take money out of the till and go for a Chinese with his cronies.

“We met some smashing people. But you knew yourself it was too much. Everyone wanted to be served by him. But he just went to the pub and drank in it, he didn’t work in it.”

In a way, Celtic were partly
to blame: the club handed Johnstone a £23,000 loan to purchase the premises, just as they had loaned him money to buy a bungalow; his and Agnes’ first home. The money for the house came just after the European Cup final win. “It was a good time to ask,” says Agnes.

But despite Johnstone’s brilliance, manager Jock Stein, who adored him, was prepared to indulge the winger’s waywardness only so long, letting him go in 1975. “He [Stein] phoned me that day just to see if Jimmy had arrived home yet. He’d left Jock’s office in some state, you see, then went straight to his pub to drown his sorrows. Jimmy said if he sorted himself out he would be asked back. But we knew deep down that wasn’t likely.”

After an incredible 515 games for Celtic, and 129 goals, the love affair was over. Unsatisfactory spells followed at such contrasting outposts as San Jose and Elgin, in addition to a three-game stay at Dundee, managed by Lisbon Lion team-mate Tommy Gemmell.

A longer stay at Sheffield United, managed by Scot Jimmy Sirrel, was slightly more productive. Johnstone’s initial lodging arrangements helped tame him, temporarily at least. He stayed with Sirrel and his wife.

“I was up here, I had not gone down there yet,” recalls Agnes. “He phoned: ‘It’s terrible,’ he said. ‘He [Sirrel] is in one seat, his wife is in the other. I am sitting in the middle of them! You’d think we were at a funeral the way we are sitting here’. I said: ‘well you are living the quiet life now!’”

No reminiscing about Johnstone can be complete without some reference to the Largs rowing boat incident, 1974. Towards the end of Johnstone’s life, former Scotland team-mate Sandy Jardine, pictured inset, confessed he’d sent the boat, with one winger on board without oars, drifting into the Firth of Clyde that night.

“When Jimmy was ill, Sandy phoned him a few times,” recalls Agnes. “I used to hold the phone for Jimmy, and I said: ‘you know, Sandy, I never knew that you kicked the boat out. Well, you didn’t kick him out far enough!’”