Mo Johnston interview: I can’t go back to Celtic

Mo Johnston is in Glasgow for the Old Firm Scottish Cup derby and has already visited Rangers' Murray Park, however he says going back to Celtic would make him feel uncomfortable. Picture: Peter Devlin
Mo Johnston is in Glasgow for the Old Firm Scottish Cup derby and has already visited Rangers' Murray Park, however he says going back to Celtic would make him feel uncomfortable. Picture: Peter Devlin
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Does it point to where his 
loyalties lie now that Mo 
Johnston’s first destination after a “three-day camel ride” from Orlando, via Manchester, was Murray Park?

Perhaps not, and the man himself, back in town to work as a Sky Sports pundit at tomorrow’s Old Firm Scottish Cup derby, says he supports all his former clubs. Such even-handedness stretches to his 15-year-old twin sons, one of whom supports Celtic (TJ) and the other (Tyler), you guessed it, favours Rangers.

They were born long after the worldwide sensation caused by their father. Having grown up in the States and Canada, they are perhaps unable to appreciate the issues involved. Johnston has brought only one of four children with wife Karen to Glasgow on this visit. Alana constantly wonders why there is still such interest in her father.

She can’t understand why noses are pressed to the window of the private members’ club where Mo Johnston met reporters yesterday. And these were just reporters of a certain age intrigued by the reaction of passers-by as the still unmistakable figure of Johnston strolled across Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow – 53 years old, ripped jeans, without, it seems, a care in the world.

Someone once guaranteed to turn heads was allowed to proceed without harassment on this occasion. That wouldn’t have been the case 27 years ago. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t be the case at a busier time than 10:30am yesterday.

Of course, the original brouhaha went deeper than a Roman Catholic signing for Rangers, unusual though it was. This Roman Catholic had been paraded as Celtic’s new star signing a couple of weeks earlier.

“Look, at the end of the day Celtic didn’t have the money for it,” says Johnston now. “That is the bottom line. There was a transfer fee, everything else that was involved, I hadn’t signed and then all of a sudden Rangers came in. If I had signed a contract, I would have been with Celtic. That would have been it. The contract is there, it is away to Fifa having been signed. But it wasn’t signed. Money came into it. I make no bones about it. I am not going to hide from any of the facts. I did it almost 30 years ago and I won three championships [two with Rangers, one with Celtic].”

As expected, he has no regrets. Why should he? But there is one niggle, something he wishes had not been so.

“The one reaction that really got to me was Tommy Burns,” he says. “I was very close with Tommy and he was like ‘ya wee runt’. All I could say to him was: ‘hey, sorry Tommy’.

“His kids had been singing ‘Mo, Mo, Super Mo,’ at the breakfast table on the day they thought I’d signed for Celtic. That made me feel really bad.”

Years later he feels he atoned slightly when Jonathan, one of Burns’ sons, came to Toronto to do some coaching. Johnston, director of football at Toronto FC at the time, took him under his wing.

It’s undeniably thrilling to see Johnston back in these parts again. He returns once a year, but often tries to go under the radar, understandably. “I don’t stay in hotels, I’m sleeping on a sofa while I’m over,” he says. “I’m staying with a mate of mine in Bearsden.”

His first port of call was nearby Murray Park, to watch Rangers Under 17s v Dundee United Under 17s. Although sacked by Toronto six years ago, he remains involved in the game, coaching and scouting where he now lives, near West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I wanted to see their [Rangers’] training set-up, I like seeing different things,” he says. “I’ve been to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, I’ve been all over in terms of looking at players.” Famous for crossing a great divide, he is now more interested in crossing borders in order to continue educating himself.

Having already been invited back to do a half-time draw at Ibrox, it’s clear he still feels comfortable at Rangers. This is despite some fans burning scarves and claiming they would never return after he signed, in July 1989.

Johnston remembers bumping into Alex McLeish after the game against Aberdeen when he broke his duck for Rangers in a 1-0 win over the Pittodrie side.

“He was walking to the parking lot outside Ibrox,” he recalls. “His wee mate with him was a Rangers fan and had said to Big Alex: ‘as far as I’m concerned it was 0-0 today’.”

Even though the majority of fans welcomed him, Johnston struggled to convince supporters he was worth all the controversy at first.

“I hadn’t scored for about four or five games and I remember we got a penalty kick against Hamilton Accies,” he says. “Coisty was like ‘go hit it’, and I was saying ‘nah’. 
Everybody was looking at me as if to say ‘do you not want to score?’ I’d come close a few times but I was beginning to wonder myself if I ever would. But then I scored against Aberdeen from a great ball from Trevor Steven.”

Then came the biggest moment of all – a goal, the winner no less, in his first Old Firm game as a Rangers player. He celebrated at a fancy dress party in Kirkintilloch. Manager Graeme Souness originally forbade him going but “they doubled up security” and all was well. “What did I go as? I’m no’ telling you,” Johnston smiles.

The only time he says he felt slightly uneasy was when he was awarded the best newcomer award by the Rangers supporters’ club based in Larkhall. “The people at 
Rangers told me I shouldn’t go,” he recalls. “But I told them I had to go because it was my first award, so I decided to go, but it was a bit rocky to say the least.

“Three of us went and Ian Ferguson got the main award but I was a bit late walking in and it was, well, interesting. Did I sing any of the songs? I did actually, it ended up on the front page of the 
Daily Record – I had to sing! But look, it was like everything else, I felt scoring goals and working hard for them would win them over.”

Johnston knew he not only had to score goals to win approval. He also had to work harder than Ally McCoist, run faster than Mark Hateley. He feels pride for what he achieved – at Celtic as well as Rangers.

Indeed, it is nearly 30 years to the day since he scored two of Celtic’s five goals in the win over St Mirren that, combined with Hearts coming undone against Dundee, secured the Premier Division title for David Hay’s team.

But while the second he scored that afternoon, from a flowing move up the right, is reckoned to be one of the best team goals Celtic have ever scored, he doesn’t feel part of things now.

“Wee Murdo [MacLeod] called me up the other day. ‘Are you invited to the anniversary?’ I told him: ‘it’s your anniversary’.”

It’s regrettable, if understandable, that he feels this way. Even Celtic’s Lennoxtown training base is out of bounds to him. Not because he is banned but because he doesn’t want anyone to feel the heat for inviting him there.

He once bumped into then Celtic manager Neil Lennon in Glasgow’s Hilton hotel. “It was around Christmas time and Celtic were preparing for a European game,” he recalls.

“He told me to come up to Lennoxtown but I didn’t want to put him in a position. I didn’t want anyone saying anything to him. I would have felt uncomfortable. Maybe people would say to him, ‘why are you bringing him here?’ I would just have watched 
training and kept my mouth shut.

“I still have respect for the situation,” he adds. “It’s okay Neil saying to me to come up but he still thinks of me as a Celtic player. He’s not thinking about everything that went on at Rangers and everything else.”

Most people in Glasgow still do of course. It’s a city where Johnston played for three clubs. “I drove past Firhill last night,” he says. But life sure would have been a lot less interesting had he stayed at Partick Thistle.

l Sky Sports will show the 
Scottish Cup semi-final between Rangers and Celtic this Sunday, and from next season all Old-Firm derbies in the Premiership exclusively live.