Interview: Willie Johnston, ex-Scotland winger

Former Rangers and Scotland winger Willie Johnston at his home in Fife. Picture: Jane Barlow

Former Rangers and Scotland winger Willie Johnston at his home in Fife. Picture: Jane Barlow

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Ex- Scotland winger recalls run-ins with Symon, the SFA and World Cup scandal

Young Matt Johnston thought he had a head start on his school-mates when the teacher announced the latest class project, learning about the lives of sportsmen. After all, which of them could call on a top footballer for a grandfather who’d scored in European finals and played in World Cups? “So he’s doing his research and he finds out this other stuff about me,” chuckles Grandpa Willie with his smoker’s rasp. “I’m telling him: ‘Matty, you can’t put that in your school book!’ We had to do a fair bit of editing.”

The other stuff. Twenty times sent off or was it 22? Virtually run out of Scotland because of his bad-boy rep – of England, too. Pitches up in the North American Soccer League where he drops his shorts to taunt Bruce Rioch after a penalty-shootout winner (fine: $2000) and in another game is ordered off at gunpoint. Then there’s Argentina and the little yellow pills, melting in his hand under the world’s fierce lenses.

William McClure Johnston is not in the business of bowdlerising his own mythology; regarding the school project he was simply protecting the innocent. Today in Kirkcaldy, sipping half pints in a beer garden close to the seafront, he will talk about the lot. He will have your correspondent in stitches with his impressions of Rangers’ authoritarian managers Scot Symon and Willie Waddell. These comic interludes are detail-packed – how lights outside the office would flash red for “Wait” and green for “Enter”, how Symon would always brush the fluff from your shoulder and straighten your tie – and they’re so funny that punters who stop to listen will fetch him more half pints. But this is a tale with its sadnesses too.

Bud, as he is known to all, has been asked a zillion times about his last game for Scotland – Peru in the 1978 World Cup – and the drugs, although I want to hear about the first of his 22 caps, against Poland in 1965. Scotland travel to Warsaw next week on Euro Championship business; 49 years ago the Poles came to Hampden to play a Scotland team desperate to be at England’s World Cup party.

“It was a surprise to be called up because I was 18 and just a laddie,” recalls Johnston. “I was in awe of guys like Alan Gilzean and especially Denis Law and thought I’d just been brought along for the experience but then Big Jock [Stein, then in temporary charge of the national side] told me I’d be playing. What a thrill!”

Scotland had already drawn in Warsaw and were unbeaten in their group. A fantastic crowd of 107,580 crammed onto the wood and ash slopes, including Johnston’s brothers Alan and Les, and future wife Margaret whom he’d recently met at the dancing. The customary pre-match fag was required to calm the nerves.

Our man did well, The Scotsman’s John Rafferty hailing a “speedy” and “exciting” performance on the left wing by the ex-pitboy from Cardenden. But although Scotland led at half-time through Billy McNeill, the game would be lost in the last six minutes. Rafferty reported “angry booing” at the end and extracted this quote from a watching Willie Ross, secretary of state for Scotland: “Thank goodness they can’t blame me for this result.”

Now 67, Johnston remembers a despondent dressing room. Scotland needed to beat Italy home and away to qualify and could only manage the first part. “Of all the World Cups to miss!” he says. Watching from home on TV, how did he greet England’s triumph? “Well, I didn’t want them to win it but when they did I thought: ‘Fair enough’. Years later me and Bally [Alan Ball] – a great guy – were at Vancouver Whitecaps together. I’d say to him: ‘But you played all your games at Wembley - if the World Cup had been in Scotland we’d have won it’. He’d disappear for a couple of minutes and come back: ‘Hey Willie, got one of these?’ I tell you, I was sick of the sight of that bloody medal.”

If you remember Johnston’s pure dead gallus style, mention of nerves might seem strange. But he has always been a different man away from the pitch: shy, quiet, happiest in Fife. He still lives behind the pub he used to run, the Port Brae, and these days drinks across the road in Brodie’s. Playing 393 games for Rangers and 261 for West Bromwich Albion, of course, he was rarely quiet.

Johnston was one of a great Scottish tanner-ba’ troika which ruled the flanks for a decade. Willie Henderson was first to prominence, then came Jimmy Johnstone. Johnston, who scored twice in Rangers’ Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph at the Nou Camp, was the youngest of them and the last of a kind. After that, in common with a few Scottish assembly lines in the 1970s, production was severely disrupted, eventually grinding to a halt.

“I didn’t actually want to be a winger,” he says. “I fancied myself as more of an old-fashioned inside-forward but because I was nippy I was put on the wing.” How nippy? What was his PB for the 100-yard dash? “I couldn’t have run 100. What a waste of time. Twenty or maybe 30. At training at Rangers I used to run in my pit boots to give the other guys a chance. Even over jumps I could aye beat them.” He even wore these clompers during the notorious sessions on the sand dunes at Gullane, East Lothian and is the first old Ranger I’ve met who claims to have actually enjoyed them. He laughs at the memory of Jock Wallace, barking orders. “Did you ever see that movie The Hill? Ian Bannen as the sadistic sergeant? That was Jock.

“Anyway, out on the wing, not getting the ball, I got bored so I’d chat to the crowd, wind up the opposition fans. I got called everything under the sun but I didn’t care. At a shy I’d throw the ball like this,” he says, standing to demonstrate, “and flick the vickys behind my back.”

Johnston hails from Fife where talking yourself up – in this case as a footballer who thought it his duty to entertain – has bylaw status as a breach of the peace, but entertain he did. How many times, when a bottle or can was hurled in his direction in the pre-Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act era, did he pick it up and take a swig? “Well,” he says, “I’m not long back from Vancouver where I was invited to officially open ‘Willie’s Corner’. In a Whitecaps game I scored direct from a corner and this punter handed me a beer. I drank that one but I was never too sure about the contents of the others that came my way.”

How many times did he sit on the ball? “The famous one was the 1970 League Cup final [Gers 1, Celtic 0]. I did it towards the end but honestly not to antagonise. Jim Craig was backing off me and also I was bloody knackered. I turned round to see Jinky [Jimmy Johnstone] turn purple, the veins in his neck throbbing.

“Later, Waddell wanted to see me. I’m thinking: ‘What did I do wrong? I just had a wee drink with Margaret to celebrate, that was all’. I waited for the green light. On the boss’s desk there was this mountain of letters. I didn’t think he was there until he popped up his head. ‘This is not flippin’ fanmail’, he said. I had to apologise to Celtic and was fined a week’s wages which he said he’d give me back if I was good for the rest of the season. I never saw that 60 quid again.”

Johnston had a few visits to that room. Indeed, League Cup triumphs over the Old Firm rivals were a running theme. It was the ’64 final under Symon – 2-1 to Rangers – which had announced him to the world and he was fair chuffed on learning the size of the win bonus: £500. But his envelope contained only £50. Jim Baxter, fellow Fifer, told him to march straight back upstairs. “I didn’t have Baxter’s balls, not then, so I was quaking when the light went green. ‘Er, Boss, I think you might have made a wee mistake’. Symon flicked my shoulders and sorted my tie. ‘Now, now, Billy, you’re a young boy, just starting out. Don’t be impressed by the money you see flying around downstairs – these are card-school losers settling their debts. Behave yourself and your time will come. And don’t listen to Baxter’!”

He was back in front of Symon the day after that Scotland debut. “I got a ticking off for having my arms folded during the national anthem.” After that he was in and out of the national team. The competition – from Charlie Cooke, Eddie Gray and John Hughes – was keen. But he thinks his first cap came too soon. There was an Auld Enemy game where he muffed a great chance, England winning 4-3. And then there was his poor disciplinary record. Johnston says he knows this cost him more caps, and can partly explain a seven-year gap between the ninth and the tenth, because when Willie Ormond recalled him in 1977 the manager took the player for a walk and warned: “You’re in my team because you’re the best winger in Britain. But lots of people aren’t happy I’ve brought you back – don’t let me down.”

Johnston isn’t proud of all those dismissals. Some were unfair, he insists, but many were deserved. Aberdeen’s John McMaster needed the kiss of life after Johnston stood on his neck. “I thought that was Willie Miller,” has been the standard response down the years, inviting ghoulish supporters’ club laughter, but he admits: “That was a bad one. I wished I hadn’t done it.” He must have been as familiar with the SFA’s old Glasgow HQ as he was with the beak’s office at Ibrox – did he have a Park Gardens suit for when punishments were meted out? “Well, Tommy, the boy on the door, got to know me very well. He’d go: ‘Milk and two sugars and a wee biscuit?’

“Retaliation was usually my downfall.” Did he never try counting to ten, or reciting his mother’s store number? “Eight-two-eight-four,” he says in a flash, and no man who can do that is all bad. The disciplinary committee wouldn’t allow him to produce photographic evidence of balloon-sized ankles and other injuries as evidence of provocation. Once after a £200 fine he lost the rag with the officials: “You’ll be going for lunch after this – that’s me just paid for the wine.”

All through his trials and tribulations, Margaret was by Johnston’s side. In the vortex of his Argentinian despair, she offered up the kind of quote cherished by the tabloids: “I love him and whatever happens I’ll stick by him.” But earlier this year Margaret died of lung cancer and Bud was devastated. “It was terrible. It was the same time Sandy [Jardine] was dying He was aye phoning me and I was aye phoning him. The last six months have been a blur. Margaret was my rock.”

Johnston’s family – son Dean, daughter Stephanie and five grandchildren – are all in Fife. His best pal, Colin Stein, has also been looking out for him. And he hasn’t been forgotten by West Brom either, having recently helped Baggies fan Frank Skinner reveal plans for a statue of the Albion’s “Three Degrees” – Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson.

A ten-week ban for a punch-up with Partick Thistle’s Alex Forsyth – “I used to call him Brucie; he hated it” – persuaded Johnston to move to England, fearing a subsequent punishment could be six months. He loved his time in the Midlands where Don Howe improved his game although this didn’t curb the banter with the terraces. When the match programme for the visit of Manchester United listed gardening as his favourite hobby, a fan shouted out the offer of a greenhouse, the rascally wingman knocking him down in price at every corner kick. WBA won 4-0 and Johnston got his greenhouse for forty quid.

He finessed new tricks in England such as squatting to trap a high ball with his bottom. “Viv Anderson [Nottingham Forest] hated me doing that – but not as much as Brian Clough.” After Ormond, Ally MacLeod kept him in the Scotland team and in the build-up to Argentina he was one of our key men. The summer before the tournament, in a Buenos Aires friendly against the host nation, he tormented Vicente Pernia. The right-back reacted with a volley of spit and a punch to Johnston’s kidneys and in the kerfuffle both were sent off – another injustice.

“Afterwards their guy [Leopoldo] Luque came looking for me. ‘John-ston’, he said, ‘you good player. But do not come back to Argentina’.” If this sounds like a line from a hoary old western, remember Luque’s desperado moustache and, of course, Bud’s bandy gait, as if he was continually searching for a lost horse. But he did return. Scotland lost to Peru and he failed the drugs test. An over-told saga, for sure, but Johnston maintains he didn’t try to cheat, didn’t know his pills for hay fever contained a banned substance and that he was “hung out to dry” by the SFA with the scandal deflecting from a lousy performance.

Don Masson missed a penalty that fateful night. “The pair of us roomed together. I remember saying to him: ‘If you’d scored and we’d won, imagine the reaction to the drugs. It would have been a hundred times worse’.” Masson found God after that – how did Johnston cope with the all the stress and blame? One last sandpapery laugh: “I went to the pub. You get great therapy there!”

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