Remember wee saint Johnstone
I HAVE a sore heart, a heavy heart. If only it was because of the pacemaker I had fitted this week. Jimmy Johnstone was my dearest friend for 40 years; a man whom I loved and loved to laugh with throughout my whole adult life. My memories of him will be as the little jack-in-the-box chatterbox, cracking the one liners, hee-hawing uncontrollably as he would say: "I've got another one for you, wee man." Not as victim, however brave, of the motor neurone disease that confined him to a chair.
That wasn't the Jimmy my mind will throw up often. Strangely to outsiders perhaps, for me the warm, funny wee man away from the football park, who could light up any room, transcended the truly phenomenal player who dazzled on it. His spirit and sense of humour were unquenchable, as strong as ever when I saw him for the final time last week on a trip to his home with Stevie Chalmers. I always liked to get a few new jokes for him and, after rattling through a couple, happened to say in passing that I was getting a pacemaker fitted. As quick as a flash, his eyes darted to Stevie, and he said: "Does that mean we have to call you Gerry now?" I'll treasure that wee moment.
But there were just so many moments to treasure, moments that still send me into kinks when I think about all our times together. I was a year older than him but we both signed for Celtic under Jimmy McGrory at the turn of the 1960s. I actually recall the very first time I clapped eyes on him. It was a foul night and so we were doing our schoolboy training inside the old main stand, running up and down the concourse directly below the lower seating bank. Because I was from Ayrshire, I had never played with any of the Glasgow boys so didn't recognise this lad who came along about five minutes after we had started. He just seemed like a wee boy and as we did our sprints I couldn't understand what he was doing there. When we were able to train on the grass the next week, by God I knew then exactly what he was doing at Celtic Park. What he could do with the ball defied belief.
It seems strange to think that in the early days we would sit in the dressing room - Jimmy, me, Bobby Murdoch, Willie O'Neill - and just nod to each other, be quite reserved. It is amazing that this same crew, along with the rest of the Lisbon Lions, would go on to have such uproariously, riotous times as a gang. Jimmy and I became each other's shadows, we did everything together. And really all because of a shared love of a sing-song.
We were the back seat boys on the bus on away trips and would strike up the Beatles hits of the day and the Elvis classics. The other players gravitated towards us because Jimmy was such a great chanter and a great comic. What a voice he had, and what an ability to learn all the words of songs only the day after hearing them on the radio. He had some great turns and, later on, I remember he did a brilliant Maggie Mae, pulling out his braces like Rod and really giving it laldy.
Our friendship grew from those wisecracking sing songs. We always roomed together and were always to be found together whenever we in an around the club. In fact, by the summer of 1965, when we had both earned dressing room pegs in the first XI, we preferred to change round the corner on Nos.17 and 18 just so that we remain side by side.
Throughout the next decade that is how it remained. It was great to get to know him and hear him tell how he would practise for hours in miner's boots to build up his strength and spring, and weave in and out of milk bottles in his front room to hone his dribbling ability. It was typical Jimmy that what he used to say about that was how nice the wee wummin was directly below him because she never complained about the noise, regardless of how long he danced around.
Boy could he dance on a football field. I find it difficult to pick out great games because he produced so many wonderful afternoons and evenings for Celtic. He was some valve for us. I don't know how many times he would allow the whole side to regroup if we were under pressure by taking the ball for a walk, beating four men and winning a shy deep in our opponents' half. You have no idea how valuable that was in allowing the midfield to push on and the back four to file back into their positions.
He loved it too when we would go two or three up at home and he was able to zip down the Jungle side at home and give them his full trick box, right down to waggling his bum and taking the ball full circle. An incredible athlete who maximised his talent by working damn hard on it, the punishment he took time and again without ever being fearful of coming back for more contributed to him leaving Celtic as young as 30. I have no interest in giving any thought to other considerations and I tell you, if he played in the modern day, when the tackle has been virtually outlawed, he would have been all but unstoppable and had another five years at the top. For though we watched him and played with him for 15 years, even in his final Celtic training sessions he could still drop that shoulder and go past us as if we weren't there.
He was something else in that, understandably, he always talked about Red Star Belgrade game, in a famous match against Dundee United and, of course, Di Stefano's testimonial in 1967. I used to wind him up mercilessly about that one saying: "You might have been mesmerising but don't forget we only beat Real Madrid 1-0 because of a goal from a certain B Lennox." That had him beelin', even though he could point to the guard of honour he was given in the Bernabeau that evening. Bizarrely, he never had the honour of walking off with a matchball after a hat-trick. Indeed, he never quite forgave me for what he saw as denying him one. After he scored twice in a game against St Johnstone in October 1966, in his search for a third he took a blood-drawing crack on the shins from one defender, and had studs raked down his legs by another before being sent sprawling by a scything tackle just after he rounded the goalkeeper and sent the ball towards an empty net. But it wasn't going to get there and I had no option but to tap it in. We were away to Basle in the European Cup days later and for that whole trip he wouldn't let go about how I'd denied my blood-soaked "freend" a first hat-trick. Over the years in fact, the cuts and gashes he was supposed to have sustained on that run made it sound as if he had been in the Battle of the Somme.
A true working class hero who'll never be forgotten
THAT'S the thing about Jimmy Johnstone. This week there have been so many glowing obituaries, so many lyrical eulogies, but it's not enough. The fact is there is no praise too high for Jimmy Johnstone, no tribute too good.
A working class hero, an entertainer and the man who shaped my views on the way the game should be played, he was world famous at a time when there was not the same hullaballoo about footballers. He was famous the world over, not for being famous or because of his looks or the premieres or parties he attended - he was world renowned for what he did on the park.
In this day and age, there are too many players who are ordinary on the pitch, superstars off it. It was the other way round with Jimmy. A superstar on it, off it he remained an ordinary man.
I was a young man on Celtic's books when he returned in the late 70s. He was training at the club and tried his hand at coaching. I have forgotten hundreds of training sessions I have participated in throughout my career, but I remember every minute of the two coaching sessions I shared with him. And they were nearly 30 years ago!
There was such a charisma about him. Even at that time, at a club like Celtic, who had a crop of star players, a buzz still went around the place whenever he walked into the ground.
Even his own Lisbon Lions team-mates considered him a star in their midst. They knew what he could do with the ball, how even when he was kicked he would get back up. I saw all that, watching as a fan. My dad used to take me to the games and I would marvel at the wee man. You can imagine how I felt when he joined us at training.
I have never been a shrinking violet. I'm not the kind of guy who gets awestruck and I don't have real heroes. Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to meet world-class players, play with them and coach them. Hand on heart, the only one I have asked to have my photograph taken with was Paulo Maldini. I might have treasured one with Jimmy but I couldn't have asked him.
I remember him turning up and seeing at close quarters what he could do with the ball. I know it's a cliche, but I swear it was tied to his shoelaces.
While countless football fans around the world would love to have shared a pitch with him, let me tell you, as a player it was pretty daunting. Especially as a young defender, up against a guy who may have been at the wrong end of his career and a few yards shy on pace, having seen the energy sapped from his legs. But I can assure you, he had lost none of the skill.
In those days, his good friend Bobby Lennox was still in the first-team squad and Jimmy would have been too if it wasn't for the fact that he didn't have the same energy in those legs.
In those days, the ball was heavier and the pitches were heavier, and with his socks down at his ankles, those legs of his had taken one helluva battering over the years. Studs were raked down his shins and his calves were clobbered, but he just got back up and, if the opposition could get close enough, he got clobbered again. Like a boxer who had taken too many punches, that's got to have weakened him. His muscles must have been aching and if he hadn't been so brave, hadn't soaked up such heavy treatment, his career wouldn't have been curtailed quite so early. But those qualities were trademark Jimmy Johnstone and he wouldn't have had it any other way.
People talk about the skill, and rightly so. But while that attacking, entertaining style shaped my football philosophies, so too did his attitude and honesty on the pitch. He would ride tackles and the times he didn't he would simply get back on with the game. There was no rolling about like he had been shot, and if a wee guy like Jimmy can live with the kind of brutal treatment he was sometimes subjected to on the pitch then there is no reason for the amateur dramatics players get involved in today.
Myself and all the other young boys at Celtic were gobsmacked when he joined in those training sessions. Not just because of the pirouette turns and all the other usual tricks he seemed to find so effortless, but simply because he had the ability to make people feel special in his company. He had an impish grin and the charisma of a great man, but he still just looked and acted like someone's dad! I think, even at that age, we all knew how lucky we were to be sharing even a training pitch with him, even if he did sometimes make it seem like the rest of us were playing with lead boots on.
I met him a few times after that and he was always complimentary and always remembered me. He might have just been being nice, but he would ask after my career and say he wished I could have stayed on at Celtic, and then when I went into management, he told me he loved the way my teams played. That meant a lot.
The fact is we both believed that football is an entertainment. We both know what it was like to come from working class backgrounds and escape into a game of football and realised how football could lift spirits and put a smile on the face.
People always remember great entertainers. That's why people like Maradona, Cruyff and Ronaldinho are voted the world's best players. It's also why Jimmy will never be forgotten. Those with first-hand recollections may dwindle, but he won't be forgotten.
The really great thing about Jimmy was that he had come to realise how much he was idolised. He knew what the fans thought of him but, as far as I'm aware, he never played on that or used it to his advantage. He was honoured and touched.
That was the true mark of the man.
Star shone on a magic stage
WHEN Scottish poet and lifelong controversialist Hugh MacDiarmid died, his friend and equally wonderful poet Norman MacCaig suggested that he should be remembered not by a minute's silence, but by national observance of two minutes of pandemonium.
Today at Hampden Park and at Tynecastle, a minute's applause will ring out in honour of Jimmy Johnstone. Yesterday at other stadiums and along the route of the cortege on Friday, much applause and singing was already in evidence.
But if the clapping and cheering had lasted for days, and choirs and brass bands and 40-gun salutes had been involved, if pandemonium had reigned, it would have been insufficient cacophony to acclaim the genuine magic of Jinky Johnstone.
Since his death was announced on Monday, pundits and fans have struggled to find words to pay tribute. As always, some of those who do not share a love of the beautiful game have questioned the massive outpouring of grief. They look at the instant shrine outside Celtic Park and are mystified at another display of what they consider maudlin sentiment at the death of a mere footballer.
One pathetic pipsqueak of an arts correspondent on an English broadsheet wrote that he had never heard of Johnstone, and questioned why his death received headline treatment on the national news while there had been nary a mention of the demise of soprano Birgitt Nilsson. Fine singer that she was, I expect that Ms Nilsson did not play to 120,000 people who were roaring in appreciation at supreme artistry.
For that is what Johnstone was - the Michelangelo of the dribble. He was of that last generation of shipbuilders and miners who were artisans on weekdays but artists on a Saturday, expressing their creative spirit on a football field.
He was not the best all-round player of Celtic's modern era (Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson could lay better claims), but the Parkhead support were right to vote him the greatest-ever Celtic player, for he embodied the qualities the club aspired to - indomitable courage, attacking flair, skill and hard work combined with a never-say-die attitude.
Trying to explain Jinky's appeal to the uninitiated is like attempting to say why we Scots revere the most creative and characterful footballers - the Baxters, the Coopers, the Johnstones. We don't question why - we just do.
At times like these, age has some benefits. I do not need videotape to recall his magic - I saw Johnstone in his prime.
In the late 1960s I would implore my father and grandfather to take me to Parkhead so that I could watch the greatest club side Scotland has produced in their mighty pomp. My grandfather was not a poor man but he would insist on lifting me over the turnstiles to avoid paying the full whack - the wean could always sit on his dad's knee if there were no spare seats.
Jinky was always the one we waited for, the one player guaranteed to make you concentrate on the match, because like his opponents and team-mates, you never knew what he would do next. Many times from about the age of seven I would watch mesmerised as he performed his wonders. It was only ever at Parkhead, because my first away game was against Dundee United at Tannadice in season 1966-67, and as it was the only league match Celtic lost outside Glasgow that season, I was termed a Jonah, and not taken elsewhere.
My first European match was Red Star Belgrade in 1968 - the game in which he ensured that Celtic won by four goals, so that he would not have to fly out for the return. It remains the greatest single individual footballing performance I have seen in the flesh. And I was only nine.
Memories are like Polaroids left in bright light. Recollections merge, so that I seem now mostly to remember the sensation of Jinky on the wing, laughing with the fans in the Jungle as he turned away from destroying another defender.
I do remember vividly one astonishing incident: Celtic were cruising to victory over Aberdeen. As they often did in those circumstances, the other players gave the ball to Jinky to while away the remaining minutes in his inimitable fashion.
That day he got the ball out on the wing, then turned and ran 15 yards laterally straight across the pitch, inviting the men in red to catch him. He then did one of his famous 180-degree turns and ran straight back to where he had started. And then he repeated the process, and did it again, until eventually four Aberdeen defenders got the ball from him. I did not dream this astonishing feat, because the then Aberdeen manager Eddie Turnbull remembered it when I asked him last week. "An exceptional talent, so sad to lose him so young," was 82-year-old Eddie's verdict.
When I was 13 or 14, our English teacher gave the class an exercise in which we had to imagine ourselves transported into the body of a famous person. Despite being already inches taller and stones heavier, I chose Jimmy Johnstone. Some 30 years later I interviewed Jinky at his comfortable home in Uddingston. And found the man trapped inside the body of a motor neurone disease victim.
He told me how the pitch was his stage, that he saw himself as an entertainer first and foremost: "I wanted the ball all the time, to show what I could do."
I was shattered to see how the disease had extended its deathly grip. Yet ten seconds in his company, and I was reduced to tears of laughter. And many of his family and friends recalled on Friday how they would go to cheer him up, and end up being cheered themselves.
During that interview in December 2002, Jimmy told me that he was no saint, that he had been "in a deep dark place" due largely to his battle with alcohol. He also told me - and asked me not to reveal it at that time - of his doubts about his Catholic faith.
A daily attender at mass, he was not doubting the central message of his faith, but was angered at the Church's opposition to stem-cell research using cloned cells or cells taken from embryos: "I just can't see why the living should suffer when there's a chance for a cure. It's a mystery why anyone would want to hold back science."
A year later in this newspaper he made his views public: "I am a Christian, a Roman Catholic who believes in the Ten Commandments. However, I also believe that the Man upstairs put scientists here for a reason, and if we can find a positive use for these cells, then it will be because He wants that to happen."
At Friday's quietly-impressive requiem mass, Bishop Joseph Devine revealed that only Jinky's fear of flying prevented him attending an audience with Pope John Paul II. Would Jinky have told the former goalkeeper to change his view on stem-cell research? Would the man who battled Racing Club's and Atletico Madrid's thugs have backed down from anything?
That's why there should be no statue to Jimmy. Instead, the proper tribute should be for everybody who loved him to contribute to, and campaign for, more research into motor neurone disease.
Apart from his acclamation as the greatest Celt, Jimmy received another award some time before he died. He was named as one of the first 50 individuals in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, and I am not ashamed to admit that as a member of the inaugural judging panel, I fixed it for Jim - I twisted the arms of my fellow judges, metaphorically speaking. If I achieve nothing else in journalism, I am happy to have accomplished that.
As I sat in my car outside Celtic Park on Friday and watched the astonishing scenes of celebration of an extraordinary life, all sorts of memories came flooding back, mostly to do with family and friends no longer with us, and principally of my father, who took me to see Jinky so many times, and who loved the wee man to bits. He, too, died before his time of a dreadful disease - bowel cancer.
It wasn't raining outside, but suddenly the windscreen seemed misty. I don't doubt that many people these past few days have wept in sad reflection on happy days spent so long ago, or at the realisation that Jinky's generation is going, and ours is next. And you rail against the injustice of it all, that good guys don't get longer lives, and as Jinky told me: "It's very hard not to call God names at times." But he didn't, and neither should we.
The stage Jinky graced is emptier now, the lights are dimmer. Exit the hero, leaving his audience bereft yet filled with wonder at the marvel that was Jimmy Johnstone.
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