David Johnston on pre-rugby days playing for Hearts

IT’S late afternoon at Myreside and there’s still such warmth in the spring sunshine as the junior XVs finish up practice.

On the walls of the oak-panelled clubhouse, there are collared strips in the thickest cotton and handsome mounted crests marking notable matches – and above the bar, a brass plaque in memory of an old boy who “enjoyed many days” at the home of Watsonians. This place couldn’t be more rugby if it tried and David Johnston, you might think, couldn’t be more rugby if he tried.

I’m lucky to catch him, which was what his opposite numbers at centre used to say about his will o’ the wispness. He’s about to head off on holiday but we could chat at “the club” prior to a business meeting he’s got arranged. Yes, it must seem very rugby to be working as a lawyer-turned-consultant after taking early retirement from a successful career in commercial property at a well-known Edinburgh legal firm and negotiating in smart jeans over early-evening drinks – but maybe you don’t know about, or had forgotten, Johnston’s early life as a footballer.

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Two years before the first of his 27 caps for Scotland with the oval ball in hand – and seven before the Grand Slam when he would dribble it along the turf and round two bamboozled England players for a sensational try – Johnston briefly did this for a living for Hearts. I’d been told he didn’t talk overmuch about his spell in football but he turns out to be nothing less than amenable. And with another code-switcher, ex-Celtic protégé Duncan Weir, making his Scotland debut against Wales today, it’s certainly a tale worth reviving.

Regarding football, private schools are more inclusive these days but back in the 1970s George Watson’s College didn’t put out teams. Johnston was perfectly happy playing rugby, and played well enough to captain the Scottish Schoolboys, but he was combining it with turns as a winger for Hutchison Vale and quickly caught eye of the scouts who crowded the touchlines at the famous Edinburgh juvenile club’s matches.

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“Hibs were my team,” says the 54-year-old. “My brother Stuart [also played rugby, sat on the bench for Scotland] and I loved Easter Road when Leeds and Liverpool came to play on those big European nights. I signed an S-form with Hibs but it bounced because Watson’s weren’t affiliated to the SFA. Jim McLean at Dundee Utd seemed keen on me after I scored a hat-trick in a trial but he wasn’t sure I’d settle there as few boys from Edinburgh and Glasgow did. Rangers wanted me too but – and this probably sounds funny now – Ibrox seemed a long way without a motorway or a train every 15 minutes. Then Willie Ormond took me to Tynecastle.”

Hearts had been relegated to the First Division for season ’77-’78. Johnston, aged 18, played in friendlies against East Fife and OFK Kikinda from the old Yugoslavia, then Ormond, who knew a thing or two about wing-play, handed him the No 11 shirt for the beginning of the drive back to the top-flight, at home to a Dundee side featuring both Gordon Strachan and Jimmy Johnstone.

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I was at that game and, notwithstanding such attention-grabbing opponents, Johnston made a bright start. He had to come off injured before the end and I remember the sympathetic applause from the home fans who must have thought they’d glimpsed a slither of highly promising new talent with a cool haircut. “Afterwards we were given a cup of tea and a pie and I got to chat to Jimmy, who was very nice. Out on the pitch I’d no idea what he was going to do but, because it was 1977 and not 1967 and I was young and fast, I usually got to the ball first.”

For Johnston, though, that was more or less it. The plan had been for him to combine football with his law degree. “I’d taken the advice of my mentor at Watson’s, Jimmy Cowan, who’d played football himself. He said I should try it, that I might regret not doing so, but that I shouldn’t give up my studies. At first I was full-time at Hearts, which I loved. But by the time I’d recovered from that injury I was part-time because uni had begun and I couldn’t quite get back into the team.

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“Fresher year at uni, there are a lot things which can cause you to lose focus – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. My local has always been the Ettrick Hotel but as regards drinking I was a pretty disciplined footballer. Some Hearts fans actually wrote to the manager complaining that they’d seen me drunk when I wasn’t. Law in the first year is tough and I was studying hard – certainly a lot harder than my future wife Michelle who failed her exams.” At the start of the following season Stirling Albion wanted to sign Johnston but a Highlands sevens tournament with Watsonians turned him back to rugby and a different maroon-white combo.

“It was a fantastic weekend with a bunch of mates, all of us amateur. I enjoyed playing football as much as rugby and wouldn’t say the camaraderie was better in rugby; just that when I went to being a part-time footballer I inevitably missed out on some. Maybe my background was different from a lot of the guys at Hearts but they made me feel welcome. Willie Ormond, although not in the best of health, was a lovely man. Drew Busby, Bobby Prentice and Jim Brown were great characters and Jim Jefferies was my shop steward.

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“Possibly if I’d stayed in football I’d have got bored with the working day only lasting two hours and the afternoon options being the three Bs – betting-shop, boozer, billiard-hall – although I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the money, especially being a student. I don’t remember what I was paid because it was heavily bonus-related but when Hearts got through a League Cup tie I received a four-figure sum just for being an unused substitute in the lost first-leg.” So what did he spend it on? “Cigarettes! Perhaps you’d better not print that. Say I gave it all to my mum and dad.”

Maybe his football career didn’t last long, but Johnston still sounds like he belongs in a boy’s comic. While Wilson of the Wizard is obviously tops for multi-sport heroics, our man’s mastery of two disciplines is still mightily impressive. “I’m very fortunate to have had the chance to do both,” he says. Johnston wasn’t a footballer for long enough to acquire a nickname but in rugby, because of his speed and those ciggies, he was known as “The Flying Ashtray”. Makes you wonder how fast he could have been if he’d kicked the habit earlier than he did.

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So: to rugby. Two-and-a-bit years after that joust with Jinky he was lining up against the All Blacks at Murrayfield. His Scotland record can read strangely, with notable seasons being followed by invisible ones. “Every other year I seemed to miss a campaign through injury or I was dropped. As a result I never played at Twickenham. In 1983, the last time Scotland won there, I was on the bench, which I’m glad to say was enough to let me squeeze onto last month’s 30th anniversary reunion trip. It was a great occasion and on the train journey back Jim Renwick and David Leslie, Jim’s straight-man, made us laugh so much there were tears streaming down my face. The jokes aren’t suitable for a family newspaper but they’d work on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” The following year, ’84, was the Slam and Johnston is already looking forward to the 30th birthday of that great triumph. “Then ’85 was a funny one as well. I’d just left uni and was struggling to cope with being a trainee solicitor and a working man when, first game for Watsonians after my honeymoon, I broke my leg.” A good year to avoid, though, with Scotland claiming the wooden spoon.

What does he remember of games against Wales? “The memories are more vivid for matches we played in Cardiff, for not surprising reasons. In 1980, my first Five Nations, I was rooming with Jim Burnett, quite a nervous chap and also my dentist, which might have been useful when I woke up on the morning of the game looking like a chipmunk with this huge abscess but of course he didn’t have his tools with him. We had to find a dentist in Chepstow where we were based. Jim Telfer, our coach, didn’t much like the Welsh, feeling they didn’t respect us, and he treated these trips like SAS missions: in, out, win, get back. All the way to Cardiff Arms Park [SRU doctor] Donald Macleod was checking my pulse. I played but we lost.” In ’82, though, Scotland would triumph in the Principality for the first time in 20 years, scoring five tries including perhaps our most thrilling, ever. As Johnston says: “Jim Calder’s score is Scotland’s version of the Barbarians’ try against the All Blacks that we’ve all been remembering on its 40th anniversary.”

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Johnston felt a lot more ready for this encounter. His hamstrings were always “notoriously fickle” but he’d been able to skip Friday training because of a law exam. “Then at 8 o’clock on the Saturday morning we all got a rap on the door from Jim: ‘Be on the 18th fairway in 15 minutes.’” Johnston didn’t always see eye to eye with Telfer, and this became more obvious later when he became a coach himself, then an acerbic columnist for this paper. In ’96 Scotland out-Frenched France 19-14 for a famously swashbuckling victory. For Johnston and fellow coach Richie Dixon, this was “total rugby”; a harrumphing Telfer called the game a “circus”. But back in his playing days, a different era, he acknowledges that Sgt Maj Telfer had his way of doing things, and it mostly worked.

“Jim couldn’t really relate to backs. When the dressing-room got too mental I’d nip into the showers for a fag.” Johnston starts to describe his own routine for getting “up” for games, which involved loud bursts of Meat Loaf’s Paradise By the Dashboard Light and the Police’s Every Breath You Take, but then he stops. “That belittles what Jim did because he was inspiring. It was commando stuff, and to an extent the Presbyterian work ethic gone mad, but it made us fitter than anyone else, better than them. The most pleased I ever saw Jim wasn’t after the Grand Slam clincher against France in ’84, but the previous game in Ireland which won us the Triple Crown for the first time in 70 years. In ’82 in Cardiff I think he said: ‘Really well done.’”

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That early morning training-session on the golf course was for the benefit of new cap Jim Pollock. “None of us had met him before so we had to teach him some vague moves. ‘Lucky Jim’ ended up scoring one try and could have got three.” Johnston got one, too, a try of “devastating simplicity” according to The Scotsman, with Chris Rae in his match report also praising the player’s “astounding” defensive display. Johnston adds: “Ray Gravell, a good friend sadly no longer around, and the rest of the Welsh guys tried to bludgeon us. We were pretty lightweight; I was only ten and a half stones. But they couldn’t do it and that really scunnered them. After how magnificent Wales had been in the recent past, conceding five tries at home was a big knock.”

He cheerfully accepts his contribution to the 34-18 score being overshadowed by a try that’s attained near-mythical status: Roger Baird’s touchline quickstep, Iain Paxton’s thunder charge, Alan Tomes’ lusty support, Calder’s lunge for the line – the exuberant celebration. Against Wales for Johnston there would be other dramas: the Slam year win, the Paul Thorburn 60-yard penalty in ’86 which ruined what could have been another Slam; a player pay dispute while coach at the start of the pro-era; the ball bouncing oh so kindly for Arwell Thomas – “a lucky little bugger even smaller than me!” But ’82 was the game, the performance, which inspired a strange kind of delirium. “We heard about folk in Scotland jumping into their cars to race down to Cardiff to be part of a fantastic night. For us, it continued after the Angel Hotel in many bars. I remember hailing a taxi to find it being driven by a fellow Watsonian who’d acquired it goodness knows how!”

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Johnston loved his rugby – and his football. “The common theme was I was quick.” He has three children, Matthew, Danielle and Dominic, and while he’s been pleased they’ve committed to their studies like him, he and Michelle have also enjoyed cheering on their sporting endeavours, Danielle at national-level hockey and Dominic as Watsonians’ top try-scorer in his final two years at the alma mater.

“I can still beat all three of them over five yards,” he laughs, and surely Wilson of the Wizard would acknowledge that Johnston of the Watson’s deserves a run-on part in his cartoon-strip.