With only two words Celtic luminary John Clark can produce the ultimate tribute to the late, great Jimmy Johnstone, his friend and Lisbon Lions team-mate. “Our Messi”, he calls the man accorded the accolade of the club’s foremost player, and who is the subject of a new documentary that will be screened on BBC Alba this Friday at 9.30pm.
Barcelona’s Argentinian icon Lionel Messi is considered without equal in the history of the game. The 75-year-old Clark is a man who offers careful consideration and avoids exaggeration. Yet, he does not blanch at bracketing Johnstone and Messi – two small but wiry men capable of extraordinary sorcery with the ball at their feet.
“You look at Messi just now in the modern game, Maradona even, then Jimmy was the same,” Clark said. “His ability and skill, it was just incredible. I know it’s maybe a bit of a statement [to say he was Celtic’s Messi] but, with a ball at his feet, Jinky wouldn’t be second to anyone.
“If wee Jimmy was playing just now I don’t think any coach would be able to change the way he played, his unique style. He just had it. His skill alone was unbelievable. He was one of those boys, if he beat you he’d want to do it again and again. Jimmy’s control of the ball was exceptional. If he was playing now he’d be a superstar. It was a different era, of course. But you can’t change the skill of a person, can you? If he’s got the ability and the skill, it will always be there.”
That different era of the 1960s and 1970s would see Johnstone targeted for bodily assault on a football pitch that Messi has no fear of being subjected to in the modern era. Clark marvels at how Jinky stood up to that. He did not do so as a mere victim, though. His flaky temperament was one of the flaws of a fun-loving but fragile and complex character, who had profound issues with alcohol in his life that was claimed by motor neuron disease that he developed five years before his death in 2006.
Johnstone was sent off five times in his career. By rights, he should have been responsible for about 500 bamboozled opponents being sent off for the treatment they meted out to him. “There was one game when Jinky’s head is down and his opponent brought his knee up and just smashed him in the face,” Clark said. “Those were the things that came to him. But he was strong. He was determined enough and wouldn’t shy away from going back again. Some players would maybe stay their distance after that. Jinky would come back for more, take you on and punish you. He was the strongest wee guy I knew. I saw him knock out three players in his career, floored them. Maybe his temper went for that second or two but he did them. So he could handle himself.”
Johnstone didn’t always handle the everyday well, with Clark remembering how it was “always” a 20-minute wait for him in the mornings when the pair would drive to training together. “You walked in some mornings and his shoes were there, his trousers were over there. You were shouting on him and he was telling us he was ready to go.”
He wasn’t ready to go when Jock Stein, who devoted so much affection, time and energy to preventing Johnstone’s peccadillos from overwhelming him, freed him at 29. That “hurt” him, says Clark, the decision taken for non-footballing reasons that the former centre-back has no desire to pick over.
“Jinky was a great guy to have in your corner. He lit up a room. He had such a big personality.”