Willie Johnston: “I’ll always be remembered for being sent home from Argentina’

Willie Johnston, pictured shortly after failing his drugs test in Argentina. Picture: SNS.
Willie Johnston, pictured shortly after failing his drugs test in Argentina. Picture: SNS.
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It has become some sort of word-association torment that has afflicted Willie Johnston for 40 years. He knows it will for the rest of his days.

If the 71-year-old meets any stranger, suddenly his life and football career – that spanned two decades, seven clubs, seven major honours including a Cup Winners Cup triumph in 1972 when he became the only Scot to score twice in a European final and 22 caps – is boiled down to one word: Peru.

One word that whips up the swirl of regret, remorse and rancour in Johnston’s mind over an incident that has earned him a special place all of his own in Scottish football’s hall of infamy.

Taking two tablets of Reactivan, an over-the-counter treatment for hay fever, that contained the banned stimulant Fencamfamin, placed him there.

The substance resulted in him testing positive after providing a urine sample following Scotland’s 3-1 drubbing by Peru in the opening game of the World Cup finals in Argentina in 1978. It was a drug test that the skilful, short-fused – with 18 career red-cards – speedster blithely only took because Archie Gemmill, selected to do so, was too dehydrated.

The failed test led to him being sent home in disgrace, hung out to dry by the SFA, and never allowed to forget his error. That is never more true that this week, as Alex Mcleish’s Scotland side are in Peru to play the home nation in a 40th anniversary celebration of their victory four decades ago before they head to their first World Cup finals in 36 years.

“When I hear the name Peru my thought is: I shouldn’t have taken two tablets,” he said. “If I’d known what was in them I’d never have taken them. We should’ve beaten them. If we’d beaten them do you think I’d have got sent home? They got hammered 6-0 by Argentina [in the second round] .

“It still affects me. When Scotland are playing, it gets brought up. I’ll be remembered forever as the guy who was sent home from Argentina, not as the only Scot to score two goals in a European final. That doesn’t count. If Kenny [Dalglish] hadn’t swapped samples......!”

Johnston is joking about Dalglish, of course. And he thought he was in some black sitcom when he went for “a couple of beers” with Tom Forsyth following his test and soon found himself a figure making the news across the entire globe.

His bitterness towards the SFA for how the incident was handled has never subsided, but he hasn’t exactly grasped any olive branches.

“The newscaster Trevor McDonald burst into the room and said ‘you’ve failed the drugs test’ and in that moment everything changed,” Johnson said.

“I was shattered. I’d no inkling at all. I went in, did the test – me and Kenny – and didn’t think any more about it. I went back to the hotel and was told to pack my bags.

“When I got up the next morning I couldn’t get out the hotel for press in the complex. I asked to appeal but no-one was interested in letting me. I was viewed at that time as the bad boy of Scottish football. I just got bundled into the car and sent home. Maybe I was sacrificed. I should never have played. I’d hay fever and I had a cold. If I hadn’t played you’d never have heard anything about it. But I wanted to play so I took the anti-histamines.

“I’d like to see my name cleared, even 40 years on. The SFA have asked me to go to certain things but I tell them I’m on holiday. I’ve always said I wasn’t available. It was Ernie [Walker, the SFA secretary], pictured, that made the decision I should be sent home.

“I wrote a book and got pulled up in front of the SFA. I was at Hearts at the time. I got sent up to Park Gardens. Sandy Jardine said, ‘Bud I’m going with you’, but I said ‘I’ll get a £250 fine and a slap on the wrist’. I walked in and there must’ve been ten to 12 people around this table and Ernie was at the top of it. I sat down and this boy stood up. I don’t even know who he was. But he said, ‘You are a disgrace to football’. I can’t tell you what happened after that. But I got a fine because I’d mentioned a player in this book.

“I’d like the SFA to say, ‘we’re sorry about how we handled it’. I’d maybe be able to go to a game. For me, it’s past now. I had all the s**t, it was terrible. It was worse for my family and worse when I was in England at West Brom. The English press loved it, they slaughtered me. When I played away from home it was terrible. In the grounds it was bad, calling me a junkie. I didn’t mind getting it at Celtic Park – I’d conduct them! But getting it from the English was worse.”