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We’ve Got Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Johnstone On The Wing, On The Wing…

by Alan Walls

 

 

There I’m sat, in the dining room of our New York hotel, half unwrapped presents vying for space on the table with greeting cards, plates of oddball American breakfast dishes, bottles of bubbly, a can of Strongbow, balloons and God-knows-what else. It’s breakfast time on the day of my 40th birthday, the people dearest to me are to my left, my right and in front of me, and through the lethal fug of hangover and jet lag, I can see they are beaming, chuffed to bits for me. It’s great! I’ve got a digital camera, a watch, a fistfull of dollars, a special Celtic top with my name embroidered on it…but I’m staring in disbelief at a cheapo birthday card, one of those 49p jobs you only find in the local newsagents. The card is addressed to me personally, it is handwritten and it is from Jimmy Johnstone. With it, is a copy of one of a range of iconic photographs of Jimmy, taken in the late 60’s, also with a personal message to me from Jimmy. The card and photo are the last straw; tears are trickling down my cheeks.

 

On March 17th, the trickle became a stream. Jimmy Johnstone was buried that day.

 

James Connolly ‘Jinky’ Johnstone was born in 1944, in Viewpark, an anonymous, one-horse former mining village, 6 miles from Glasgow . A fabulously gifted schoolboy player with an array of medals to his name, Jimmy joined what Celtic ambitiously claimed to be a ‘Youth Set-Up’, aged 9. An exceptionally slender wee boy, even for those austere times, he was a great hit at Celtic, but such was his love for simply playing the game that he left the club to play for his local boy’s guild team for, as a Celtic youth player, he was required to be on duty at Celtic Park as a ball boy on Saturday afternoons, which meant he couldn’t be playing in a game, any game! In a perfect vignette of the amateurish nature which pervaded Celtic at that time, it took an approach from a Manchester United scout, following a trip to Old Trafford by Jimmy’s boy’s guild team to play the Man U kids, to prompt Celtic into getting their finger out and sign the prodigy who had always dreamed of playing for the club.

 

Jimmy made his professional debut for Celtic in March 1963. As he trotted out the tunnel, looking for all the world like the team mascot, his 5’ 4” frame dwarfed by the famous hooped jersey and with a shock of red, curly hair on top, guffaws could be heard from The Jungle. Before long, as legend has it, this wee man was tearing down the right wing, turning defenders inside out; beating his man once, twice, then going back to take him on yet again, if there was no team mate available to receive a pass, or just for the hell of it. This was not so much a debut as a statement of intent, a demonstration of a new take on the noble art of dribbling, one which would delight fans as much as it would bewilder opponents. This style – ducking, feinting, turning, twisting; with speed and unfathomable intricacy– would earn Jimmy the ‘Jinky’ sobriquet; a word made up on the terraces and which has no meaning, as such, but one which just sounded right.

 

Like many of his peers who would later achieve greatness, Jimmy was stifled by the moribund environment which prevailed at Celtic in the early 60’s. It took the arrival of former player, Jock Stein, who had made a dynamic start to his managerial career at Dunfermline, then Hibernian, to shake the club out of it’s lethargy, and to harness Jimmy’s skills and temperament as best as anyone could ever hope to do. Stein’s Celtic achieved an unprecedented degree of success, which continues to defy logic to this day, and while Stein’s 11’s were genuine teams, Jimmy - with Billy McNeill and Bobby Lennox - were almost indispensable during the club’s golden era of ’65 – ’74.Two European Cup Finals, two further Semi Finals and two further Quarter Finals; nine domestic League Championships, six Scottish Cup wins and six Scottish League Cup wins: the most successful and revered club side Scotland has ever and will ever produce in The Lisbon Lions; followed by, arguably, the most impressive second wave of players the country will ever know, in The Quality Street Kids of Dalglish, McGrain, Hay, Macari, Connelly, Davidson and Deans. It speaks volumes of Jimmy’s ability that he remained such a vital player during this era.

 

The end of Jimmy’s Celtic career was as inevitable as it was heartbreaking. He was a tempestuous character, the proverbial ‘firey red head’. He was quick tempered, had a problem with authority and he ‘took a drink’, as the West of Scotland euphemism knowingly puts it. His relationship with Stein was akin to that of mischievous, cheeky wee rascal Nephew and benevolent-but-hard-as-nails Uncle, and was peppered with incidents, rows, walk-outs, cajoling, make-ups, flare-ups, threats, high praise, abuse…Jock knew the importance of Jimmy to the team, but even he – master motivator and psychologist that he was; the man who was a wily old fox when Guy Roux was but a cub – had his breaking point. In 1975, Jimmy was released from Celtic.

 

As Jimmy would later recall, he attended what he assumed would be a routine dressing down following yet another bevvy-related infraction, but was unable to take in Stein’s words on being told he was “being let go”. Celtic was his life, he had been at the club for some 15 years, man and boy, and still lived only 6 miles away in Viewpark. His world was not so much shaken as battered senseless. Inevitably, Jimmy’s career took a downward spiral, spells with Dundee, Sheffield United, San Jose Earthquakes, Shelbourne and Elgin City signalling an ignominious end to that which was so dynamic in it’s prime. In his own words, Jimmy entered “a dark time”, drifting between informal coaching positions and labouring jobs, and descending into alcoholism. One incident which sums up the desperation of this period sees Jimmy, digging a ditch for the gas board outside The Port Brae pub in Kirkcaldy: Jimmy sneaks away from the job and to the pub, gagging for a pint, only to be met by former Rangers player, Willie Johnston. The irony could scarcely be greater: Willie ‘Bud’ Johnston was no stranger to controversy himself – he was sent home in disgrace from the World Cup Finals in ’78 for failing a drug test, and he was another who famously ‘took a drink’ - yet here he was, the well-to-do landlord, while Jimmy was the pisshead, knocking on the door, desperate for a drink. Life continued in this vein until Jimmy turned up the office of former Celtic director and very rich business man, Willie Haughey. Jimmy was trying to punt his collection of medals, ostensibly to raise money to pay bills but, in reality, to fund his drinking. That meeting was the start of a long process in which Haughey managed to convince Jimmy of his own sense of worth, to confront the damage his drinking was doing to him and his family, and for the need to get his act together.

 

If there is a God, and Jimmy devoutly believed so, His ways are indeed a mystery to behold. Sober, fit and back at his beloved Celtic Park, albeit as a match day meeter and greeter; having eventually become the husband, father and grandfather which his faithful family deserved, Jimmy contracted Motor Neurone Disease in 2001. However, far from wallowing in self pity, Jimmy took the news with all the courage and heart he used when he faced the savage bastards of Racing Club Buenos Aries in ‘67 and Athletico Madrid in ‘74. Jimmy refused to accept the finality of his condition, he became a tireless campaigner to raise the profile of the Motor Neurone Disease Foundation and it’s support of pioneering stem cell research work and controversial new drugs. In a final cruel twist, Jimmy had only just learned that the health authorities had reversed their decision of the previous week and agreed he could be prescribed the drug Copaxone, which had enjoyed limited success during trials in America . He died the day his course of treatment was due to start.

 

In the week ahead and beyond, the extent Jimmy’s death was mourned and his life celebrated was immense in it’s depth, and panoramic in it’s range. This man was loved, as much for his flaws as a human being as for his skills on the football pitch. Jimmy was ashamed of the grief his alcohol addiction caused his family and he was ashamed that the drink prematurely curtailed his Celtic career which, in turn, suffocated his desire to play football. He felt he had let Celtic supporters down, and remained deeply humble when the worldwide diaspora of Celtic supporters voted him the Greatest Ever Celt, in 2002. He was never a Big Time Charlie – had Celtic not released him, he would never have strayed from Viewpark. He would have went about with the same pals he was at school with, and drank in the same pubs as he always did (including the Miner’s Welfare institute my Dad-In-Law frequents of a Sunday, hence my birthday card and photo), and remained the same, down to earth local boy. Therein lay the special attraction of Jimmy to the tens of thousands who lined the streets of Viewpark and who congregated at Celtic Park, as the funeral cortege made it’s roundabout route to the cemetery: he wasn’t just a player with a rare and special talent, he was an ordinary man who never forgot his roots and who had the same failings as us, he was a daft as the rest of us, and he loved Celtic like the rest of us. He was one of us.

 

It’s a given that even the merest mention of Jimmy must include at least one extract from The Roll Call Of Jinky Anecdotes – the time honoured account of the man’s high jinks on and off he pitch – and this obituary shall  be no exception. So, which one do you want to hear: the one about Jinky turning up, pished, at his team mate’s hotel room in the wee small hours with three Harlem Globetrotters in tow? Or the one where he bemoans Jock Stein’s use of a network of informants who would report back whenever Jinky was spotted in a boozer: “He’s even got spies in the noggin” he tells a journo, who fears Jinky has lost the plot, when in fact The Noggin was a pub he thought was off Jock’s radar…or maybe you’re waiting on the most infamous of them all,’ The Largs Rowing Boat Story’? Aye, aye, ok…

 

It’s 1974 and the Scotland squad are preparing for the Home International fixture against England at Hampden. Permission for the players to have ‘a quiet drink’ is construed by Jinky and Co as ‘go out and get fucking wellied’.  At 5am they are kicked out of the pub, and, on weaving their way back to the team hotel, Jimmy spots a rowing boat on the shore, and suggests the party clear their heads by taking to the water. He fires in first, but those wags Denis Law and Sandy Jardine (hun) think it’s a great hoot to launch the boat with Cap’n Jinky sans crew. Oh, such wags! The japery subsided when the chums noticed the boat disappearing over the horizon, and that the next land mass in the direction Jinky was headed was America ! He couldn’t swim – even if sober – and while the boat had oars, it didn’t have those hook thingies used to stabalise oars. Somehow, the Wee Man made it ashore, and, somehow, The Press soon found out. The entire squad, Jinky in particular, were crucified in print, with the Scottish journos labelling Jinky a national disgrace and calling for him to be banned from the national side, tarred, feathered and shot, for good measure.  Come the day of the match, manager Willie Ormond risked a public flogging by naming Jinky in his starting 11, much to the chagrin of the press pack. Guess what? Jinky ran the show, and ripped England a new arsehole in the process. At the end (it was 2-0 going on 12) he delivered – live on national TV - one of the most celebrated GIRFUY’s* of all time, as he ran past the press box.

 

*GIRFUY – (vernacular: Scotland,West of.) a phrase and/or a symbol of defiance – usually involving the right arm and one or two fingers - directed towards a vanquished or otherwise humiliated foe. Literally, ‘Get It Right Fucking Up Ye’

 

For me, sentimental wee bhoy of 41 years that I am, my favourite Jinky stories tell of his skills: like the one where, as a youngster, he practices dribbling around milk bottles wearing his miner-father’s pit boots, because he had read that his hero, Stanley Mathews, strengthened his legs by training with lead weights around his ankles…or the one where he used to walk on the crush barrier which covered the perimeter of the terracing at Celtic Park, in order to develop his balance…or of seeing Eusebio speaking on Jimmy’s DVD , proclaiming his belief that Jinky was as great a Number 7 as Garrincha, Mathews and Best…or the one where Terry Cooper of Leeds United recalls his experience of the Jinky effect, during the European Cup Semi Finals of 1970, with Norman Hunter yelling “kick him, for fuck’s sake kick him” and Cooper replying “you kick him, I can’t fucking catch him!”…or of his spellbinding performance at Alfredo Di Stefano’s testimonial, with Celtic as special guests playing their first game after winning the European Cup, and Jinky stealing the show as 125,000 Madridistas cheered “Ole!”, whenever he touched the ball… or, of Jock Stein declaring his greatest achievement in football was keeping Jimmy in the game as long as he did, and that his greatest regret was that he could not prolong that time…

 

My favourite story of all, though, tells of the time when a foreign journalist – probably English, they never wanted to accept Celtic’s success – asks Jimmy why he had stayed in Scotland , when he was coveted by Internazionale and Real Madrid, at the head of pan-European interest. Jimmy paused, as though he hadn’t heard the question properly, or hadn’t understood the interviewer. Eventually, he replied, and with pure innocence, simply said “why would I want to leave Celtic?”

 

Jimmy Johnstone, Greatest Ever Celt, Legend: 1944 – 2006.

 

Honours:

European Cup Winner (1967), Runner Up (1970)

Scottish League Championship Winner 9 times (1965 – 1974, consecutively)

Scottish Cup Winner 6 times (1965, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974)

Scottish League Cup Winner 6 times (1965-66, 1966-67, 1967-68, 1968-69, 1969-70, 1974-75)

Celtic appearances – 515, goals scored – 129

Scotland National Team appearances – 23, goals scored - 4

 

Please visit:

http://www.jimmyjohnstone.com

http://www.justgiving.com/jimmyjohnstone

 

Motor Neurone Disease does not discriminate between gender, race and religion. There is no known cure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
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