'Sharp as a tack and brave as a lion' - a final tribute to Jinky
18 March 2006
IN DEATH, as in life, Jimmy Johnstone never walked alone. On the green field of play he was surrounded by his Lisbon Lion team-mates; when ill-health, in the form of motor neurone disease, stole his dexterity he was supported by doctors and friends.
It was fitting then, that a crowd of 20,000 fans, should congregate at Parkhead as the man voted Celtic's greatest ever player yesterday made his final journey. The hearse was showered in scarves of green and white upon arrival at Celtic's ground, and fans at one end of London Road alerted the other end with a new adaptation of an old football cry: "Oh Jinky/Oh Jinky Johnstone/Oh Jinky Johnstone/He's On The Way."
The funeral mass of Jimmy Johnstone, who died on Monday, aged 61, was held at St John the Baptist Church in his native Uddingston and was more solemn, but only just. Joseph Devine, the Bishop of Motherwell, mourned the passing of "a unique talent", Billy McNeill, the former Celtic captain, praised a teammate who was as "sharp as a tack, and as brave as a lion", and Willie Haughey, a family friend, reminded the congregation, to loud laughter, that if anyone had lent him money "the debt died with Jimmy".
Those who attended the biggest football funeral in Scotland since the death of Jock Stein in 1985 made up a who's who of the beautiful game. In the front row were his fellow Lisbon Lions, Billy McNeill, Jim Craig, John Clark, Bertie Auld, Bobby Lennox, Steve Chalmers, Tommy Gemmell and John Hughes, the remaining members of the Celtic team who became the first British club to win the European Cup, in 1967.
Others included Rod Stewart, a life-long Celtic fan, and his fiancee, Penny Lancaster, Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, and Denis Law, the former Scotland team-mate. The current Celtic team were also present, led by manager Gordon Strachan and his predecessor, Martin O'Neill. Before the funeral Mr O'Neill paid tribute to the player: "He leaves a big legacy behind, but for all his achievements he was also amazingly humble, you would talk about him and he always changed the conversation to you."
In a sign of Johnstone's popularity the funeral was also attended by Alex McLeish, the current Rangers manager and former players John Greig, Sandy Jardine and Davie Wilson. Kenny Dalglish, the former Celtic and Liverpool player, also attended as did Walter Smith, the Scotland manager and Ally McCoist, now a Scotland coach.
The First Minister, who is in Australia, was represented by Margaret Curran, the Scottish Parliament minister, while over 500 people gathered outside the church to listen to the service over a PA system.
Bishop Joseph Devine told how a "tidal wave of sorrow" and a "river of sadness" emerged on Monday morning as it became clear that "the greatest ever Celtic player" had passed away. "It was the kind of sadness that eclipsed Old Firm rivalries, indeed all manner of rivalries, as Jimmy was beloved of all supporters of the beautiful game."
He touched lightly on the raucous aspect of Johnstone's life, which included battles with alcoholism, by joking that he made more use of the confessional box than any other Celtic player. He went on to explain how he attended one match Celtic played against Falkirk in the late 1960s during which Johnstone tormented the leftback. "An elderly supporter turned to me and said: 'Father, please forgive the bad language. See the wee man. Is that not sheer bloody poetry' - although if memory serves me well, he used a rather stronger adjective than bloody."
Brian Quinn, the Celtic chairman, said Jimmy Johnstone was a name that could sit alongside Pele and Maradona and that he was "magical". He said: "To see him racing down the wing at full speed, stop dead and leave the pursuing defender to storm past like a bull charging at a matador seemed almost to defy the laws of physics."
Tributes were also paid by Mr McNeill, the Lisbon Lions captain, who said: "The wee man was an incredible personality and an incredible footballer. He had unbelievable ball control, as sharp as a tack, as fit as anything, as brave as a lion. Jimmy loved the fans because he was a fan himself." He ended the tribute with an emotional: "Wee man - you will never walk alone, son," which was greeted with applause. Willie Haughey, a former director of Celtic, then passed on the "deepest condolences" relayed by Real Madrid.
Unfortunately two of the more famous mourners had to creep into the service late. Sir Alex Ferguson was delayed by a flight cancellation but said he had been "determined" to be at the service for a man whom he described as "a courageous footballer and a courageous person." Rod Stewart and his fiancee, Penny Lancaster were delayed by heavy traffic. For Mr Stewart the embarrassment went on as Mr Haughey explained that in a recent phone call to Johnstone the singer had been berated about his new swing album. "It's making me a fortune'" he reportedly told Jimmy Johnstone, who replied: "I don't care, go back to the old stuff."
After the funeral Mr Stewart said: "He was an amazing fellow as well as an amazing footballer. It was he and Kenny Dalglish that made me a Celtic supporter."
Denis Law said: "It was really good. I was at George Best's memorial service yesterday and this was very similar. With Jimmy, we had to have a few laughs, we had some great times on and off the field. He was a bundle of dynamite."
The cortege then travelled the six miles from Uddingston to Celtic Park where thousands of fans had gathered, many since 9am. Kathy McCoor, 38, who wore a Celtic top with Jimmy Johnstone's face on it, said: "I dropped the weans at school and came straight here. He was a fantastic player and a wonderful wee guy. We had to come and say goodbye."
The hearse then pulled up outside the ground. Mr Johnstone's family, his wife, Agnes, her son and daughters got out to speak with fans. After five minutes the cortege set off once again, but so heavy was the shower of scarves that the driver had to stop and clear them from the windscreen. Finally the procession set off for Bothwell Park Cemetery, near Uddingston, where Jimmy Johnstone was laid to rest.
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