Jinky Will Always Be The Greatest
04 October 2004
Jimmy Johnstone turned 60 last week and as he continues his brave fight against illness, the View looks back on his football career, eventful both on and off the park.
IN THE summer of 1974, Jimmy Johnstone was with the Scotland international squad encamped at Largs during the home internationals.
After a midweek match against Wales, an early-morning incident on a rowing boat on the Firth of Clyde gave birth to the legend which became known as The Largs Boat Incident, and in which Johnstone narrowly escaped serious injury or worse.
It was lads having a laugh of course, but to Agnes Johnstone, Jimmy’s wife and mother to his kids, it was somewhat less than funny. “Jimmy will be 30 soon, and it’s about time he started to act his age,” she told reporters at the time.
I wasn’t at all concerned with the incident from that point of view. As a youngster myself, I thought it was hilarious. But I do remember thinking: ‘Oh my God! Wee Jimmy’s 30!’ I couldn’t believe it then, and I can hardly believe another 30 years have passed and Jimmy the Jink, the Greatest Ever Celtic Player, last week celebrated his 60th birthday.
There are few Celtic players in the history of the club with as colourful a career as Jimmy Johnstone. By the same token, there are fewer still who evoke the passions and love of the Celtic support in quite the same way as he can.
As a footballer, Johnstone was unique in almost every way. Explaining what he did and how he did it to someone who was never fortunate enough to see him at his mercurial, brilliant and effervescent best, is like trying to explain the Holy Trinity to a carpet tick. Johnstone at his best was quite simply THE best I ever saw on the football field. He was brave, quick, incredibly strong for a man of 5ft 2ins, could stop and turn on a sixpence, and was a total master of the art of dribbling.
He could wrong-foot an opponent half a dozen times in the space of a second – often tying the opponent in knots. For verification of these statements, enquire of the hollow, burned-out postmatch shells that became of Emlyn Hughes of England, Karl Heinz Schnellinger of Milan or Terry Cooper of Leeds United after their encounters with Johnstone. Those guys experienced at first hand – and in the worst possible way for them – the genius that was Jimmy Johnstone the player.
Jimmy had practiced his skills as a youngster by lining up milk bottles in his living room at home and slaloming around them. It’s been said his opponents were barely worth the price of a pint of milk by the time he had finished with them.
But he was no tanner ba’ player. Jimmy used his body strength and low centre of gravity expertly, could shoot with either foot, and even scored goals with his head. Despite his obvious individual brilliance though, he was very much a member of the team. He would be the first to say that those he played with helped make him as great as he was. His combinations with Jim Craig, Bobby Murdoch and Bobby Lennox are testimony to their togetherness as a squad. Like most of his team-mates, Jimmy is a Celtic fanatic as well.
As boy and man, he only ever wanted to play for Celtic – and thank God as he was never short of clubs seeking his signature. Nonetheless, there was never really any question of Jimmy voluntarily leaving Celtic for the bright lights. To Johnstone, the brightest light of all hung on the number seven peg in the Celtic dressing room. In his career, Jimmy reached giddy heights, coming third in the European Footballer of the Year competition in 1967, playing in two European Cup finals and a World Club Championship final.
Safely locked away in the Johnstone trophy cabinet along with League Championship, Scottish Cup and League Cup badges too numerous to count, is a typically low-for-a-Celt clutch of Scotland caps. That Scotland career overcame early adversity and culminated in a devastating performance against England at Hampden in 1974 when a Jinky-inspired Scotland defeated the Auld Enemy 2-0 – only days after the aforementioned trip ‘doon the watter’, and 10 years after jeering Rangers fans at that same venue had disgracefully booed the young Celtic winger, almost ending his career in dark blue for good.
Of course, had the Scotland career ended then, there would have been no Largs Boating Incident. Ex-Rangers and Scotland full-back Sandy Jardine, who played with and against Jimmy on many occasions, remembers that incident, and Jimmy with fondness. He said: “Scotland had just played Wales at Hampden and by the time we got back to the HQ at Largs, it was about midnight “Scotland boss Willie Ormond, conscious of the fact we had four days to go to the next match against England at Hampden, told us to go out for a few hours and enjoy ourselves.
“We knew a hotelier in the town who opened up for a few of us and after a couple of drinks, we made our way back to the hotel via the beach “Jimmy was a bit merry, and he decided, upon seeing a couple of rowing boats, that he’d have a shot in one of them. I actually kicked the boat further out into the water – doing my bit for Rangers! “ joked Sandy. “But the tide began to take Jimmy out to sea very quickly and, worse still, we discovered there were no oars on his boat, so Eric Schaedler and Davie Hay took the other boat and began to row out to rescue HMS Jinky!”
It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction – and this tale is no exception. Jardine continued: “Incredibly, Eric and Davie’s boat sprung a leak, so they had to row back to dry land. Meanwhile, wee Jimmy was standing up in his boat – and by this time a speck in the distance – singing at the top of his voice!” The coastguard was then called to finish the rescue that Hay and Schaedler had begun. When he got back to the hotel, we asked Jimmy how he was. “‘Dunno what all the fuss is about,’ said wee Jimmy, “I thought I’d go fishin’!”
Despite the bizarre circumstances of Largs, Jardine was effusive in his praise of Jimmy as a player and as a man. He said: “You know Scotland was blessed with great wingers at that time. There was Willie Henderson, Alex, Scott and Charlie Cooke – but Jimmy was unique.
“There was a debate at the time about who was better – Johnstone or Henderson. As a Rangers player, I was always biased towards wee Willie, but in truth they were different types of player. Willie was the more direct of the two, but Jimmy had more tricks up his sleeve. “In fact, he was so good he could have picked his club anywhere in the world had he wanted to move out of Scotland, but he was a modest, down-to-earth guy and wanted only to play for Celtic.
“When I played for Scotland at first, Jimmy was in the squad and couldn’t have been more helpful or kind. My God, we could do with a Johnstone now in the Scotland team.” Jimmy may have been modest, but he believed in his own ability to do things which ordinary mortals could never hope to do. Jim Craig tells the story of Johnstone pestering him for the ball in a match. Craig was reluctant to pass to him on this occasion because Jimmy would never return a pass. “Gie’s the ba’ big man” said Jimmy “When will I get it back” replied Craig. “When ah’m finished wi’ it ah suppose!”
Brave as Johnstone may have been as a player, he had two major fears. One was flying. There was the celebrated matter of his playing a blinder against Red Star because his incentive bonus was not to be compelled to fly to Belgrade in the second leg. There is also a story told by Craig which underlines this. “We had just played in Alfredo di Stefano’s Testimonial in Madrid,” said Jim. “Jimmy and Agnes were leaving the hotel to go on holiday in Benidorm. Remember we were in Madrid, and Benidorm was an hour’s flight away. “As I helped Jimmy and Agnes with their bags into the taxi at the hotel, the wee man turned to me, wished me a good holiday myself, and then turned to taxi driver and said: ‘Benidorm driver!’”
His second great fear – he wasn’t daft – was his mentor and guru, Celtic manager Jock Stein. On one occasion in a match against Dundee United at Celtic Park, Jimmy, who was having an indifferent game, got the hook from the big man. As he ran past the Celtic dugout, the wee man took off his jersey and threw it in the direction of the dugout. This was not designed as a provocative gesture, but the shirt hit Stein on the head. Enraged, Stein jumped out of the dugout, but too quickly, as he banged his head on the roof the structure on the way up. Recovering, and red with rage, he chased up the tunnel after wee Jimmy, who had dashed into the dressing room.
Hearing his manager come up the tunnel after him and hearing the curses on his head, Jimmy had a master plan, a wizard wheeze. “I’ll jump in the bath” he thought. “He’ll never follow me in there!” He was correct. Stein didn’t follow him into the bath, but this was shortly after the bath had been drawn. It was Bob Rooney’s practice to draw a VERY hot bath just after half-time, expecting it to cool down to a comfortable in time for the players returning to the dressing room. Jimmy probably realised – in mid leap – that he was jumping into a scalding hot bath. He now had two choices – stay in, or come out to face Stein. He chose life and remained in the bath.
One of the aggravating symptoms of the onset of middle age is that younger folk never seem to listen to a word you say. Consider then, how you have to stress for Celtic fans under the age of 30 just how good this diminutive packet of carrottopped green and white dynamite actually was. I’ve said to my sons many times – and I’ll say it again: “If you never ever believe another word I say, you have to believe that Jimmy Johnstone was the very, very best.” And so he was.
Overcoming adversity is something with which wee Jimmy has been well acquainted during his career. Apart from Rangers fans badgering him in a Scotland jersey, he was often the victim of some cruel treatment from football hard-men at home and abroad. Jimmy’s answer to a foul was to immediately get the ball back and fearlessly take on the same opponent again.
In the last few years, he has battled bravely and optimistically against Motor Neurone Disease, taking on his condition in the same way he took on opponents. He has become an eloquent lobbyist on behalf of fellow sufferers, using his status to plead their case and help publicise and fund scientific investigations which could lead to a cure, not only for MND, but other neuro-degenerative illnesses including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
A new challenge then, approached in the same old inimitable Johnstone style, and we all hope destined for the same success he had on the pitch. I still can’t believe wee Jimmy is 60. For me he is ageless. To have watched him play football with a big broad grin on his face, and perform miracles with a ball at his feet so consistently renders him eternally youthful. Happy birthday Jimmy – and many happy returns.
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