In over fifty years of following Celtic, for me there are three stars who shine just that bit brighter than any of the rest – Henrik, Kenny and Jinky. These guys epitomise everything that is great about Celtic.
But it did not start well for the young Johnstone, drafted into a makeshift Celtic side for a difficult midweek trip to Rugby Park on 27 March 1963, one of three debutants on the night. The three Bhoys would go on to have very different careers. Centre-half John Cushley had one of the tougher gigs in football, as understudy to Billy McNeill. This would restrict him to 40 appearances before he left for West Ham United in the aftermath of Lisbon.
However, he did win a Championship medal in 1965/66, the first of THE Nine-in-a Row. In goals for Celts at Kilmarnock was young Dick Madden, replacing the injured Frank Haffey. He made two appearances that night, his first and his last, as he watched six goals fly past him without reply. He was freed at the end of the following season, someone later joking that ‘Dick Madden was the only thing Haffey managed to keep out during his time at Celtic!’
Despite the heavy defeat, Jimmy fought his way back into the side for the trip to Tynecastle at the end of April, his first goal for the club putting Celtic 3-2 ahead before a late Hearts rally. His performance earned him a surprise starting place in the Scottish Cup Final against Rangers on the Saturday, in front of 130,000 supporters. And he showed up well in a fighting Celtic performance, a Murdoch equaliser on the stroke of half-time securing a 1-1 draw against the Ibrox favourites. Somewhat inexplicably, Jinky was then dropped for the midweek replay, Rangers running out easy 3-0 winners on the night.
Whilst Jimmy remained in the first-team picture the following season, gaining his first Scotland cap in Cardiff, the appointment of Jock Stein as Celtic manager in March 1965 would be the catalyst for his world-class career. Under Jock, he would win every honour in the game, culminating in the European Cup Final in Lisbon in May 1967.
He had been a key figure on the Road to Lisbon, memorably terrorising the French champions Nantes both home and away to earn the ‘Flying Flea’ accolade, before scoring the vital first goal in the semi-final against the Czech army side, Dukla Prague. Three weeks before the final, Jimmy had scored both goals as Celtic got the point they required at Ibrox to clinch a second successive League title, in front of the watching Herrera.
His second goal is a thing of beauty, Jinky cutting in from the right to hit a screamer into the top corner with his left foot, the ball then sticking in the goalmouth mud in one of those iconic Celtic moments. That season, he was voted third in the Ballon d’Or, behind Florian Albert and Bobby Charlton, finishing ahead of Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Muller and Best, plus his friend and team-mate Tommy Gemmell, who came in a very creditable sixth.
The final game of that magical season also provided one of his career highlights, on and off the park! Celtic were invited to play in the testimonial match for the one and only Alfredo di Stefano, his final appearance for Real Madrid attracting 120,000 fans to the Santiago Bernabeu. Jimmy had the game of his life, tormenting the Madrid defenders throughout, as the crowd roared their approval, finally sending his great pal Lennox through for the only goal of the game.
There is a fantastic moment at full time, captured on film, as Jinky holds the ball above his head to take the acclaim of the huge crowd. His next move is legendary, booking a taxi from the stadium to take his long-suffering wife Agnes on a well-earned holiday, stepping into the cab and uttering the immortal words, “Benidorm mate!” An eight-hour car journey being a better option than a one-hour flight for the aeroplane-fearing winger.
His fear of flying was triggered on a flight back from San Francisco the previous summer, returning early from the club’s post-season tour to marry his childhood sweetheart, the passengers terrified as the jet experienced severe turbulence. The most famous story associated with his subsequent phobia is perhaps the Red Star Belgrade episode, in November ’68.
The previous month had included a week which said it all about the Jimmy Johnstone package. In midweek, he had been outstanding in putting the latest French champions, Saint Etienne, to the sword, Celts recovering from a two-goal deficit to score four without reply, in one of only two games I recall us wearing an all-white kit. Three days later, he was replaced late on by George Connelly and responded by throwing his jersey towards Jock Stein in the dugout, an act he instantly regrets as the Big Man comes charging down the tunnel after him!
That incident resulted in a week’s suspension, however, Jimmy was back in the side for the next round of the European Cup, against the Yugoslavs, the game level at 1-1 at the interval. In one of those psychological mindgames which Jock excelled at, he promised Jinky that if Celts have a four-goal lead, then he would not have to fly to Belgrade for the second-leg. Cue a Johnstone masterclass, setting up two goals and scoring a double himself as the Bhoys won 5-1. “I’ll no need tae go!!”
If these stories were passed down, then I was fortunate enough to witness the next Jimmy classic personally, standing at the back of the old Celtic End the following December to watch him ‘terrorise the terrors’, as Dundee United, playing in their new all-tangerine kit, were blown away 7-2 on the night. Tannadice manager Jerry Kerr described Johnstone’s display as the finest he had ever seen, although I believe he possibly surpassed even that performance the following April, in both legs of the European Cup Semi-final against Don Revie’s great Leeds United side. England left-back Terry Cooper endured a torrid time, as Jock’s Lions roared to their second final in four years, in front of a European record attendance of more than 136,000, before tamely losing in Milan to a hungry Feyenoord.
Four years later, I watched Jimmy tear another England full-back ‘a new one’, this time the late Emlyn Hughes was the victim, as Johnstone inspired Scotland to a 2-0 victory at Hampden. This was all the more remarkable, as just four days earlier, we had ‘Rowingboatgate’, as Jinky headed out across the Irish Sea from Largs on an impromptu early-morning crossing, minus oars. The episode is now a source of fun, however, the press of the day did not miss him and were rewarded with a personal victory sign from the mercurial winger, following his man-of-the-match performance on the Saturday. Sadly, they would have the last laugh, the SFA selection committee then ensuring he took no part in that summer’s World Cup in West Germany, his last such opportunity before essentially retiring the following season.
Post-Parkhead, Jimmy endured some difficult times, battling against alcohol addiction before being stricken with the dreadful Motor Neurone Disease in 2002. Showing the same courage he had done over many years on the field, he bravely battled the illness, inspiring Sarah Faberge to create nineteen precious jewelled eggs to raise funds to help the stricken winger. An excellent singer, he also recorded ‘Dirty Old Town’ with Simple Minds, in an attempt to promote the work being done to seek a cure.
Sadly, he passed away in the early hours of Monday 13 March 2006, at home with his beloved Agnes. Thousands stood outside Celtic Park as his cortege passed his spiritual home and the League Cup Final a few days later became ‘the Jinky Final’, the Celtic players all wearing the number seven on their shorts in his honour and the crowd continually chanting ‘Jimmy Johnstone on the wing’. His statue now graces the main entrance of Celtic Park, beside Jock and Walfrid, a fitting tribute to a Celtic great.
There was only one Jimmy Johnstone. A little man with a big heart and a huge talent.
God bless him.