Jimmy Johnstone

Celtic winger considered his club's greatest ever player
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The Independent Online

Jimmy Johnstone would never have lasted in the modern world of football. Nothing to do with his ability. Merely the fact that his deep-rooted fear of flying would have prevented him from stepping on to a plane as frequently as the current generation do.

Celtic's greatest ever player might have helped his team to become one of Europe's most sought-after opponents, but he hated every minute of every flight to away games in the European Cup. So much so that in November 1968 Johnstone struck a deal with his manager, Jock Stein, that he would be spared the long flight to Yugoslavia for the return match of a European Cup tie with Red Star Belgrade if he helped Celtic acquire a three-goal lead from the first match, played in Glasgow.

Johnstone duly tore one of Europe's eminent teams apart, scoring twice and laying on three other goals in a 5-1 victory. The tiny winger fled from the pitch at Celtic Park after the final whistle in tears, shouting: "I'll not need to go!" His team-mates thought Johnstone was going mad. "None of us knew," said Billy McNeill, the Celtic captain of the time. "He was a nightmare to sit beside on a flight and he transferred that fear to everyone else. However, Jock treated Jimmy differently from the rest of us and handled him superbly."

Ironically, Johnstone had been dubbed "The Flying Flea" by the French press after one game where his touchline trickery had tormented Nantes. "Jimmy must have kept the ball for an hour that night," said his colleague and great friend, Bobby Lennox.

Johnstone and his Celtic colleagues were pioneers. They were the first British side ever to win the European Cup, claiming club football's biggest prize by defeating Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon in 1967 (and becoming known as the "Lisbon Lions"). It was the pinnacle of Johnstone's football career, and that year, at the age of 23, he received wider recognition for his gifts when he finished third in the European Footballer of the Year award. That said more about him than the paltry collection of just 23 caps he received for Scotland.

Celtic, though, were Johnstone's true admirers and his 15 years at the club spanned its greatest epoch, with nine successive Scottish League titles, Johnstone making 515 appearances and scoring 130 goals. He also played in the 1970 European Cup final, which Celtic lost to Feyenoord, and in two more semi-finals.

Yet the man whose name echoed around Europe was quintessentially Scottish. He stood just 5ft 4in tall, and had a skinny frame that said much about the post-war deprivation in the Lanarkshire mining community he grew up in. That low centre of gravity and impeccable balance - Johnstone used to practice the skill by walking around the top pole of the fence that surrounded his local football pitch in Viewpark - meant Johnstone could twist in any direction without falling over. He was nicknamed "Jinky" by the Celtic supporters for the way he jinked past opponents. Johnstone was the icon of that great Celtic side and in 2002 he was voted the club's greatest ever player by fans.

The club, which he had supported as a youngster, continued to be his passion long after he stopped playing and he could often be seen at Celtic Park as a match-day host until he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2001. He also continued to live in the same area that had nurtured his talent all those years before.

Jimmy Johnstone was born in Viewpark, Lanarkshire in 1944. His father, Matt, worked in the local colliery and was Jimmy's greatest supporter. The boy's biggest influence was Sir Stanley Matthews, the former England player whose autobiography he had read aged 12. Jimmy used to dribble around milk bottles every day in his hallway for three hours to perfect his dribbling skills. He had read that Matthews used to walk to Blackpool's ground wearing heavy boots to strengthen his leg muscles, so Jimmy started wearing pit boots and would sprint and play football in the them. "I was about 17 at the time and it probably added about three yards on to my pace," he recalled later.

Word of Jimmy Johnstone's talent reached Manchester United and he played a trial, but that simply prompted Celtic to sign him. He made his first-team début at the age of 19 in 1963, but it was not a good era for Celtic and one in which they were overshadowed by their Glasgow rivals, Rangers. The arrival of Jock Stein as manager in 1965 changed the lives of Johnstone and his colleagues forever. "Jock was good with tactics, but his real talent was with people," Johnstone once said. "To me, big Jock wasn't just a manager. It was as if he could read your mind. He knew if you had a problem."

Johnstone frequently did. Even though he loved to entertain the crowds, he was uncomfortable with fame and ended up too often in bars. Stein used his network of Celtic-supporting informants to let him know whenever Johnstone was out drinking and the little winger would get a call at the pub, his face turning white as he realised it was Stein on the other end of the phone.

Johnstone's relationship with drink deteriorated as his Celtic career came to a close in 1975. It was also responsible for a moment that became part of fan folklore, when, in May 1974, just days before a game with England, Johnstone and other Scotland players embarked on a drinking session at their hotel in Largs, Ayrshire, that saw them head down to the edge of the sea at 5am, with Johnstone deciding to go out in a rowing boat. Soon he was adrift in the Atlantic. Willie Ormond, the Scotland manager, was not amused the next morning when Johnstone's jaunt hit the headlines after the coastguard had to be called out to rescue him. "I never thought it would attract the attention it did and I do regret the publicity, because that hurt my family," Johnstone reflected later.

Just weeks later, Johnstone went to the 1974 World Cup Finals in West Germany, but never played a game. It was his and Scotland's greatest loss. Some national managers appeared unwilling to play Johnstone and Willie Henderson, the Rangers winger, in the same team, but he insists there were other reasons that contributed to his meagre total of caps. "I preferred playing for Celtic," Johnstone once said. "I had a couple of bad experiences playing for Scotland, when I was booed by our own fans. I may have been playing a stinker, but I didn't feel right after certain fans booed me because I was a Celtic player."

After leaving Celtic in 1975, Johnstone moved to Sheffield United, Dundee and even Elgin City in a series of brief pitstops that mirrored George Best's career once he left Manchester United. He eventually returned to Celtic Park in the mid-1980s to coach younger players. When his illness was discovered, Johnstone embarked on fund- raising for motor neurone disease and was even immortalised on a limited-edition Fabergé egg to raise money.

"Jimmy was among the greatest players this game has seen," said Billy McNeill. "However, I have as much respect for him as a man and the courageous way in which he handled his illness as I have for him as a footballer."

Phil Gordon