Football: Mo gets the bird

Celtic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Heart of Midlothian. . . . . . . . . . . . .0

HE was jeered every time he touched the ball, but a more forgiving gathering than the Celtic fans would have offered Maurice Johnston, now with Hearts, a kind word and sympathy.

Johnston is several weeks into his third spell in Scottish football, but he is not the player he was before. The spark which made him a class performer with Partick Thistle, Watford, Celtic, Nantes, and then Rangers has been lost somewhere on his travels, probably during an ill-fated time with Everton.

He still reads the game well enough, but the excesses over the years have made his legs ponderous, preventing the unexpected arrivals into the opposition penalty boxes which used to characterise his play.

Johnston is only 30 years old, but it appears that for him the game is over, even if the new Scottish manager, Craig Brown, is currently suggesting the Hearts striker could make an international comeback. There is no possibility of Johnston winning another cap. There are too many emerging youngsters like Jess, Booth, and Ferguson and it is not as though Johnston has the same amount of time on his side.

There is always something terribly depressing about watching a once marvellous entertainer still trying to make it happen when the will and flair have gone and so it was with Johnston on his return to Celtic Park, where the supporters who used to laud him now despise him. They will never forget or forgive his change of heart when he returned from Nantes and posed in the green and white hoops one day only to sign for Celtic's arch rivals, Rangers, the next.

However, it was just as well he was on the pitch yesterday because without him there would have been nothing - apart from the board of directors, of course - about which to shout for Celtic's fans. Paul Byrne displayed some delicate touches but the match was devoid of skill and composure.

Even Paul McStay looked inept. He was unable to calm those around him or make the ball do as he wished and perhaps it was not surprising that his frustration should manifest itself in two uncouth tackles which earned him a booking.

Celtic carried the play towards Hearts' goal with more frequency in the second half, but there was never a controlled look about anything they were doing. The ball was always running loose and players were careering around bumping into one another.

The full-time whistle came just in time. Johnston was beginning to look at home in the untidiness of it all.

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