Growing up in Hackney and supporting Celtic had its positives and negatives.
On the plus side, you didn’t have to get involved with the arguments over who was Henry or Bergkamp in the playground in East London. I was Henrik Larsson every time. But, with Celtic Park over three hundred miles away, I had to rely on my dad’s CDs and DVDs to learn about the club. The Songs of Celtic was a classic on long car journeys, with the chorus to ‘Willie Maley’ still ringing in my ears, there was a name that always stood out:
‘They gave us James McGrory and Paul McStay / They gave us Johnstone, Tully, Murdoch, Auld, and Hay / And most of the football greats / Have gone through Parkhead’s gates / To play football the Glasgow Celtic way
I first saw Johnstone ‘jink’ his way past defenders on an old Lord of the Wing VHS my dad had. Through the grainy black and white footage, you could see all 5 ft 4 of him dance through defenders, and without any respect or necessity, turn around and go through them again. There was no need for it. He knew he was the best and was more than happy to let the opposition know it too. Before the European Cup Final against Inter in 1967 you can even see him walking out the tunnel, pointing his finger at his opposite number as if to say: ‘You marking me, pal? Yeah, good luck with that!’
It helped that in all the photographs Johnstone was wearing one of the greatest football kits of all time. The hoops in all their glory, no Carling, no Tennents, no Dafabet. Speaking to my grandma about the only time she saw the Bhoys play (unbelievably the 7–1 League Cup final in 1957), she remembered them glowing on the pitch. You can sense that in the grey world of 1960s Glasgow, the light reflecting off their green and white would have made these men seem celestial. In the heat of Lisbon, they had reached the promised land. Inter may have looked like movie stars, but the Bhoys looked like angels. Their guiding light a red-haired whippet, the one the French press called ‘the Flying Flea’. It still sends shivers down your spine, seeing Caesar lift the cup in the sun.
From then on I was obsessed; there was no one else who played the game like he did. Sure, you can see some of the same brilliance in modern players. Messi and Ronaldo can fair dance their way through a defence like he did, but Jinky was different. He had a charisma both on and off the pitch that endeared you to him. In the age of media training and intense public scrutiny, you couldn’t see Messi making the front pages because he had to be rescued by the coastguard before an international. But Jinky did, cast adrift on a boat without a paddle after a night out, he was rescued and then played a blinder against England in a 2–0 victory for Scotland. Brushing off the incident in the press: ‘Don’t know what all the fuss is about—I thought I’d go fishing’. He was the best, and because he knew he was, he could get away with it.
The more I learned about him, the more my admiration grew. How he won it all under Jock Stein, and as part of a squad all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park. How he played Real Madrid off the park during Alfredo Di Stéfano’s testimonial, so much so that the Bernabéu crowd shouted ¡Olé! every time he got the ball. Madrid’s keeper later stating: ‘We lost the match because of the small player with red hair’. How he placed third in the 1967 Ballon d’Or, missing out to the likes of Flórián Albert and Bobby Charlton. Growing up in an era when the greatest players hailed from South America and Continental Europe, it was nice to know that once upon a time there was a wee man from Viewpark that almost ruled the world.
As with all fairy tales, Jinky’s story had to include a beast to overcome. His struggle against alcoholism made him human, reminded us that even those who have walked through Paradise’s gates were not immune to worldly suffering. Now immortalised in bronze outside Celtic Park, he was flesh and blood when he went to Scottish businessman Willie Haughey and attempted to sell his medals to raise money for drink. Haughey’s refusal to buy them, instead helping Jinky combat his addictions, reminds you that to be a Celtic supporter is to be part of a wider family. A fan supporting his Club's greatest hero in a time of need: it makes you proud to be a Tim.
My respect and admiration for Jinky grew even more when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The outpouring of support from the Celtic community made me all the more aware that a legend was about to pass on and no longer be with us. He became only the second footballer ever to be commemorated on a Faberge egg, the other being George Best. The two men’s careers seem tied by fate, both giants of their generation who struggled with the pressure of fame and turned to the drink. But, Jinky is often overlooked in the lists of great players. Not in Glasgow. In 2002, he was voted the greatest ever Celt, and is commemorated in typical Glasgow fashion, a scarf behind the bar of the famous Saracen’s Head: ‘Georgie was the greatest, but Jinky was the Best’.
Knowing that Johnstone was not long for this world, Simple Minds recorded a charity single with the wee man, ‘Dirty Old Town’. Every time I hear it I get goose bumps. Whether you’re from Manchester, Glasgow, or London you’ve ‘dreamed a dream’. A dream to play for United, Arsenal, or the Celtic.
Jinky lived that dream and, in the process, he set the night on fire.