LIAM MACKEY: Scotland v Ireland: The night wee Jimmy was all at sea

Traffic congestion and queues at the turnstiles were blamed for seats being empty at last night's match. Picture: Sportsfile

Watching Roy Keane and the Irish players striding into Celtic Park past the statue of Jimmy Johnstone was to be reminded that, to paraphrase Martin O’Neill, some pre-match "distractions" are definitely more distracting than others, writes Liam Mackey.

‘Jinky’ Johnstone, whose death in 2006 was widely mourned not only in Scotland but well beyond its borders, was one of football’s most devastating dribblers of the ball in a golden era when the game was hardly short of such magicians.

George Best, the greatest of them all, and a contemporary with whom Johnstone bore serious comparison, once famously said that if he’d been born ugly, the world would never have heard of Pele. If Jimmy Johnstone had been born in Brazil, you suspect that even ‘El Rei’ might have struggled to command as much attention, although it was another Brazilian icon, celebrated winger Garrincha, whom the Celt most closely resembled in his mercurial style of play.

But like Garrincha, Johnstone was also the kind of flawed genius for whom the euphemism ‘colourful’ might have been minted, his fraught relationship with the bottle degenerating into alcoholism, his later years dogged by ill health as he courageously battled Motor Neurone Disease. Yet, his trials and tribulations only served to make him an even more beloved figure in Celtic lore, though it would be while on duty with the national team that he would come to be at the centre of a pre-match “distraction” of legendary proportions.

It was May, 1974, in the middle of the old Home International Championships, just hours after Scotland had beaten Wales 2-0 and only four nights before one of the biggest games in the Scottish ‘fitba’ calendar – the visit of England to Hampden Park. In a piece published in ‘Celtic View’ in 2004, Johnstone’s Scottish team mate, the Rangers full-back Sandy Jardine, fondly revisited the events of that night 30 years before on the Firth of Clyde.

“Scotland had just played Wales at Hampden and by the time we got back to the HQ at Largs, it was about midnight,” he recalled. “The manager, Willie Ormond, conscious of the fact we had four days to the England match 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 (laughs). 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!

“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 – by this time a speck in the distance – singing at the top of his voice.

“Eventually the coastguard had to be called to rescue him. 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’!”

The story was devoured by the media to be written up as yet another wild Scottish football scandal but the real punchline was the one felt by the ‘Auld Enemy’ a few days later at Hampden, when Johnstone played his part as Scotland beat England 2-0 in front of a delirious crowd of 94,000, the first goal a deflected effort by Joe Jordan after four minutes, the second a Kenny Dalglish effort that was officially registered as a Colin Todd own-goal.

Indeed, if it hadn’t been for an outstanding performance by England ’keeper Peter Shilton, Scotland would have had at least two or three more. But, as it was, the victory merely served to rub in the fact that the Scots had already qualified for the finals of a World Cup which would be taking place without the English, the winners of eight years before having been eliminated the previous October when Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski – the man Brian Clough mocked as “a circus clown in gloves” – had defied everything the white shirts could throw at him on a landmark night at Wembley.

Scotland’s defeat of England at Hampden was their last home appearance before heading to those 1974 finals in West Germany, and at the end of the game the victorious players waved their goodbyes to the huge mass of supporters who hadn’t been able to join in the kind of bonkers pitch invasion that was virtually mandatory in those days.

But the television cameras also caught a less friendly gesture from Jimmy Johnstone as, stripped to the waist, he headed towards the tunnel. Turning around, he raised his hand to give what used to be called a ‘Harvey Smith’. Or, as BBC commentator David Coleman diplomatically put it, he appeared to “signal in the direction of the press box.”

England will be back in Glasgow on Tuesday night, when it will be their turn to follow Ireland into Celtic Park past the statue of the ‘Lord Of The Wing’.

And if they have a moment to spare, they can pause to study the images on the plinth which include a Lion for Lisbon ’67, a heart for his courage and, yes, a rowing boat.

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