It truly amazes me how this Lisbon Lion, former Celtic great Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone is hardly ever mentioned in any list of the greatest footballers.
He was almost always the smallest player on the field at 5 feet 4 inches, yet always managed to stand head and shoulders above everyone with his scintillating play. Celtic supporters knew what a tremendous player Jinky was and duly voted him their greatest ever player. He died in 2006 at the age of 61 from the incurable motor neurone disease, a condition that finally stopped Jimmy when no defender in the world could.
Jimmy played the majority of his career with Glasgow Celtic and represented Scotland but it was for his club where his phenomenal wizardry was mostly displayed. He played for the great Celtic side of the 1960s which eventually became the first British side to win the European Cup (now Champions League) in 1967. He played in another final 3 years later, but it was the semi final against mighty Leeds United where he played two magnificent games and tormented Leeds’ fullback Terry Cooper. At the time, the match was dubbed “The Battle of Britain”. Norman Hunter allegedly told Cooper to “kick him”. Cooper told Hunter to try it instead. Jimmy Johnstone then danced round Hunter and stuck the ball between his legs! Sheer genius.
In another European Cup tie against Nantes, the French press called Jimmy the “Flying Flea”.
He once played in a testimonial game in honour of the great Alfredo Di Stéfano which even had the Spanish fans chanting “olé olé” whenever he got the ball at his feet. Even Di Stéfano was full of praise for the little Scot.
Matt Busby of Manchester United was keen to bring Jimmy to Old Trafford. Though that didn’t transpire, the mind boggles with what might have been; Jimmy Johnstone on one flank murdering fullbacks while George Best on the other doing the same. What a United team that would have been with Law, Best, Charlton…and Johnstone!
Jimmy was a wizard with the ball. He had unbelievable balance and could turn on a sixpence. He had two incredible feet (a rarity) and could go past players inside or outside with great ease. He would suddenly stop and twist around and beat the same player again. Opponents must have complained of vertigo after playing against Jimmy.
He scored his fair share of goals and set up many more for others. His close control was a thing of beauty and sometimes the only way to stop him was illegally. He was a supreme entertainer who looked like he was enjoying himself while bringing such joy to the supporters of the club. Anyone who saw him flying down that right wing will never forget it. It’s ironic that the man had a fear of flying.
Strangely, he only played for Scotland on 23 occasions. He played for Celtic for over 10 years. It was rumoured that even Glasgow Rangers supporters had a deep respect for Jimmy’s magical performances. It’s hard to understand how a player as talented as Jimmy never seems to feature in the all-time greats lists. Only once was he recognised when he finished 3rd in the European Footballer of the Year awards in 1967.
So next time, if you and your mates decide to have a chat about who you think are the greatest players in the game’s history, give a mention to “Lord of the Wing” Jimmy Johnstone.