James Connolly Johnstone was born on the 30th September 1944. He died on 13th March 2006. We all know who Jinky is. We voted him Celtic’s best-ever player and if you look at the footage of that night, you’ll see a young looking Martin O’Neil and a grinning number seven with dreadlocks called Henrik Larsson. A statue of Jinky is outside Parkhead, but he rests in our hearts. Because Celtic is our religion and he’s one of us.
I’d met Billy Smith in Dalmuir, one of the older guys that used to train our Guild team. He remained remarkably young looking up until he got Motor Neurone Disease.
‘How you getting on Jake?’ he asked.
‘No bad,’ I said. ‘But I heard you’ve got that thing, like that Fernando Ricksen?’
Fernando Ricksen had been in the Daily Record and the other media. He’d been to his spiritual home at Ibrox, but was in a wheelchair.
Billy was quick to shake his head and correct me. ‘No, no like Fernando Ricksen, like Jimmy Johnstone.’
No statute for Billy Smith, but I understood what he was saying, without wanting to find out what it meant. It’s endgame and part of the Jimmy Johnstone story. Archie Macpherson said it was like being in a room when the walls closed in. But Jimmy didn’t die alone. Agnes, his wife, his son and two daughters were beside him. His Celtic family were there for him. The team that won the European Cup in 1967 supported him through his illness. Bertie Auld, who was never lost for words, but now, sadly, has dementia visited Jimmy almost every day. When asked why, for once, Bertie was stuck for words. ‘That’s just…who he was,’ he says. Hail, Hail, Bertie.
And a special word, for a special friend, the Rangers winger, Willie Henderson. He was there for Jimmy too. But he said he found it hard. Hail, Hail, Willie Henderson.
My brother Stephen (SEV, may he RIP) told me the story of working for Lawrence and asking this wee labourer to get him some two-by-two planks. Then he realised it was Jimmy Johnstone. Much has been made of Messi’s standoff with Barcelona. The Argentinian was willing to take a pay cut from his annual salary of twenty million Euros (which didn’t include bonuses or image rights). But here was wee Jinky, whom 100 000 Spaniards in the Bernabéu stadium, cried ‘Ole, Ole,’ every time he touched the ball in Alfredo Di Stéfano’s testimonial match, following their European Cup win. Jinky, was quite simply, the best player in the world. Yet, here he was working in a building site, after offering to sell all his medals for £10 000 to William Haughey. It’s difficult to imagine Messi doing that.
But it was a different world then. We used to think that guys like Billy McNeil and Dixie Deans would be alright because they had their own pub. They would always have money and an income, we thought.
My brother and Jimmy had something in common. They were both alkies. No pubs for them. One day at a time. Jimmy’s son, James, shakes his head, when he remembers what his da had become. Anyone that has been to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings know what happens when the guys that at the top table get competitive and start telling stories of their fall from grace. One guy might say he ate a baby seal pup in front of its mother. And the next guy will tell you he did something similar, but didn’t stop with one seal pup. But Jimmy could say he’d held up the European Cup. He’d done a lot of stupid things and played for teams he didn’t want to, but it was a job, and one he could do.
He played in with San Jose Earthquakes, but he couldn’t be doing with all that American stuff as if it was show business. He wanted to get back to Viewpark, and home. He’d spells with Sheffield United and played three times for Dundee. Tommy Gemmill was the manager, and he was being kind when he said he brought him in to do a job. Gordon Strachan remembers getting drunk with Jinky and thinking he’d hit the big time. Jinky played with Shelbourne and ended his career with Elgin City.
His heart remained at Parkhead. He tells the story of crying in the car park, after Jock Stein had let him go. Archie Macpherson said that if Jock had a favourite, it was Jinky, but Jock Stein was ruthless when it came to our team. He cut Jinky loose and the wee man unravelled. Like Benny Lynch, he turned to the drink, and thought he could sweat it off.
Jinky might have been the greatest ever, but he fancied himself a bit of a singer. When Rod Stewart visited he told him to shut up and give him the microphone. He sung a duet with Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr. Jinky’s daughter remembered Billy Connelly sleeping on the floor.
Jinky believed in UFO’s, and John Clark tells a story of how Jinky wanted him to take him to some godforsaken place to hunt for aliens. But Jinky never strayed far from his home in Viewpark. Like another legend, Tommy Burns (also on BBC Alba), he was devout and was buried in his local parish. Jimmy Johnstone was our Messi. But he was just an ordinary wee guy with extraordinary football ability that worked as a labourer, did what we all dreamed of a kid, played for Celtic and loved the club. Hail, Hail. May he RIP.