By Critical Bill
Glasgow in the late eighties was full of ludicrous nonsensical rumours to do with football. Everything, from Celtic directors having affairs with players, an old woman from Ireland actually owning the club and Pepsi and Coca Cola vying to sponsor Rangers.
It was early June 1989 when I first heard that Maurice Johnston was going to sign for Souness & Murray. A work colleague who happened to live next to Mark McGhee, told me. He insisted that the player had told him it was going to happen. The colleague in question wasn’t a huge football fan but I just suspected he was on the wind up.
A few weeks after we had beaten Rangers in the Cup Final, we knew that his proposed move to Celtic was in trouble. Despite posing at Celtic Park in the most garish of jumpers it had now been revealed that the move wasn’t done and dusted and there was a good chance that he was not going to be performing in a green and white hooped shirt after all. There were newspaper stories of tax issues which of course fed other ludicrous innuendo. None of this reflected well on the Celtic board and we were left wondering how on earth we could call a press conference for a signing that actually involved the player himself but it turned out that there were still details to be ironed out.
The collapse of a transfer to Celtic was one thing. But him joining Rangers ? Nah, that made some of the stuff in the first paragraph seem rationale. I remember mentioning the story to Celtic supporting friends a week after I was heard the rumour, and getting laughed at for even passing it on. I don’t blame them, it seemed so far fetched. Even allowing for the fact that his agent was Bill McMurdo, aka “Agent Orange”, the story just didn’t seem credible.
Rangers, a team that didn’t sign Catholics, pinching the most high profile Celtic supporting Catholic forward from under Celtic’s noses. A player who when sent off against Rangers in a League Cup final, blessed himself as he left the pitch. Johnston had been a hero to many Celtic fans in his first spell at the club but he also had his fair share of issues with him adorning tabloid front pages as often as the ones at the rear. None the less, the Celtic support were almost unanimously delighted at his return from France, where he had two very good seasons at Nantes and shone brightly at International level. When we announced he was signing it felt as if we were finally going to take Souness and Murray on properly.
As the month of June wore on more folk began talking about the rumour. For a short spell Johnston himself seemed to put it to bed by sneering at it in an interview with a journalist saying, Rangers don’t sign Catholics. Then on July 10th1989 as I popped into the newsagent before boarding the bus to work, I saw the Sun front page. You knew it was credible because of that newspaper’s relationship to Graeme Souness – a relationship that eventually would cost the Rangers manager all the respect he earned at Liverpool.
Later that morning the Scottish media went crazy. Stunned disbelief as Johnston was paraded at a press conference before joining the Rangers training camp in Italy. Wearing a Rangers blazer and tie, Johnston would twist the knife into Celtic even further by describing Rangers as possibly one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Loads of Rangers fans were interviewed and we were treated to many giving their views on their club signing a Catholic. I remember one particular Rangers supporter saying, “If we had to sign one, at least we signed the best one.” Talk about looking on the bright side !!
For Celtic fans however there was just a feeling of numbness. Hit hard in a way that we’d never been hit before. Winning a Cup Final just two months earlier, singing “Mo, Mo , Super Mo” seemed like living in a different universe.
Johnston would go on to have a reasonable first season with Rangers and scored a sickener of a last minute winner at Ibrox against us. But his overall Rangers career started to tail off towards the end of his second season. He missed a sitter in Italia 90 that would have put Scotland through into the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time. He retired from international football, said he would come back and then retired again with Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh saying he felt insulted.
And less than two and half years after being most controversial Scottish football signing of all time, he was sold to Everton as his career began to slide a rapid rate. The move to Merseyside proved to be an expensive waste of money for the Toffees. Transfers to Hearts and Falkirk followed and he achieved next to nothing but his decision in the summer of 1989 would follow him everywhere.
In May 1994 Johnston would play for Hearts in a post season tournament against Celtic in Hamilton, Ontario. He was booed relentlessly throughout by the majority Celtic support, three and a half thousand miles away from Glasgow. He would move and live permanently in the USA in 1996. One of the earliest internet pages I ever saw was by a Kansas City Wiz fan who set up a Mo Johnston fan page in 1999. He was just a Mid-Westerner with no real idea as to the Old Firm rivalry. He had to take the page down after it was bombarded with abuse by Celtic fans – the first internet pile-on I had witnessed and to be honest not something we should be proud of.
At the end of the day this transfer is what his career is remembered for. Not his part in scoring one of the great Celtic team goals of all time (away at Love St in May 86), nor scoring twice to beat a very handy French national team at Hampden. Mention Mo Johnston and it’s the “Crossing the Divide” that is always brought up and very little else. He was certainly NOT rejected by those who go to Ibrox but he was never taken to their hearts either – despite joining in sing-a-long-a-sash at Rangers supporters functions. In their pantheon of nine-in-a-row, he is rarely mentioned with Goram, Hateley, McCoist, McCall, Butcher etc… Bizarre when you consider the fact that his signing was massively important for them.
It brought them hugely positive PR in that they had ended their signing policy of discrimination – although the idea that Rangers and its support had all of a sudden just abandoned any notion of bigotry is still absurd. It also knocked the stuffing out of Celtic in a way that nobody had ever envisaged – at least from a Celtic point of view.
It had huge ramifications for a number of seasons after it. Graham Walker an Rangers mad professor from Queens University Belfast was given a column in the Herald the day after Johnston signed and he gleefully questioned whether Celtic would ever recover. And whilst his wishes were never realised, the loss of the player and where he ended up was psychologically demoralising for anyone connected with Celtic. It was, I’m sure, one of David Murray’s motivations in sanctioning the deal.
Immediately after that day and for a long while after it we really felt vulnerable and exposed. If it was Johnston today, could it be McStay tomorrow ? I know that thirty years on that sentence just sounds plain daft but at the time anything seemed possible.
After the MoJo transfer saga came to an end, the following season and four more after that were absolute purgatory. 1989/90 was probably the worst I have experienced as a Celtic supporter. We signed Darius Dziekanowski, Paul Elliott and Mike Galloway. We won nothing, finished fifth, saw defeats such as 3-0 at home to St Mirren, got put out of Europe with the last kick of the game against Partizan after suicidal defending and lost the Scottish Cup Final on penalties. Of the three signings only Elliott was a success and he would leave Celtic after two years. And (you couldn’t make this up) because once again Celtic hadn’t negotiated a contract properly. The irony would have been off the richter scale if he had agreed to move to Rangers not so long after going back down South – they made him a big offer and he thought long and hard about it.
Looking back there was one silver lining. Whilst most Celtic fans I knew at the time in July 89 were strongly in favour of change at director level, some – particularly amongst older Celtic fans – still backed the family dynasties. Other than Gerry McSherry, support for the families evaporated over the course of the next year. You knew that the only way we were ever going to challenge again was by getting rid of messrs, White/Kelly/Farrell/Grant/McGinn from the boardroom. Johnston signing for Rangers would bring the debate to an end.
For Johnston himself, he became a very rich man. Possibly the first million pound footballer in terms of earnings in the UK. But when he is interviewed, he doesn’t come across as someone who looks back on his career in Scotland with fondness. He came onto the pitch at Ibrox a few year ago and used the term “we” when describing them. I could be wrong, but it just seemed half hearted. In other interviews he says he isn’t bothered who wins when we play each other.
Neil Lennon apparently invited him to Lennoxtown a few years ago. Johnston turned it down, he says, because he didn’t want to put Lenny in a “position. But if the Celtic manager wants to invite him to our training ground then I have no issue – although I suspect others will disagree. Johnston has made his decisions he’s the one that has to live with them.
Do I think he behaved well ? No, of course not, he did betray the club. Fifa also fined him £3000 for his role in the debacle. But it’s done. Yes, what he did was major factor in setting us set us back years on the pitch – but you have to attach a fair degree of responsibility to those running the club at the time as well – their incompetence was breathtaking. I don’t believe Celtic would now ever behave as unprofessionally as we did in 1989 – parading a player based on a letter of intent. We could have also paid the rest of the transfer fee to Nantes and controlled Johnston’s destination. We chose not to. A move that meant we were totally exposed to the humiliation that followed.
The club has moved on. But despite the money and medals he won at Rangers, looking back at Johnston’s career, I’m not sure he ever did.