Jimmy Johnstone’s performances in a Celtic jersey are the stuff of legend and there are many who recall his outstanding performances against Red Star Belgrade, Leeds United, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. This is without recounting his great displays against Rangers in the big Glasgow derby games as the wee man was always a player for the big occasions. However, there is a game which many fans of the period remember with great fondness, the 7-2 thrashing of Dundee United, just before Christmas 1969.
United turned out in their colourful new all tangerine strips and were confident of a result as they had enjoyed some favourable results against Celtic in recent seasons, and they were currently sitting in fourth place in the league. By their own standards, Celtic were having an indifferent time, and Hibs were actually on top of the table, inspired by their wonder kid, Peter Marinello. However, if Celtic won this game played in midweek, they would then go top for the first time that season. This was an important game for the Celts, as a victory would give them league leadership and a huge psychological advantage over the chasing pack.
The 26,000 crowd were privileged to witness Jimmy Johnstone at his magnificent best, with a devastating display of ball control and close dribbling. Jinky tantalised the United defence, and despite not scoring, he made all the headlines.
The next day’s newspapers struggled to find adjectives to describe Jimmy. The Evening Times reported that in one run, Jinky dribbled past six United defenders plus Willie Wallace into the bargain. The Glasgow Herald stated that : ‘Little Jimmy Johnstone stood tallest. Impossibly he beat three men, four, five. Then, in case anybody had not believed it the first time, he did it again. He flitted past opponents to the inside and outside; over and under; sometimes it seemed he went through them.’
The only thing Johnstone failed to do was score but he did hit the post with an incredible effort, said to be from 50 yards out. Although Johnstone was the outstanding personality on the night with his vast array of dribbling skills, Celtic had clicked as a team, and there were fine performances from Wallace, Murdoch and Hughes. Another stand out was the young right back, David Hay, who was keeping Lisbon Lion, Jim Craig, out of the side, and he teamed up magnificently with Johnstone on the right flank.
At time up the Celtic fans deservedly gave Johnstone a rapturous ovation and objective observers agreed that he was, at that time, one of the greatest players in world football with some of the Scots press saying that on this form he was even a level above the great Manchester United forward of the period, George Best.
Several Dundee United players waited at the pitch side to applaud Jimmy from the field, including the ex Rangers player Davie Wilson, who warmly shook the wee man’s hand. This was a wonderful gesture, considering Wilson had been given a hard time from the Celtic crowd, on account of him being a notable ex Rangers player.
This game was the launching pad to Celtic’s fourth consecutive league title and although Jimmy, on occasions, performed superbly against more illustrious teams in world football, there are those convinced that he never played better than on this cold December night in 1969.