Many years ago I used to enjoy listening to my Father and his friends debating as to when Jimmy Johnstone actually had his best ever game for Celtic.
There was plenty to choose from and each of those discussing Jimmy’s merits had their own opinion as to what game was his greatest match. There were all the usual games you would expect.
1967 Real Madrid in the Di Stefano testimonial.
1968 Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup.
1970 Leeds United in the European Cup semi final.
1971 Rangers in the Scottish Cup final replay.
1972 Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final 6-1 win.
And yet every one of them could recall another less glamorous occasion when Jinky scaled the heights and all were in agreement that this was one of the best if the best game the wee man ever played. This game was a 7-2 midweek win at Parkhead against Dundee United on 17 December 1969 in which Jimmy had his admirers of the time waxing lyrical over his display. .
At this time Celtic had just qualified for the European Cup quarter finals courtesy of beating Benfica and were anticipating a quarter final clash with Fiorentina in the New Year. Their league form had been patchy and it was somewhat unusual that Stein’s team had not yet had a spell on top of the table since the start of the season. Hibs had led the way in the league since September mainly due to the inspirational talents of Peter Marinello, another mercurial ball playing winger in the Johnstone mould.
Perhaps Jock Stein’s pre match motivational talk focused on the fact that a Celtic victory would fire them to the top of the table on that very night.
Dundee United came to Glasgow in good form in their new orange strips which they were now wearing for the first time at Parkhead, a colour change that was hardly likely to endear them to the Celtic support. United had first played in this colour under the Dallas Tornado moniker in the United Soccer Association competition of 1967 which they had been invited to participate in. After some persuasion by the wife of manager Jerry Kerr, the colour was later adopted as United’s own in August 1969 to give the club a brighter, more modern image.
Unfortunately few Celtic games were televised in those days and even fewer of them remain intact in the modern day making it impossible for us to personally witness how well Jimmy played that night so we have to rely on the contemporary reports from that time.
Celtic had clicked on the night and destroyed United and every Celtic player had been on form but Johnstone’s performance had eclipsed all of his team mates.
Pic: Harry Hood scores against Dundee United
Hugh Taylor of the Daily Record colourfully wrote: ‘The master magician was Jimmy Johnstone. The little winger has never produced a more exhilarating performance. Those who saw him in action last night saw a wizard at work.
Indeed, seldom has a winger been more effective. Matthews, Finney, Smith, Jackson and Best – all in their time have turned in blazing displays, all have gone down in history as having taken a game by the scruff of the neck and making it their own.
Johnstone has now equalled the greatest. He dazzled, diddled, danced. He jinked, jouked, jack-knifed. He baffled, bewildered, blinded. He beat two, three, then four opponents with ease.
The only disappointment was that Jimmy was the only Celtic forward not to score. Yet he nearly did – and if he had scored after gracefully waltzing past at least three defenders in the second half it would have been the goal of the decade. As it was his smashing shot hit the top of the post with goalkeeper Mackay still blinking.’
From the old Evening Citizen Bobby Maitland wrote: ‘Yet it was a Celt not on the scoring list who stamped his name all over this memorable match. I give you the entertainer extraordinary, Jimmy Johnstone. Never has he been so bewildering in tearing holes in a defence.
This exhibition against Dundee United even bettered his performance against Red Star Belgrade. George Best ? On this form Jimmy Johnstone makes him definite second best.’
In the Evening Times Jim Blair reported: ‘Wee Jimmy Johnstone, who had a joy night, then began to tease and torment. In one particular run he took on six men, beat them all, then waltzed round Willie Wallace ! Superlatives are easily come by these days but the wee man earned every one going last night.’
William Hunter described the following from the Glasgow Herald: ‘Little Jimmy Johnstone stood tallest. He beat three men, four, five. He flitted past opponents to the onside and outside; over and under; sometimes it seemed he even went through them.
Celtic might have gone on to make it eight, nine or even ten. Johnstone , who was by then thoroughly in his ‘daft’ period, shot from 50 yards and watched thoughtfully while the ball rebounded from the post square across the goal line.’
And so Celtic ran out spectacular winners on the night and went to the top of the league, a position they would not relinquish for the rest of the season.
So good was Jinky’s performance that at the final whistle he was given a rousing ovation from the fans on what was described as ‘a bleak winter’s night.’ Dundee United’s players lined up to shake the wee man’s hand in admiration and in great show of sportsmanship the ex Rangers winger Davie Wilson waited on the touch line to give the wee man a huge bear hug. This gesture was greatly appreciated as Wilson had been a formidable opponent in his Rangers days and was a fine winger on his own merits. Considering the ‘warm’ reception Davie had been given by the Celtic support on the night this was a gesture which put him in high regard with Celtic fans for the future.
Jimmy Johnstone was rightfully voted as Celtic’s greatest ever player and perhaps, just perhaps, this was actually his greatest ever performance in the hoops.