Cooney and Black

Hey, Rod. See all that American crap – the punters don’t want that! Don’t give them all that old man’s stuff hinging over a microphone – gie them Maggie Mae!

Rod Stewart USA
IF Fernando Ricksen wasn’t the most talented Dutch player I have ever seen, I would defy the most critical football fan to find fault with his commitment.

Fernando delivered all that he possessed and then some more. I remember seeing him on telly one night and it looked as if foam was going to fly out the side of his mouth.

Aye, he had spirit all right. A wild man at times, yeah, but in a good Rangers team at the time, he gave them something that was required: he went and got the ball and gave it to players who could do something with it.

He had a temper and a big dollop of attitude in those days. And now, as he admitted on that Dutch television show, he has Motor Neurone Disease. To fight this dirty and terrible illness, he’s going to need every bit of attitude that God gave him.

The Ricksen revelation, inevitably, conjures up memories of an old friend – Jimmy Johnstone. The Wee Man was claimed by the same disease back in 2006, but God gave him an attitude that was disproportionate to his size and he gave MND a helluva run for its money. That he lasted so long would be down to the character of the guy. He had been a battler all his life and he wasn’t going to bottle it with this one.

Each time I met him, he was always bright. You could see the deterioration in him – physically he wasn’t in great shape and he’d lost the power in his arms – but he was just Wee Jimmy: full of laughs and carry on.

I met him one day and he says to me: ‘Go into ma pocket. I’ve got money here. Get yersel a drink.’ He couldn’t lift anything up, so he had to drink through a straw. But you still saw the wee sparkle in his eyes. He always had that. That sparkle caused me to think of better days…

I had my first meeting with him when I joined the ground staff at Celtic Park. I was 14. He took an immediate interest in me because I was from Bellshill and he was from Viewpark. When I went full-time, me and Tommy O’Hara, another likely lad from Viewpark, used to get picked up by Jimmy.

Wee Jimmy had a big Jaguar, with two cushions on the driving seat so that he could see over the steering wheel. He was always going to get us outside Dominic’s shop at twenty-five past nine. We were supposed to start at ten. Needless to say, that hour would come and go. The half-hour would come and go. And so on. I’m thinking to myself: ‘Jesus, I’m only in the place and here’s me – late!’

Eventually, Jimmy would pitch up and we’d be driving past the training pitch at Barrowfield as the players were running up to it. When it happened once, we got a bit of a chinwag for it. It happened twice and Big Jock Stein was going off his nut. That’s when we got a tug. ‘Listen,’ says Jock, ‘you let the Wee Man come in on his ain. You get the bus!’

Twenty odd years on we were playing for Dukla Pumpherston at Baillieston. At that time, he’d been body swerving the booze for weeks. I gave him a ring and asked if he’d play for us. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. Forget the Jaguar days – he was bang on time and his wee face was daisy fresh.

It was just a joy to be on the park with him: he was jinking around, trying all the wee bits and flicks. Bailleston had left beers in the dressing room and we were going to their social club afterwards. These two guys – booted and suited – walked into the dressing room as Jimmy was getting his gear off. They sat on either side of him.

I thought they were polis. I asked them if they were supposed to be in this hallowed place. They said they were. I tried again. ‘Are you polis?’

‘Naw,’ they replied, ‘we’re from Alcoholics’ Anonymous ! And we’re here to make sure Jimmy goes straight hame!’ They just huckled him out of the door, with the Wee Man still shouting: ‘Thanks, boys!’

‘He was thanking us! Listen, when Jimmy was on form like that, he was an absolute joy to be around. That wee guy could lighten up the darkest day. And I suppose there were a whole lot of darkest days ahead for him. Not that you would know.

Hey, I didn’t see a lot of him when the disease took hold of him, but when I did, it was never mentioned. I’d ask him how he was feeling and his responses was: ‘Aye, I’m dynamite!’ You never sat down and had a half-hour’s conversation with Jimmy Johnstone about Motor Neurone Disease.

Not long before he died, I was out walking my dog when I met Jimmy’s wife Agnes. She told me that Rod Stewart had come out to visit him. It was just at the time that Rod had brought out his album with all the standards. Wee Jimmy apparently shouts: ‘Come here, Big Man. See all that American classic shite – the punters don’t want that! Don’t give them all that old man’s stuff hinging over a microphone – gie them Maggie Mae!’

Agnes told me she was mortified. But that was Wee Jimmy. When he had something to say, it had to come out. Never mind the consequences. As I said earlier, I didn’t see a lot of him but, any time I did, he was trying to be himself. And that’s how it should have been.

Jimmy Johnstone was exceptionally strong, not just mentally but physically. I used to say to people that he could have been a classy full back, or a tremendous midfield player, a right half in the mould of Billy Bremner. He could have played in goal as well. In fact, if he’d really wanted, he could have been a centre-half. Hey, I remember him beating an England defender (I think it was Roy McFarland) for a header at the back post at Hampden.

He was just a bundle of energy, somebody who just wanted to play fitba, to entertain, play passes, beat people, score goals. The game was his life and he was never happier than when he was playing it.

And when that was all over and the doctors gave him the worst possible news, he took the guts and determination that he’d been famous for and applied it to the reality of life.

My suspicion is that Fernando Ricksen possesses the same kind of character. My thoughts – and those of all real football fans – are with him.

 

 

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