BRYAN COONEY brings you some of the interviews written for Sunday Herald readers in the Millennium. He begins with a memorable 2009 face to face with one of the greatest characters to come out of Scottish football – Willie Johnston.
The occasionally incendiary Johnston apparently loathes most journalists for the intrusive walk-on parts he claims they’ve played in his often fractious professional life. His biographer promotes that loathing, somewhat gratuitously at times, in the recently-released and revealing Sent Off at Gunpoint.
Initially, I’m confronted by narrowed eyes and a clearly suspicious mind. The ice-breaker presents itself when he suggests we’ve met before. His 61-year-old memory wins the accuracy award – it was in the Eighties, when the embers of a once effulgent career were still glowing in the Hearts dressing room.
“What will you do when you retire, Willie?” I had asked. His immediate response suggested there might be the possibility of a breakthrough into alternative comedy. “Oh, I don’t know, but there’s more than a chance I’ll blaw ma brains oot!”
The icecap surrounding Johnston melts as if global warming has come to Kirkcaldy’s doorstep. He laughs loudly, and that laughter is ostensibly a signed declaration that he won’t be pursuing any vendettas this day. Well, none directed against me, thankfully.
Others, such as Archie Gemmill and associates of the Scottish Football Association, however, will not find themselves similarly exempt from his rage.
Johnston pours himself a small lager – for some unaccountable reason, pint tumblers are anathema to him – before downloading an abridged version of an eclectic and explosive football career, representing, among others, Rangers, West Brom and Hearts: 22 caps for Scotland, 22 sending-offs; rows and rumpuses with famous managers, shed loads of humour, buckets of pathos.
We begin, however, with melodrama of the white-knuckle variety and a confession that, unaccountably, has failed to make his book.
It occurred after he had been accused of taking drugs (two Reactivan tablets) in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and summarily despatched, pariah-style, back to Scotland by his less than supportive employers. A lifetime’s international ban beckoned. No-one, it seems, had seemed interested in his conviction that the tablets had been taken to combat his hay fever.
The resultant prohibitions attached to the journey home persecute him still. He tells you there was no right of appeal, no phone calls allowed to his wife Margaret, and an awful 700-kilometre drive to Buenos Aires without any food. “I was taken to the British Embassy and then, at gunpoint, put in a seat in an empty plane. Ah, ya swine, it was a f****** nightmare!
“People began to come onto the aircraft and this boy sat next to me. I saw his newspapers; the story was all over them. I couldnae read Spanish but could guess at the headlines. Soon, we were off, heading to Rio, and then onto Paris and finally London., with Press and photographers ready to ambush me.
“I sat there and my mind was a mess. I had reached the lowest point of my life. Not long after take-off, the boy next to me pointed to the newspaper and said: ‘That’s you, isn’t it.’ I nodded my head. ‘Aye, it’s terrible,’ I replied. ‘Actually, I hope the plane goes down!’”
“’That’s very selfish,’ he said. ‘Think about the other passengers.’
“Right at that minute, I had not been thinking about the other passengers and realised the awful thing I ‘d said. ‘Aye, you’re right.’ I told him. ‘In that case, I hope you all survive and I get f****** killed!’
“Yeah, it was the lowest time of my life and you know, it could all have been stopped. That’s the SFA for you. They’re amateurs! Maybe they’re getting a wee bit better now, but so they should. They’ve had f*** knows how many years of learning!
“Look, I took two tablets which you could buy out of a chemist’s shop. I didnae ken there was a banned substance in thae tablets. I’ve never taken drugs, maybe fags, aye. But no’ wacky baccy, even. I was offered it once when I was playing in Vancouver, but I refused. Yet this whole thing has dominated my life and there’s been so much more to my life than that.
“My grandchildren come in and say they’ve read that I took drugs in Argentina; hey, I never took drugs in Argentina. Maradona took drugs; they all take drugs. Half the English Premier League takes f****** drugs. Everybody kens it. It’s rife, oh, f***, aye. But back then they (the Reactivan) didn’t enhance my performance against Peru…’cos I was s**** !”
So Johnston waits for the call from Hampden Park which would finally rescue him from the madness of Argentina. He is not overly optimistic of a reprieve, revealing that he encountered chief executive Gordon Smith recently without any positive proposals being discussed.
Ironically, he is calmness personified as he relates the news. It’s obvious the monkey clinging stubbornly to his back has evolved into a close relative of King Kong’s but, right now, the behemoth is benign. Not for long, however.
Another modest glass of lager appears at his elbow whilst he explains how caustic comments about Celtic’s Davie Provan made in his first book, On The Wing, drew him an SFA fine. He was playing for Hearts at the time and travelled through to Glasgow to confront the inscrutable face of officialdom. This was never going to be a walk in the Park Gardens.
“I just went in, sat doon, and this boy from Forfar, Brechin or wherever tells me that I’m a disgrace to football and a disgrace to this nation. I didnae even ken him. I says:’ Tell me your f****** name!’ And Ernie Walker, the chairman, says: ‘Willie, don’t start!’
“ I says: ‘He’s f****** started!’ And I says to the boy himself: ‘I’ve done mair for Scottish fitba than you’ll ever do in your whole entire life…you w***** !’At the end, Walker asks me if I had anything to say. ‘Yeah,’ I replied, ‘it’s now f****** half past one and you’re all going for your lunch. You’ve fined me £200. The wine’s on me ! Definitely!’”
The Park Gardens exchange was simply a colourful metaphor for Johnston’s playing career: ie: opponent sticks a malicious boot into Johnston; the infamous temper ignites and the retribution is the only game in town. Hereabouts, Johnston provides a remarkable insight into a business that once sponsored blood and pain.
He paints a vivid canvas: he’s transferred to England after his six years with Rangers. There’s a European Cup Winners’ medal in the bank but, on the debit side, six sending-offs against his name. But now he’s with West Brom and, hopefully liberated from all that combustion, what could possibly go wrong?
“I’d been in the Scottish team and wee Billy Bremner and Co were always telling me how good it was down there. And, to be fair, it was a lot easier in England than it was up here. At that time, they’d never heard of wingers. Alf Ramsey had got rid of them all. So the full-backs didn’t know how to play me. It was easy at first, a doddle. But then…
“Tommy Smith, he was fair; Norman Hunter, tae; the dirty merchants were Gilesey (Johnny), (Billy) Bremner, Allan Clarke; then you had Terry Paine from Southampton; he was a winger but an assassin.
“Big Jim Holton done me; six weeks he pit me oot. He nailed me a cracker. Frank Lampard broke my leg at West Ham. I got him back. I did. F*****g into the hospital ! I had to wait for aboot a season. I got Holton back at Old Trafford; he kent he was getting it, anyway.
“You see, I was an eye for an eye man. If you done me, I was coming back to get you. If you laid doon, you had nae chance. They would have just run over the tap of you. They would look for you in that tunnel. London was the worst. If you were playing Chelsea, Tottenham or even Arsenal, you’d hear someone saying: ‘Where’s this c*** Johnston?’ I used to stand there and shout back: ‘I’ll be there the noo.
“ ‘Go f****** high!’ they’d whisper. That was the thing at that time. I’d say: ‘You’re gaun high…well, I’m gaun higher! Go f****** high!’ That was me. I didnae give a f***!”
For all the physical mayhem, there were inimitable strands of humour; Johnston was an entertainer and insisted on pleasing the paying audience, whether it was trapping the ball with his backside (Brian Clough took exception to this), taking the field wearing a mask, drinking a fan’s beer (“it was warm,” Johnston complained), or striking an incredible bargain during a match..
Yes, there was a shed load of fun. Literally. “The purchase of a greenhouse is my top story .I’m about to take a corner and waiting for the cavalry to arrive. This boy, who sat near the corner flag every week, says: ‘Willie, they tell me you’re a good gardener but that you haven’t got a greenhouse. I’ve got one for sale.’
“My manager, Johnny Giles, is gaun crazy, wanting me to get the ball over. I’m shouting at him that I’m waiting on big John Wile coming up. Anyway, the next time there’s a corner, I says to this fan: ‘How much dae ye want?’ He disnae miss a beat. ‘Eighty quid,’ he says. ‘Away and take a f*** tae yerself!’ I says. ‘I could get a new one for that.’
“Another corner later, I think I eventually got him doon tae aboot forty or fifty quid. I got it delivered tae. I got a right bargain.
“Whenever I was taking a corner at the Hawthorns after that, I used to shake his hand. That’s how serious I was. They (managers) would always say: ‘Concentrate for 90 minutes, but I couldnae concentrate for 90 minutes. I’d be bored stiff at outside left. I wanted to play inside.”
One of those exasperated managers was Giles. Once, against Portsmouth, he had ordered Johnston to pinion his feet on the touchline so that he could take in the shape of the game. The player protested vociferously at half-time and suggested that he should be given more freedom of expression. Giles countered the eruption with one of his own.
“I’m not giving a f*** if you don’t get a kick for 90 f****** minutes. This is the West Bromwich show, not the Willie Johnston show. You’ll stand out there because you’re my outlet if I’m in trouble. You’re part of the f****** team, so get that in your f****** head!” Johnston was impressed not only with this show of authority but the pejorative delivery.
Other football personages failed to make such a favourable impression, notably Johnston’s erstwhile Scotland and Birmingham team-mate Gemmill. It is claimed the latter was originally one of the two players selected to be drugs tested after the match against Peru, but was obliged to default when he could not provide a specimen.
Johnston deputised. Gemmill later claimed he had been dehydrated; Johnston’s author derides that suggestion, pointing out that he (Gemmill) had only played for 20 minutes as substitute.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Johnston is scathing in his summation of the man. “I’ve got nae time for him; he’s one bad b******! And he kens. One thing is sure: he’ll no’ walk through that door.
“We were together at Birmingham for three or four months and I formed an opinion of him. Pit it this way…if you were ever in a trench, you widnae want him beside you. I believe he’d look after himself and widnae help other people.”
The Port Brae bar is filling up with thirsty customers and it may be a propitious time to end the interview with this immensely likeable fellow called Bud (he adopted the moniker when he wore a fur coat made fashionable by Bud Flanagan).
I have one question left. I’m talking to an emotional man. How emotional had he been the day he finished with Hearts? In return he tells you a story that would break most hearts.
“Oh, aye, I was crying that day. There’s a button in me and when it’s pressed…” So who pressed it? “Well, we had played Celtic in a reserve game and they beat us 6-1. This young boy was playing wide for us and I was in the middle. He didnae seem interested and I was starting to shout at him, which I never normally did.
“So afterwards, we’re in the bath and I says to him: ‘Dae ye ken what I was trying to say to you oot there?’ He looks at me: ‘Whit the f*** do you ken about fitba?’ I went: ‘You’re absolutely right! I ken f*** all about fitba. But, ken whit I’m gaun to dae with you? I’m gonna come back here in ten years and see where the f*** you are!’
“I walked out of the club, phoned my wife, told her I was staying with an old woman in Haymarket whom I’d kent for years and years. ‘ I’ll have a couple of drinks and see you tomorrow morning,’ I said. I walked back into Tynecastle and said: ‘Doddie (manager Alex MacDonald), goodnight and God Bless!’
“The boy? I’ve never heard of him since. Oh, it wisnae just about that, because I kent I was coming to the end anyway. But the boy just put the nail in the f****** coffin! It gave me a great excuse to get oot! That was really my finale. I’d just turned 38. Oh, I played three games for East Fife after that, but the ball never came out of the air. It was torture! It just didn’t want it any mair.”