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Jimmy Johnstone obituary - Daily Telegraph
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Wee Lisbon Lion who was the pride of Celtic
JIMMY JOHNSTONE - who died yesterday, aged 61, after a long and courageous struggle against motor neurone disease - was a Scottish football archetype. A member of Celtic's legendary Lisbon Lions side of 1967 - the first British team to win the European Cup - Johnstone was idolised by the Parkhead fans and his reputation was enhanced by the release of a video of his most memorable exploits that allowed new generations to marvel at his unsurpassed close-control skills. s
Those fans voted him Celtic's greatest ever player in 2004 and the sight of Johnstone walking out on to the Parkhead turf to receive his award amid the unfeigned adulation of 60,000 spectators, all of whom knew that he had suffered from an appalling condition for three years, brought tears to many.
The heartfelt tributes paid yesterday from all sides of the Scottish game, and beyond, repeatedly emphasised Johnstone's outstanding attributes - bravery, resolution and irrepressible humour. Yet he had been a most improbable athlete and was very frequently wayward, on and off the pitch.
At 5ft 4in he was a slight figure, but his unmistakeable thatch of ginger hair signified a temper which some opponents sought to exploit, occasionally successfully. Johnstone's talent was singular in most senses of the word and in Jock Stein's Celtic, he found the ideal context for his unique brand of self-expression. Though he later played briefly for Sheffield United, he was well past his best when he moved south.
Certainly, he could never have flourished with a technocrat for a manager and, in a contrast that remains delectable, Johnstone took the winger's art to the ultimate just as Sir Alf Ramsey outlawed the breed. Long after he retired, Jimmy told me how, as a boy, he used to climb over the railings of St Columba's School in Uddingston, near his home on the outskirts of Glasgow, to hone his skills on the deserted premises.
"I used to go into the playground and I practised for hours and hours on end, running with the ball, sprinting, twisting and turning,'' he said. "There was a wall about a hundred yards long and as I went up and down I played one-twos off it and then, when I went home, I would put milk bottles down and go in and out of them for another hour or two.''
During these solitary night classes Johnstone acquired the contortionist shimmies that earned him his nickname of Jinky. Film can subdue the artistry of previous ages, but even on grainy black and white footage, his astounding capacity to persuade his torso, hips and feet to move in three directions at once remains dazzling.
His habit of stopping dead in mid-sprint, then spinning off at an improbable angle, drew a vivid tribute from his Celtic captain. "He must have groin muscles of steel,'' said a mightily impressed Billy McNeill.
Jinky had a heart of titanium, too. He endured many shameless assaults during his career, most notoriously in a European Cup semi-final at Celtic Park in 1974, when the Atletico Madrid players took it in turn to chop him brutally to the turf.
Bloody, bruised and skinned, Johnstone repeatedly rose to run straight at his most recent assailant, in a demonstration of true courage and indefatigability. Mind you, he could exasperate his colleagues with the unpredictability of his play, sometimes evidently returning to go past an already beaten opponent just for the fun of it.
And what fun it was as opposing players skidded, floundered - or kept well out of humiliation's way. To this day, Celtic fans believe that his modest total of 23 caps for Scotland reflected a bias against him and their club within the Scottish football establishment. Even Stein, when in temporary charge of the national side for seven games, never found a place for the mercurial Jinky.
A chart of Johnstone's meanderings during a game would yield the football equivalent of a Jackson Pollock canvas - overflowing with dizzying swirls and swoops. Like Pollock, Jinky's art could neither be surpassed nor followed.
Jimmy Johnstone was perhaps the last footballer to play the game by himself. It was his transcendent achievement to have made such a solitary pursuit accessible to so many admirers.
© 2006 Telegraph Group Limited, London
The Daily Telegraph
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