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The Judas Johnston Affair
There is not a name in the history of Celtic Football Club which provokes the same strength of feeling as that created by the utterance of ‘Maurice Johnston’.
No player who has ever worn the Hoops is so universally despised by the Celtic support as the man who went from being hailed ‘Super Mo’ to becoming known simply as ‘Judas’.
Johnston’s act of betrayal to the club he professed to love still rankles deeply even today – almost 20 years since he jilted Celtic to sign for Rangers.
But while this shock move can be partly explained by the player’s greed and the astuteness of Rangers, much of the blame must lie at the feet of the incompetent Celtic board.
A boyhood Celtic fan, Johnston became a terrace idol when he netted 52 goals in 100 appearances for the Bhoys before joining Nantes in the summer of 1987. Despite being a success on the pitch Johnston had not really settled in France and while on international duty had made it known to ex-Celtic team-mate Roy Aitken that he would welcome a return to Parkhead.
Aitken passed this information on to Billy McNeill and with the Celtic manager attempting to keep up with a resurgent Rangers the wheels were put in motion to bring Johnston back to Parkhead. McNeill informed Johnston he would deal with him but didn’t want anything to do with his agent Bill McMurdo, a staunch Rangers fan, Celtic hater and member of the Orange Order.
Johnston agreed to this request and signed an agreement to join Celtic on July 1st 1989 in a club record £1.2m deal. Celtic chairman Jack McGinn and director Chris White flew to France to pay Nantes a £400,000 deposit on the deal.
The club then checked with officials at FIFA to ensure that the all the paperwork was correct and legally binding. FIFA assured Celtic that everything was in order. Although Johnston had not signed a contract his letter of intent was akin to the pre-contract agreements signed by players today.
This being the caseCeltic decided to announce the deal to the public and despite having not actually signed a contract Johnston was paraded before the media back in the Hoops as a Celtic player. The following week at a sunny Hampden a Joe Miller strike gave Celtic the cup and denied Rangers the treble. After a disappointing season the joyous Hoops support were now revelling in an unexpected feelgood factor.
However, what Johnston had failed to mention at his ‘unveiling’ was that he had with him correspondence from McMurdo informing Celtic that his company and not Nantes owned Johnston’s contract. McMurdo’s letter made it clear that unless Celtic spoke to him then no deal would be completed.
While Celtic attempted to resolve their outstanding issues with Johnston, McMurdo was enjoying lunch with Graeme Souness. The Rangers manager was an admirer of Johnston as a player and he quizzed his friend as to why he had let the striker rejoin Celtic. McMurdo made it clear that the move to Parkhead was far from done and dusted. Souness did not need to be asked twice. He was astute enough to know that by stealing a former Parkhead hero from under the noses of a desperate Celtic would be a bitter blow to his rivals. Should he strengthen his own club in the process then all the better.
Both Ibrox chairman David Murray and Souness knew that in terms of the bigger picture the club’s sectarian signing policy was a hinderance and that if they seriously wanted to challenge the best on the continent then this particular facet of their deplorable tradition had to be dumped. And what better way to do it than by striking a major blow against your fiercest rivals.
By now Celtic and the player had publically acknowledged there was a ‘problem’ with the deal but outwardly both at least expressed the expectation that these matters would be ironed out. Behind the scenes concern was growing with every passing minute at Parkhead. Celtic had confirmed once more with FIFA that the agreement signed by the player was legally binding.
Safe in the knowledge that it was Billy McNeill was satisfied that there was little to worry about the growing rumours sweeping the Glasgow grapevine than Rangers had made a move for Johnston. At the very least he thought Celtic could pay the remaining £800,000 to Nantes which would give them Johnston’s registration. Even if the player didn’t agree to play they would at least control his football destiny and prevent Rangers from completing a sensational signing coup.
However the Celtic board had other ideas and despite having Johnston’s signature on a legally binding agreement they announced - while McNeil was on holiday in Florida - that they were withdrawing from the deal. That short-sighted decision left the door wide open for Murray and Souness to close the deal on the most controversial signing in Scottish football history. After weeks of whispers Johnston was unveiled to the world as a Rangers player at Ibrox on July 10th 1989.
The reaction from the Rangers support was one of anger. Season tickets were cancelled, scarves burnt and many supporters vowed never to return. They did of course as Rangers went from strength to strength on the pitch and began a near decade long dominance of the domestic game. Such bigotry was not confined to the stands though and some of Johnston’s new team mates were less than happy at having to share a dressing room with a Catholic – even one as clearly lapsed in faith and morals as Johnston.
The reaction from the Celtic support was ferocious. But unlike the Rangers support this ill feeling was not born from bigotry but out of a deep sense of betrayal. Here was a player who had enticed the club to take him back into its fold but when Celtic needed him most he jilted them for their most bitter rivals in the cruellest of fashions.
The Celtic support were not just angry at the player but also at the board for the bumbling incompetence that they showed throughout the whole fiasco and the manner in which they all but gifted Rangers the opportunity to complete their coup.
Together Johnston and the board had left the fans feeling let down and humiliated. The switch obviously meant that Johnston burnt his bridges with the Hoops fans for good. For the White/Kelly axis which ran the board it was in many ways the beginning of the end as they were to never again regain the confidence of the support.
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