By the time Willie Johnston arrived at West Bromwich Albion in the dying, burning embers of 1972, he wasn’t as much transferred as run out of Scotland by a never-ending wave of Scottish FA disciplinary posses. For a man who was permanently on the whip end of some latest rap, calling him the ‘Free’ may seem incongruous. But it was that freedom of spirit, of playing for the one true higher body that was ‘William Johnston FC’ rather than anybody else that sets him apart. Don’t let that suggest he wasn’t a team player, but he answered to himself before anyone else.
He truly was a law unto himself. What he felt or saw he reacted to irrespective of team or manager. Small and strong, fleet and irritating, he attracted all sorts of trouble onto his being. There was a touch of the outlaw about him. Untameable, one felt that he must be a nightmare to manage but that wasn’t really true. If left alone he was more than happy to get on with the game and provided goals and crosses for his team wherever he went. It is just he wouldn’t walk away from trouble, and once that becomes known on the football field, trouble will invariably come looking for you. It still doesn’t explain kicking a referee up the backside who was sending him off.
He had seen plenty of it in his time with Rangers in the 60s. But he had been a ferocious threat for Rangers and indeed he had scored twice in the final when they won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1972 against Dynamo Moscow. This free spirit many argued came from that other Scottish genius of the sixties, Jim Baxter, who like Johnston came from Fife. He was happy to take the 17-year-old Johnston under his wing when he broke into the Rangers’ first team in 1965. I’m not so sure. Willie Johnston was always Willie Johnston.
For me, Johnston always had his own head on his shoulders. Like Leighton James, he almost fills his own generic box of different personalities in our top ten. ‘Scottish, aggressive, tricky individual’ almost feels like a lazy slot created because there really ought to be one of them. Yet, he was unbelievably very much a bit of a lone wolf on that front. Other Scottish wingers of the time namely Eddie Gray, John Robertson, Peter Lorimer and Charlie Cooke to name a few, were never at such proximity with the red mist that swirled through his own cerebral heather.
But he could play and many a Rangers and West Brom fan will talk fondly all day about him. He was an entertainer and a character. Almost a touch of the Gazza about him. The bigger the stage the bigger the outrage. His party trick was sitting on the ball when it was clear the opposition bored him. He had done this against Celtic and Dynamo Moscow in that 1972 European final, earning a fine from his manager for the former occasion. But he was like a terrier needing further stimulation. His other habit tended to involve going back to a full-back to beat them again if the first time had been too easy. Such was the scope and latitude of football in those days.
One could argue there were shades of George Best in there who liked that sort of thing. Of our 10, I might suggest Johnston was probably up there among the fastest with Dave Thomas and Laurie Cunningham perhaps. It would be a good race. Indeed one of his habits was simply to push the ball far ahead of his opponent and chase it such was his acceleration. Simple, cheeky football! It wasn’t just a push either. The ball was cast out like a fishing-line so that the game was officially on with his opponent. This all appealed to his own personal sense of fun. This suggests he was a one-trick pony but this would be wrong as he could come at you and go at you either side with the ball tied to his foot. He ran low and hard like a rabbit and was one of the great exponents of that phrase – ‘dropping the shoulder.’
Johnston could build up a fearsome head of speed and had a hammer shot invariably at the end of such a run. His nose for goal was well-honed and he had a good sense of knowing where to be when loose balls dropped in the penalty area. But his street sense of football meant he knew how to do damage. Many a West Brom fan believed he arrived just too late at the club as he could have provided all sorts of aerial ammunition for that legendary centre-forward, Jeff Astle. He worked particularly well with Johnny Giles when he was manager as clearly, one football man recognised another.
For many though, his very name simply begins and ends with the sending home from Argentina 1978, after inadvertently taking some anti-histamine which had been on a banned list. Many smirked when the brand name of the drug was called Reactivan. Too true, Willie! Considered too much of a liability he had not been picked at all for Scotland for most of the 70s. There is little doubt that the SFA hung him out to dry, no doubt glad to find such an easy scapegoat after all his disorderly appearances in front of them down the years. The TV footage with him walking through the airport as he was sent home showed a very unsupported and bewildered man. One got the feeling it was Ronnie Biggs coming home from South America rather than a footballer.
It was a tough experience for him and the upshot was that be needed to leave West Brom in 1978 to escape the furore. They had a young Laurie Cunningham well in situ as a replacement and Johnston left for Vancouver Whitecaps. He returned to Rangers at the beginning of the next decade where he earned further notoriety by standing on the neck of Aberdeen’s John McMaster though he ‘thought’ it was Willie Miller.
“I always got my retaliation in first” was his mantra and if that upset a few people too bad. His footballing life was simply lived on his own terms at whatever cost and if that meant being sent off 20 or so odd times so be it. One of his red cards against Fiorentina with police drawing guns on him informs his autobiography ‘Sent off at Gunpoint’ which really says it all.
Yes, I remember him as a bundle of dynamite with the number 11 on the back but he was one major exponent of left-wing play when I was young. He was one of those people who bent little to whatever environment he found himself. Be it football, the army, or even prison it all would have had minimal effect on ‘Wee Bud’ more than the other way round. Such was the colour he brought with him. But he entertained fans and that carried him through any horizontal splenic blizzard from authority figures. People like Willie kept close to the beating heart of the fan and the game. There were plenty whose heart went faster once he got the ball.