Willie Johnston almost dares you to ask the question, so much that it is tempting to break convention and just avoid the subject altogether. The elephant in the room. His greatest brush with infamy. The lowest ebb of his football career. But the words are out before you can even find some fresh angle to the tale.
“So Willie, Argentina…”
“Worst period of my football life. Worst in my whole life, apart from my wife dying,” comes the reply, sharply. Johnston knows every interviewer just has to ask him about that bizarre, humiliating episode back in June 1978. And he will continue to answer in the same way.
Forty years ago Johnston, one of the best wingers to don a Scotland shirt, was unceremoniously ejected from the national football squad, driven for hours to Buenos Aires and dumped in the British Embassy until a couple of gun-toting Argentine policemen escorted him to the airport where he was put on a plane home, alone. In all, the journey from the Scottish hotel at Alta Gracia to Heathrow was to take nearly three days.
Four decades later, the circumstances still feel raw. Johnston failed a drugs test on the basis that two hay-fever tablets he took before Scotland’s disastrous opening game against Peru contained a banned substance, Fencamfamin. That three-day sojourn home to England, solitary until an unwelcome troupe of reporters and photographers boarded at Paris to watch his every move during the last leg, was painful and sad.
Willie Johnston was on the front page of every UK newspaper, and many more around the world, for days. At London, his club manager Ron Atkinson was the only familiar face to greet him, alongside a bevy of police and even more media. Atkinson persuaded him to do an uncomfortable live interview on BBC Nationwide, an episode which Johnston felt he had been conned into by his manager. But at least his gaffer had managed to spirit the player’s beloved wife Margaret to a hotel in Oxford, well away from home in the West Midlands. “My wife and family went through hell because of Argentina, in the street and at school. It was rotten,” he recalls.
Johnston had taken Reactivan, a medication available over the counter at any pharmacy, and hardly considered a performance-enhancing drug. He had suffered from a cold for several days, and took the tablets in complete ignorance. As he says ruefully, “it’s not as if it enhanced my performance in that game…”
Back in 1978, I had the overwhelming sense that Johnston was being made a scapegoat for Scotland’s defeat, and ultimately for the country’s embarrassing exit from a tournament which the vainglorious Ally MacLeod had actually talked about winning. FIFA, whose dope-testing rules were unclear and whose practices were at best rudimentary and perhaps dubious, wanted Johnston to receive just a one-year ban. But the Scottish Football Association barred him for life. His unceremonious dumping by the SFA, left to travel home unaccompanied, stank of petty vengeance.
Forty years later it is hard not to conclude that the unfortunate winger had been skewered by his own side, and hung out to dry. He became the cypher for Scottish embarrassment at a shambolic campaign, on and off the pitch.
The irony is that Johnston had been recalled to the Scotland squad by Willie Ormond just a year earlier. Throughout his career in England – he joined West Bromwich Albion from Rangers in 1972 – there had been no caps. He does not wholly blame the authorities for that, pointing out that Scotland had been blessed with excellent left wingers over the period, including Leeds United’s Eddie Gray, Coventry’s Tommy Hutchison and Arthur Graham of Aberdeen. But Ormond told Johnston that he was reinstating him against the specific wishes of the SFA.
In 1976 and 1977 Johnston was on great form, part of a club team that included Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Tony Brown and player-manager Johnny Giles, with whom he developed a strong friendship. When MacLeod took over from Ormond, he retained Johnston, who was to be named player of the tournament during a visit to Chile prior to the World Cup.
A precocious talent, Johnston was never a favourite with the blazers in Park Gardens, which might explain his appalling treatment in Argentina. As a young Rangers player, he had won nine caps by 1970, but had also built an unenviable ‘bad boy’ reputation, receiving numerous red cards. These were the days when defenders would mete out punishment to a pacy winger to a far greater degree than today. While there is no doubt he had a temper, most of his red cards were for retaliation. Opponents tried to wind him up, and often succeeded with brutal tackles. The rough attention was almost a compliment – Johnston was two-footed, fast and tricky, and easily one of the best players of his time in the Scottish game.
In person today, it is hard to relate the demonised Johnston of 1978 with the reality of the 71-year-old with an impish grin and an old-school tobacco habit. We met in the doorway of Argyle House on an Ibrox match-day, where he shares hospitality duties with his great friend, Colin Stein. “We were invited in about seven years back after Ralph Brand and Jimmy Millar retired from doing it,” he explains. Now he meets and greets fans at the stadium, posing for selfies and signing autographs. He is just back from a big supporters’ social in Australia.
Few footballers of his generation made much money, compared to today, but they remain embedded in the affections of ordinary fans.
Willie Johnston was born in Glasgow but raised in Fife. At 15 he started working down his local pit at Bowhill, near Kirkcaldy, in the footsteps of his father. Playing for Bowhill Strollers, he spent two weeks at Manchester United on trial – alongside a teen talent from Belfast, George Best – but opted to return to Scotland rather than take up their signing offer. “I was homesick. Ended up back in Fife, not sure where to go. Two months short of my 16th birthday Rangers offered me an apprenticeship as a groundsman and I took it,” he recalls.
By 17 instead of tending the Ibrox pitch he was playing on it, having broken into the first team early. The young ex-miner was suddenly playing alongside the elite of the Scottish game, including Brand, John Greig, Davie Wilson and of course fellow-Fifer Jim Baxter.
The Rangers of the 1960s were a formidable team that won fewer trophies than they might have, mainly as a result of Celtic’s inexorable rise under Jock Stein. It is remarkable that, despite winning championships later in England and North America, Johnston never won a Scottish league title. Did he and his team-mates feel overshadowed by Celtic? “No, they were a great team. Players like wee Jimmy (Johnstone), Bobby Lennox, John Clark, Tommy Gemmell and so on, and an excellent manager. But we knew we could beat them in a head to head, games were still close between us,” he points out.
In 1967 Rangers lost the European Cup Winners’ Cup to a single extra-time goal against Bayern Munich, in a final staged in Nuremberg, almost a home venue for the German side. “Celtic had won the European Cup just the week before, so it was really disappointing,” recalls Johnston. “When we got to Barcelona five years later, we were determined to win, especially because of that Bayern result.”
Barcelona was the highlight of his Rangers career. The Ibrox side swept into a 3-0 lead in the first 50 minutes against Dynamo Moscow, with Johnston scoring two. He was rampant in that game, which ended 3-2. The whole team played well. For Rangers, the win was redemptive, recognition that this was indeed an excellent football team.
Johnston’s relationship with authority had not improved, however. His autobiography, published a decade ago, includes several anecdotes about his at-times fractious relationship with managers. Scot Symon, who first brought him into the side, was a respected disciplinarian who warned the teenage Johnston to steer clear of Jim Baxter’s “bad influence”. He got on well with three West Brom bosses – Atkinson, Johnny Giles and Don Howe. His relationship with the prickly Willie Waddell at Ibrox was more difficult.
Soon after Barcelona, Johnston asked for a rise. He was on £60 a week and wanted £80. Waddell made it clear he was getting no more. He was sold abruptly to West Brom, where he doubled his wages to £120. There was an unsentimental exchange in the manager’s office at Ibrox and he was off. “Football was different then. When I think of the money the lads get now…” he trails off. Imagine what a modern-day Willie Johnston might have earned, especially in England.
His reputation grew south of the Border, as he helped his side to promotion back to the top division by 1976.
It is sometimes forgotten that Johnston returned to Rangers not long after the Argentine debacle. Manager John Greig wanted him to give a young wing star Davie Cooper some competition – “I was there to give him a kick up the arse!” laughs Johnston. A second, shorter stint in Vancouver was followed by a move to Hearts, the team he supported as a boy.
Apart from the red cards, and Argentina, and of course Barcelona, there are some great anecdotes about Willie Johnston. Like the time he was sent off at gunpoint, when an over-zealous New York City cop intervened while the player disputed yet another red card, playing for Vancouver Whitecaps. His then-teammate, the late England star Alan Ball, loved telling a story about Willie taking a sip from a fan’s beer while preparing to take a corner. It is tempting to doubt the tale until, inevitably, film of the incident shows up on YouTube. There is even another video of Ball telling the story too.
West Bromwich fans revel in the tale of the greenhouse. Willie, a keen gardener, reputedly negotiated the purchase of said shed with a supporter over a couple of games whilst taking corners and throw-ins. “I got the price down eventually, £45 I think,” he recalls.
He cannot hide his lasting bitterness about Argentina. He had been recovering in the bath when Archie Gemmill arrived and told him he had to give a post-match urine test. He headed to the room where the tests were taken, finding himself with teammate Kenny Dalglish and Peruvians Ruben Diaz and Teofilo Cubillas, who had tormented Scotland during that 3-1 defeat earlier.
Johnston did not know that Gemmill himself had been selected for the test, but pleaded that he was too dehydrated, despite having come on as a substitute late in the game. He claims also that the samples were not labelled, and that the testing itself was inadequately managed.
Forty years have elapsed, and there is no doubt that questions remain. Where was the SFA’s duty of care towards its own player? Why was there no appeal? Why was Johnston banned from international football by his own association? Around the story is the stench of old scores being settled. In addition, there had been considerable unrest within the Scotland camp over bonus payments, and over the behaviour of individuals including Lou Macari, the Manchester United player who was selling ‘inside info’ about the disarray to the tabloids. Scotland players were at odds with each other, and with the SFA, throughout their brief and disastrous campaign.
The shambles ran deeper of course. The SFA of 1978 was inept. Some officials seemed to view the players as an irritating inconvenience. Such was MacLeod’s hubris about potentially winning the championship that the squad had actually negotiated a £20,000 bonus per man for the trophy. Sponsors Umbro promised a further pool of £120,000 for winning. Gemmill and Macari, two of the higher-paid club players, wanted more.
This over-rated and ill-prepared squad was to lose to Peru, draw with the ‘minnows’ of Iran and then – weirdly – defeat Holland in their final game before following Johnston home. MacLeod’s supposed trophy winners couldn’t get through their qualifying group.
SFA secretary Ernie Walker had previously described their hotel as “an Argentinian Gleneagles” when in fact the quarters were poor and players’ rooms lacked carpeting, while the swimming pool lacked any water. MacLeod couldn’t brief his team about Peru because he had never actually watched them. Any disgrace in Argentina did not belong to Willie Johnston alone.
The Scottish shambles attracted massive, negative headlines back home. The criticism was even reflected by a Foreign Office bureaucrat in Buenos Aires who referred to the Scottish party as “provincials”.
We were asking for it really, the sneering of haughty civil servants and the world-weary criticism of Fleet Street. MacLeod and his men had been waved off by a staggering 30,000 people at Hampden, before heading off for Argentina amid ridiculous talk about actually winning the tournament. A line from Andy Cameron’s teeth-grinding chart topper Ally’s Tartan Army chanted “The English arenae going, cos they didnae qualify!”
The SNP were making a lot of noise in Parliament. Our fans had invaded Wembley and broken the goalposts after a rare Scottish victory there in 1977. We could hardly expect the English establishment, or its media, to resist putting the boot in after all that.
Jock Stein happened to be at the BBC studios the night Johnston did his live interview alongside Ron Atkinson. Stein, long an admirer, comforted Johnston and told him that if he wanted to return to Scotland he could sign for Celtic. Flattered, the ex-Rangers winger said ‘no’, presumably reckoning that he had taken on enough hassle for the moment. The two men shared origins in the mines, and perhaps Stein recognised the need to reach out and offer moral support. He had first tried to sign the 15-year-old Johnston for Dunfermline, and three years later, as interim Scotland manager, he gave the teenage Rangers star his first full Scottish cap, against Poland in 1965.
A final season with East Fife in 1985, then Johnston bought a pub in Kirkcaldy, running it for 20 years. Such is the fate of so many stars of his generation. There’s no big pension pot, no flash lifestyle. Willie Johnston has lived in the same house looking across the Kirkcaldy esplanade towards the North Sea for decades. He does not drive or own a mobile phone. Apart from football, he is a long-retired publican with a quick laugh and a lot of memories.
Above all, he was a supremely fast player with first-class dribbling skills.
As a young man, he hated playing on the wing, but his speed meant that managers wanted him there. “I was a classy inside forward! I wanted to stay in there as you had a better chance of scoring. But in the end I was put out on the wing and that was that.”
For those who saw him play at Rangers, West Brom and Scotland, he is remembered as a winger with real pace and strong crossing and shooting abilities. His impish humour was evident during most of his career, on and off the pitch. His nickname, Bud, was given him by John Greig at Ibrox when the young Johnston turned up wearing a full-length fur coat, similar to that favoured by the English comedian Bud Flanagan.
He has always protested against a bad boy image, the result of nearly 20 career red cards. But he has owned up with great regret to one incident that deserved his dismissal. He barged the Aberdeen player John McMaster and stamped on his opponent’s head, leading to his victim requiring the kiss of life on the field. Johnston’s explanation – that he had mistaken McMaster for his tough-tackling captain Willie Miller – hardly mitigates blame.
That aside, Willie Johnston’s tragedy is that for many he is remembered for all the wrong reasons. Argentina hangs over his head more than most Scots, for whom it is a bitter memory. Better to remember him leaping with joy as he scored in that great victory in the Camp Nou. Or as the cheeky player who was doing so well against Celtic in the 1970 League Cup final that he sat on the ball, goading opposing right-back Jim Craig to come and tackle him. That trophy was his club’s first in five years, and the game was his. Rangers fans loved his gallusness.
His manager, Willie Waddell, took a dimmer view. He fined him a week’s wages for gamesmanship. Sometimes in football you just can’t win.