Martin Donaldson with Celtic’s 500 Club – Jimmy Johnstone: Greatest Ever Celt

In 2002, the title of Greatest Ever Celt was bestowed on one James Connelly Johnstone. It may have been over a quarter of a century since Jinky had last pulled on the famous hooped jersey in a competitive match for his beloved Celtic, however, the lasting legacy of the The Lord of the Wing ensured those who were fortunate enough to watch him in his prime and those who could only dream of watching him tie defenders in knots voted the wee man from Viewpark as the greatest of them all.

Jinky exuded everything that represents Celtic and The Celtic Way, from the desire to entertain to his ability to come back stronger after a fall (or in most cases a crunching late tackle or tackles). In his 12 years with the club, Jinky won every trophy available at the top of the Scottish game as well as helping to deliver the greatest prize in European club football.

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The meteoric rise of the team under the stewardship of Jock Stein banished a barren spell for the club, propelling the members of the Lisbon Lions to global fame, perhaps none more so than the player dubbed “The Flying Flea” by French sports writers.

The legendary stories associated with Jimmy Johnstone’s playing days transcend generations of Celtic fans. The simple mention of teams like Red Star Belgrade, Leeds and Real Madrid conjure up images of the jinking wizard bamboozling international class players and leaving them in his wake. His artistry and consistency earned Jimmy a third-place finish in the 1967 Ballon d’Or awards, but the downside to this was the treatment received from the crudest of opponents, especially in the colours of Racing Club and Atlético Madrid. These battles, though leaving him bruised and grazed, only strengthened his resolve as he would attempt to skip past the perpetrators after dusting himself down.

In his prime, Jinky had the chance to deceive defenders in the English and Spanish top flights, with interest shown in his skills from Tottenham, Manchester United and Real Madrid. However, Jimmy was never quite prepared to give up his love affair with Celtic and the fans who adored him.

When the time came to move on from the club he loved his entire life, he couldn’t believe he would never get the chance to walk though the front doors and pull on the jersey as a Celtic player ever again. By this time his legacy had already been assured.

The many adversaries faced during his time at Celtic had galvanised an inner strength that would be called upon in Jimmy’s later life. Diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Jimmy fought his greatest battle. As with his football career, he faced up to this new opponent and tried to find ways in which to overcome it.

Jinky is one of a select few players to have played in over 500 competitive matches for Celtic. The people young and old who lined the streets to pay their respects on the day of his funeral show the level of respect reserved for a Scottish footballing hero. On the journey to his final resting place, Celtic fans were given the opportunity to commemorate the club’s greatest ever player in an emotional farewell.

There have been players who have scored more goals and collected more winners’ medals, but there will only be one greatest ever Celtic player, and there will only ever be one Jimmy Johnstone.

Martin Donaldson

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