30 years ago yesterday, the 10th of July 1989, something happened in our tiny country, and for any Celtic or Rangers fan it was a “Where were you?” moment, for sure. A name that still sends shivers down my spine anytime it is mentioned is that of Maurice Johnston.
Mo did the unthinkable 30 years ago and signed for Glasgow Rangers. For the youngsters reading this you’re probably thinking, well so what? Mo paved the way for others like Steven Pressley, Kenny Miller and many others to cross the divide but it’s not about that, it’s about the way he did it.
Hopefully this article can paint a picture of how bad it felt back then. As ever, let me know your thoughts.
As a young boy growing up in sunny Saltcoats, my local heroes were Bobby Lennox and Roy Aitken. Both were real Celtic men and certainly guys that I looked up to. The latter, though, would have his little part to play in one of the world’s most controversial transfers of all time.
Mo Johnston, who had already been at Celtic, moved to Nantes in France in 1987 when his contract at Celtic had ended. Mo was another guy who came across as nothing other than a Celtic man, too. During an infamous Old Firm game where he was sent off, Mo actually blessed himself whilst going off the pitch and infuriated the away support.
Mo didn’t really settle in France but his stunning performances in a Scotland jersey around that time proved that he was, indeed, one of the hottest strikers in Europe. He’d recently scored 6 goals in 5 games in World Cup qualifiers as Scotland stormed towards Italia ‘90. His overhead kick against Cyprus on 26 April 1989 was a spectacular highlight.
It was whilst on International duty with Scotland that he mentioned to Roy Aitken that he’d entertain a move back to Celtic and, with this information, big Roy duly passed this on to the then Celtic manager, Billy McNeill. The ball was now rolling and Big Billy put this notion to the board. The board sanctioned the move.
Maurice Johnston signed an agreement but not a contract to sign for Celtic Football Club. A deposit of £400,000 was paid to Nantes with a further £800,000 to follow for the £1.2 million signing of Johnston. Celtic checked all the paperwork with FIFA and everything appeared above board, but then came the twist.
Billy McNeill refused to deal with Mo’s agent, Bill McMurdo – a staunch Rangers fan whose loathing of Celtic probably surpassed his love for Rangers. Mo agreed not to involve Bill in the transfer and was duly paraded at Celtic Park stating (in what has now become an infamous ‘Only an Excuse’ sketch) that, “Celtic was the only team that I ever wanted to play for”.
I was 11-years-old at the time and I genuinley couldn’t believe that we’d pulled it off. One of the best strikers in Europe was coming back to Celtic. I remember watching Scotsport and they kept replaying that overhead kick goal against Cyprus and I just imagined him doing it at Ibrox against them for a last-minute winner. How wrong could I be?
Stuff was beginning to happen now behind the scenes. Bill McMurdo was aware that Johnston hadn’t signed a contract with Celtic when he went for lunch with his pal, the Rangers Manager Graeme Souness, who quizzed the agent as to why he’d let Mo join up with Celtic again. McMurdo stated to Souness that the deal was far from done and, with a little persuation, he could be tempted to Govan.
The opportunist Souness got straight on to his Chairman David Murray and the ruthless Murray, who was anxious to do anything to get one over on his rivals, sanctioned the deal straight away. There was one big problem, though, and that was the sectarian signing policy that had cast a dark cloud over the club from Edmiston Drive for years. How would their fans react to Rangers signing a Catholic?
Souness to his credit was a no-nonsense operator on the park and off it. He made it clear when he went to Rangers that no matter the religion or colour of the player’s skin, if someone was good enough for Glasgow Rangers then he’d sign them, as failure to do so would only be giving his oppponents a bigger pool of players to pick from.
Jock Stein didn’t mind their signing policy in the 1960s, as it clearly benefited him and Celtic on many occasions. He’s been widely quoted as saying, “If I had the choice of two players of similar ability and one was a Catholic and one was a Protestant then I’d sign the Protestant because I know Rangers wouldn’t sign the Catholic”. Incredible now, really, when you look back.
So, on the 10 July 1989, not long after being parading in a Celtic shirt alongside Billy McNeill and agreeing to sign for Celtic, Maurice Johnston did the unthinkable and walked out of a back room at Ibrox to the awaiting press area with Greame Souness and announced that he had signed for Rangers. You can clearly hear a journalist even say, “Wow Mo, just wow!”
It has become apparent that Souness tried to sign at least two Catholics before Mo Johnston in Ray Houghton and John Collins, who both apparently agreed but then, in Mo’s words, “bottled it”. Frank McAvennie also revealed recently that Souness tried to sign him before Mo, so there was potentially three Catholics that could’ve arrived before Johnston did.
It seems crazy now that we’re talking about not signing a footballer just 30 years ago because of his religion, but that’s how it was in Scottish football back then. The furore after the signing was made public was incredible. Rangers strips, scarves and season books were all burned outside Ibrox. Hordes of loyal fans refused to step foot back inside Ibrox ever again. It really was that bad.
The tune of the Rangers fans soon changed, though, when Mo scored against Celtic and he was finally taken in by the majority. One infamous story was that the kitman at Rangers, Jimmy Bell, would sneak chocolate into the hotels for players. He gave them all some except Mo. He told him he had to score against Celtic to get any. His roommate Ally McCoist used to tease him about this, too. Mo not only scored but he got his chocolate reward off the Rangers kitman.
So, 30 years on, what’s actually changed? Ok, he paved the way for others to make the move across the city but have attitudes changed any? My own opinion is that Mo knew exactly what he doing at the time and probably enjoyed the limelight. I think what he did to Big Billy will probably never be forgiven, not only by fans but by ex-players of the club too.
Do you think there will ever be a day when he’s forgiven for what he did? That he will ever be welcomed back to Celtic Park?
For me it’s a big fat no.
Le Petit Merde.