Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 August 2019

'It was like Wayne Rooney signing for Shels' - When one of Europe's greats came to play in Ireland

Jimmy Johnstone
Jimmy Johnstone

Aidan Fitzmaurice

He was good. So good that being 'only' voted in third place as Europe's top footballer, in the year that he helped his team win the European Cup, was seen as a travesty.

Officially recognised as the best player in the history of Celtic FC, winner of 19 major trophies, two appearances in the European Cup final. Speak his name to fans of a certain vintage and they can only smile.

And, this week 40 years ago, he decided to make Dublin his home for a spell.

Jimmy Johnstone's time as Shelbourne player (November 1977 to March 1978) failed to yield any medals or glory but the gifted winger, who died in 2006, is still remembered.

"It's hard to imagine it in the modern era. A European Cup winner, a legend of the game, him signing for us would be like Wayne Rooney signing for Shels today," says John Delamere, a team-mate with Johnstone at the Reds.

Just three years earlier, he'd played for Scotland when they beat England 2-0. He'd played in the European Cup finals in ‘67 and ‘70, and here he was with us, one of the lads playing for Shels. God, it was brilliant."

The statue to Celtic FC Legend Jimmy Johnstone at Celtic Park
The statue to Celtic FC Legend Jimmy Johnstone at Celtic Park

Johnstone was a true legend of the game in the 1960s, and not just in Britain (Real Madrid tried to sign him after one display against them).

But once he left Celtic Park, reluctantly, in 1975 when alcohol was beginning to take a hold, his career was on the slide.

He was effectively retired when Shels manager Tommy Rowe used his contacts to lure the 33-year-old to Dublin, in November 1977, along with fellow Scot Dixie Deans.

There was no relegation in the LOI at the time and Shels were nowhere close to challenging Bohemians (eventual champions that season), Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers so a Cup run was about the best Shels could hope for. As it turned out, a (controversial) Cup defeat to Cork Alberts proved to be his last game for the Dublin club.

But what came in between was memorable. "A lot of the players who came here from the UK around that time only stayed for a game or two. Jimmy was here for four months, and he loved it," says Delamere.

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There was some resentment in the league at the time to the steady stream of imports, players like Terry Venables, Geoff Hurst and George Best having already made well-paid but unsuccessful stops in Ireland.

"Johnstone at his best was magical but at 33 it is doubtful if he can reproduce this magic," warned a sceptical Irish Press.

"There was no bad feeling about Jimmy arriving," says Delamere. "We just saw him as a player who could help us as a team. And I had an ‘in' with him as my step-brother, Paddy Turner, had played with Jimmy at Celtic. So he'd come up to the house for dinner, no airs or graces. For someone who was such a brilliant, brilliant player he was an ordinary bloke. He was a happy-go-lucky fellah and us Shels lads had some great times together."

This week 40 years ago, a Dublin derby was Johnstone's introduction to the LOI, Shels losing 2-1 at home to a Bohemians outfit who were well on their way to the league title, but while the result didn't go their way, the Shels treasurer was happy with receipts of £970, the best of the season so far.

Jimmy Johnstone
Jimmy Johnstone

But there remained doubts. "We saw only one glimpse of the player that had been Johnstone," was the Irish Independent view of his debut, predicting a very short stay for Johnstone and Deans. Yet the same paper would later pick out Johnstone as "the best player on the field" in a 3-0 loss to Limerick.

The arrangement was that any training for Johnstone was done back in Scotland and he would just fly into Dublin for the weekend when Shels had a game. His base was the (now defunct) Royal Dublin Hotel on O'Connell Street, and in time he would know the city well, Fagan's in Drumcondra the first stop after a game.

A week after his debut, Johnstone had his introduction to life outside Dublin in a game away to Thurles Town (Shels won 5-1) and also the harsh nature of tackling in the league (he had to be substituted after 38 minutes).

Christmas week of ‘77 brought one of the highlights of his stay in Ireland, Johnstone scoring in a 1-0 win over Shamrock Rovers in the League Cup. "Honestly, that game was like winning the European Cup all over again for Jimmy," says Delamere.

"Rovers had Giles and Dunphy and all those players at the time, but Jimmy and Giles had a rivalry going back to the Celtic-Leeds European Cup semi-final in '70 and I don't think Jimmy liked Giles. He really wanted to get one over on Giles and that League Cup game meant the world to him, especially as he scored."

A week later, Johnstone starred as Shels beat Home Farm 3-0 in the league but that was about as good as it got, as brutish defenders and brutal pitches made it a struggle. Over the next four league games, Johnstone's Shels failed to score once.

There was a brief moment of light, a 2-1 win away to St Pat's in March, but a 1-0 Cup loss to Cork Alberts on March 8th would be the end of his time in Ireland. He moved on.

Dublin was a grey place in 1977/78 but good times could still be had. "We used to go to Madigan's on Moore Street, they had a jukebox upstairs and Jimmy loved to sing," says Delamere.

"After matches I'd go back to the hotel with Jimmy for something to eat, afterwards we'd maybe go on to a place called Lord John's, on Cathedral Street. Good times.

"He wasn't a mercenary, he loved it here. He used to kneel before that statue of Our Lady on O'Connell Street every time he saw it.

"He loved Dublin, that's why he stayed for four months and not four games like some. The pitches were crap and he'd lost his pace, he was broke when he came here but he was here to play and he always did his best."

Johnstone's career was over within a year of his Shels departure, and Motor Neurone Disease ended his life at 61.

"He was an ordinary Joe Soap who was a world class player, we were lucky to have him," concluded Delamere.

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