Faster than lightning…
There’s a scurrilous rumour doing the rounds that Willie Johnston turned 70 this week. I’ll have none of it for Willie is one of the true immortals, unfettered by the arbitrary ripping off of calendar pages.
If you are looking for the Albion player that has provided the most entertainment over the course of the last 44 years, don’t trouble yourself a moment longer. I know the answer. It’s Willie Johnston.
In December 1972 we broke our transfer record in order to get ourselves a winger when £135,000 persuaded Glasgow Rangers to part with the mercurial Willie Johnston, his signing on its own more than compensating for all the problems and disappointments that disfigured the rest of Don Howe’s reign as Albion manager.
Willie came to England with something of a reputation. Having been sent off more times than the SFA could count, he was one more dismissal away from a ban that would take him out of the game for months. But could he play? God, could he play.
Faster than lightning as the terrace chant pointed out, the man had glue on his boots which was often as much a problem for his teammates as for the opposition. Willie was rarely content to beat a full-back once. He’d go back and do it again, then a third time for luck. Meanwhile we had players queuing up in the box waiting for a cross. Perhaps it wasn’t always the most efficient way of playing the game, but it was about the most attractive and exciting they’ve ever devised.
Johnston was a character, a law unto himself, a player who wanted to please but who did it according to his own standards. Please the crowd first, the manager second. Often he’d be sent away to take a throw-in or a corner and spend a minute having a chat with the crowd – he managed to buy a greenhouse from one of the spectators on one occasion that way.
The irony – and the tragedy for Albion - was that just as Willie arrived, Jeff Astle’s career was coming to a halt, the King felled by a string of knee injuries. Now we had the bullets, but nobody to fire them, and so it was that Albion slipped out of the top flight and on into two grim years in the Second Division as Don Howe struggled to find a winning formula.
Through that period, it was Willie more than anyone else who kept spirits up with his intoxicating football. He could have given Usain Bolt 15 yards and still be lighting a fag for him at the finishing line, he was that rapid.
The arrival of Johnny Giles as boss only ignited him still further. Johnston was a pivotal figure in the promotion winning season, scoring and creating goals, destroying lower league full-backs with the nonchalant ease of a schoolboy pulling the legs off a spider.
Back in the top division in 1976, he was unstoppable – except by suspension. There was a ban after a losing League Cup tie at home to Brighton, a frustrated Johnston aiming a kick at the referee’s backside, then walking off without waiting for the inevitable. How could you not love a player like that?
His form became ever more majestic, so much so that even the Scottish FA overcame their squeamishness and restored him to the international fold. He got himself sent off at gunpoint in the summer of 1977 as Scotland went on tour to South America ahead of the 1978 World Cup, though Willie was exonerated for his role in the incident. Nonetheless, he was a marked man in Argentina thereafter.
Perhaps his greatest season came in 1978 when Ron Atkinson benefited from Johnston at his absolute best during the FA Cup run that went all the way to the semi-final. Willie turned Manchester United inside out, destroyed Derby and was inspirational as Nottingham Forest’s assault on the domestic treble was ended, enraging Cloughie by trapping the ball with his backside in front of the dugout.
Willie headed for Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, Scotland manager Ally McLeod talking of his side as potential winners, the squad getting a rousing send off at Hampden.
After a lacklustre defeat against Peru, it was announced Willie had failed a drugs test. The SFA hung him out to dry with remarkable alacrity, using him as the smokescreen to cover the embarrassing tracks of their hubris, banning him for life.
Unavailable for Albion’s UEFA Cup campaign the following season, and harangued by opposition fans, Willie’s Albion days were all but over. If that Shakespeare bloke had been around – Bill, not Craig – he’d have knocked out his best tragedy about it.
A full tribute to Willie Johnston will be in the Hull City edition of “Albion News” on January 2nd 2017.