The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 2

July 26, 2009

In the interests of balance (which will not often be a guiding principle of this blog) I follow slim Jim with wee Jinky (this from TAG23 May 1991)


jinkyJimmy Johnstone, or to give him his full name, James Jinkworth Johnstone, may well have been the last of the ‘tanner-ba’ players. By the time his career came to an end, the tanner itself was a fading memory, and a ‘£3.49 plus VAT ba’ player’ doesn’t quite have the same sort of romantic ring. Proverbially smaller than the corner flag and with a Barlinnie Special Unit haircut years ahead of Jimmy Boyle, Jinky Jim did not at first sight look like the terroriser of defences from Montrose to Milan, but for a period in the sixties and early seventies he was one of that (increasingly) rare breed – a Scottish player of genuine world class. Born in that cradle of Scottish football, Bellshill, he honed his natural ball control skills by lining up milk bottles in his ma’s living-room and dribbling the ball round them for hours on end. When he first broke through into the Celtic first team, he found to his surprise, and delight, that the then current Rangers defenders were approximately as mobile and skilful as those milk bottles.

Jinky was undeniably the jewel in the crown of the Lisbon Lions (what aboot wee Bertie? – outraged Ed) and it’s a moot point whether Celtic could have made the leap from being an excellent Scottish team to being champions of Europe without his extraordinary ability to tantalise, bemuse, bewilder and break the spirit of even the best the Continent had to offer. In an interview for the TV series “Only A Game?”, Tommy Gemmell provided an interesting insight into the tactics of Stein-era Celtic, – “If we were under pressure, all we did was give the ball to Jimmy because nobody could ever get it off him…..if we were three goals up in a match and we were trying to save energy for a midweek game, give the ball to Jimmy and let him run about with it just to slow the whole tempo of the game down, take it easy……and if we needed someone to break open tight defences we had to give it to Jimmy as well….”

In that same programme, Hugh McIlvanney quoted Billy McNeil as saying, “The only trouble wi’ Jimmy is that you’ve got to make sure he’s running in the right direction because if he’s coming this way we’ll never get the ball off him – he’s liable to beat three turnstile men and five of the crowd….”

We can all remember playing football in school playgrounds etc and there was always one wee bastard who appeared to have the ball tied to his feet. You’d have liked to amputate the wee bugger’s legs with a lunging two-footed tackle except you could never get near enough. Jinky was one of the few who were able to move easily from being an annoying wee shite in the playground to being an annoying wee shite at Hampden Park. Although many defenders at home and abroad attempted to perform non-surgical limb removal on him, no-one ever truly mastered him. In particular, one remembers the efforts of a succession of Atletico Madrid players to relocate Jimmy’s head in the back of the Jungle. As each throat-high tackle felled him, Jimmy’s response was merely to pick himself up and run at the defenders inviting yet another red card challenge.

Of course, genius is pain, and not everything in Jinky’s garden was rosy. It is said that Bill Shankly once complained to one of his players, “The trouble wi’ you son is that your brains are in your heid”. No such criticism could be levelled at Jimmy and it’s fair to say that an application to join Mensa was never on the agenda. His unusual sense of brainless joie de vivre led him into a number of off-field scrapes, during which bottles of Buckfast and cans of Carlsberg Special played more than a subsidiary role. The most celebrated incident featured Jimmy’s unsuccessful attempt to travel to the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany by boat (a rowing boat in the Clyde, departing Largs 4am). This was only one of many similar occurrences and Jock Stein had practically a full-time job digging the wee man out of a variety of licensed premises. It was said that if Jinky went into any one of fifty bars in Glasgow, the barman would acknowledge him with “The usual, Jimmy?”

A few years ago, Jimmy’s autobiography was published (ghost-written of course, we’re not dealing with a literary giant here). The book was reviewed in the very first ever edition of the Rangers fanzine ‘Follow Follow’, and I think it’s worth quoting the entire review, because apart from being a very amusing and much more succinct appraisal of the wee man’s career than the autobiography itself, it also betrays a sneaking regard and affection for Jinky which you might not expect from that source –

Ah pure love fitba’ an’ that, know. The set-up at Parkheid wiz gemme, a new set o’ falsers, a Burton’s suit, an’ sixty quid a week. Mind you ah didnae fancy the doings fae Big Jock an’ Caesar fur ma drinkin’ an’ that. At wan time ah wiz swallin’ a ful bottel a Domestos an’ that oan the bus goin’ tae trainin’ in the mornin’. These days am working fur a boay that’s a bigger chancer than ah ever wiz. Cheerio Chinas! Whose round is it?

During his career Jimmy was often compared with George Best. They were both described as free spirits. Or at least they were both usually to be found drinking free spirits. While George graduated to swilling champagne in exclusive London night-clubs and being called the fifth Beatle, Jimmy continued to get blootered on pints of heavy in Lanarkshire spit-and-sawdust dives, while Slade in their skinhead phase would have been the more obvious comparison for him. To quote McIlvanney again, Jimmy undoubtedly added substantially to the gaiety of nations off the field.

On the field he wiz pure magic.


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