MoJo Rising: Maurice Johnston 30 Years On
It was July 1989, exactly thirty years ago this week, when Graeme Souness’s Rangers stunned the world of Scottish football by signing the striker Maurice Johnston from under the noses of the Glasgow club’s perennial rivals Celtic. Johnston had previously spent three seasons on the green side of the city, scoring fifty goals in a hundred appearances for the team he had grown up supporting, but he had passed the last two years in relative anonymity with the French club Nantes, where he had fled in 1987 to escape the press intrusion and sectarian abuse which he had been subjected to after a number of high profile incidents during his playing days at Parkhead. On 10 July 1989 however, the Scottish game collectively fell off its chair in astonishment, as a sheepish looking Johnston, flanked by his new manager, was ushered into the Blue Room at Ibrox Park and presented to the media as free-spending Rangers’ latest acquisition.
The signing was remarkable because Johnston was from a Roman Catholic background and, ever since the days of the Edwardian era at the turn of the 20th century, Rangers had been operating an exclusionary employment policy which prevented them from signing players from that section of the community. For most of the next sixty years, Rangers’ policy went largely uncommented upon in polite society. The religious divide in Glasgow, between Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers, was allowed to fester and deepen over decades of increasingly bitter and trenchant rivalry, with the matter effectively becoming a taboo subject and criticism of the Ibrox club’s stance in the press or in the wider society was almost unheard of. One or two individuals did manage to slip through the net however; in the 1950s the South African striker Don Kichenbrand had a short, largely unproductive spell at Ibrox. Known as ‘the Rhino’ and lambasted for a series of outrageous misses in front of goal, Kichenbrand went to extraordinary lengths to disguise his Catholic upbringing and fit in with his new team, even confirming his induction into the Ibrox faction by joining a Lanarkshire Masonic lodge. His secret remained safe until the day after Johnston’s transfer to Rangers more than thirty years later, when the Daily Record, having missed out on the scoop of the century after Souness confirmed the story of the signing to his favourite newspaper The Sun, carried an interview with Kichenbrand. In the article, the former striker admitted: “My teammates and bosses at the club just assumed that I had been vetted before I was signed. Every player was.” In fact Rangers’ South African scout, Charlie Watkins, had forgotten to look into the player’s background and only remembered to ask the pertinent question as the pair were waiting at the airport before boarding the flight from Johannesburg, as Kichenbrand remembered: “Charlie Watkins, the man who had convinced Glasgow Rangers that they should sign me, suddenly said, ‘By the way, you’re not Catholic, are you?’ When I told him ‘Yes’ he nearly collapsed. Then he growled, ‘Do not mention that again – to anyone!’ I never did.”
Other than the odd aberration, Rangers blazed a trail as the unblemished bastion of Protestant superiority in Scotland. Revelling in their role as the establishment club and the foremost Protestant sporting institution in the land, Rangers ruled the roost in Scottish football for decades, dominating the domestic game under managers William Wilton (1899 – 1920), Bill Struth (1920 – 1954) and Scot Symon (1954 – 1967). By the late 1960s however, isolated murmurings of disapproval and occasionally even outright criticism of Rangers’ stance had begun to appear in the popular press and elsewhere, usually in association with rioting fans in Birmingham, Manchester, Barcelona and various other locations. After the club’s defeat to Newcastle United in the semi-final of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1969, former player Willie Waddell, then working as a journalist with the Scottish Daily Express, condemned the scenes of violence at St James’ Park after Rangers fans invaded the field when the Tynesiders scored a second, decisive goal in the tie. “I felt like crawling stealthily back over the border under cover of darkness, stunned and shocked that I had been connected with this club and its fans for more than thirty years,” Waddell lamented. Curiously, however, once he was installed as Rangers manager later in the year, and subsequently as general manager in 1972, Waddell instead took the view that the club’s internal affairs were its own business and nobody else’s, and he refused to correlate the twin issues which were blighting Rangers at the time, namely hooliganism and bigotry, as being in any way linked.
Eventually, however, in response to a UK- wide wave of indignation in the 1970s over hooliganism and Rangers’ no-Catholics stance, general manager Waddell announced in 1976, ‘We are determined to end Rangers’ image as a sectarian club… no religious barriers will be put up by this club regarding the signing of players.’ It was one of the first public references to a ‘sectarian’ agenda at Ibrox and there was widespread jubilation and hope amongst the wider community that Rangers might eventually, in the not too distant future, sign a Catholic football player. But as the years went by and no Catholic player appeared in the light blue, perhaps as a result of the lack of leadership and continued in-fighting in the club’s boardroom, these hopes were dashed. In his book Glasgow’s Giants, historian Bill Murray seemed to hit the nail on the head when he observed of Rangers’ habitually empty promises, ‘To the media and the public at large these statements were taken with large spoonfuls of scepticism. They had heard it all before: they were a necessary disclaimer to keep any investigators from FIFA at bay. A sop to the media and a wink to their fans who knew that everything would continue to be as it should be at Ibrox.’
During the 1980s, tales continued to abound about players at Ibrox even being ushered towards the exit door if they happened to fall in love with and marry Catholic girls. One such player was forward Graham Fyfe, who claimed that, despite his wife effectively renouncing her faith and their marriage taking place in the Church of Scotland, he nevertheless felt the need to leave Ibrox in 1980, after being questioned by the club’s management about his wedding arrangements and his private life in general. Fyfe’s allegation was contested by other players at the time who had also married Catholic women, such as Bobby Russell and Derek Johnstone, both of whom remained at the club into the new decade, and by 1982, striker Gordon Dalziel felt comfortable enough to announce publicly his engagement to a Catholic girl, telling the press, ‘I have already had the all-clear at Ibrox. It will not make any difference. I’m not going to get married in the chapel or anything like that.’ Manager John Greig added to the general tone of reassurance, informing the media, ‘It doesn’t matter who he is marrying. It doesn’t matter to me and it doesn’t matter to Rangers. Bobby Russell’s been married to a Catholic for years. Gordon Dalziel has a right to marry who he wants.’
Despite such worthy assurances however, the Church of Scotland decided to intervene in the situation at Ibrox in 1980, after the violent scenes witnessed around the world following Celtic’s 1 – 0 victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final. The Kirk’s General Assembly proposed a motion calling on Rangers to end their exclusionary employment practices and publicly distance themselves from such discrimination, which was passed by a majority of 200. But of the 1250 commissioners, 400 had abstained, so the result was seen as ambiguous and the expected impact failed to materialise. Nevertheless the Church’s General Assembly report of the same year noted, ‘Tensions would be eased if all clubs, and Rangers FC in particular, would publicly disclaim sectarian bias in management and team structure, and through integrated team selection, publicly prove that sectarianism has no place in Scottish sport.’
By now it seemed clear that the growing controversy surrounding Rangers’ exclusionary employment policy was not going to go away. Despite these calls from the Church and elsewhere however, when Jock Wallace was reappointed Rangers manager in November 1983, he seemed less than taken with the ambivalent promises to end the club’s arcane practices. On the day of his appointment, Wallace emerged from the stadium onto Copland Road and told the waiting media, ‘I have been told by the board that I have complete control over who I select, and I will sign players on ability. Religion will not come into it.’ He then turned on his heels and departed without taking further questions.
Wallace, it seemed, having returned to his ‘dream job’, was living out his schoolboy fantasy as manager of his favourite team, ‘I’ve always been a Rangers fan,’ he announced after the first game of his second spell in charge at Ibrox, a 3 – 0 defeat to Aberdeen at Pittodrie, ‘Ever since I was a lad of nine and they came through to play near my home on the east coast. The team that made me a Rangers fan for life still trips off the tongue: Brown, Young, Shaw, McColl, Woodburn, Cox, Waddell, Gillick, Thornton, Duncanson and Caskie,” he rattled off Bill Struth’s team from the immediate post-war period. On that first trip up to Pittodrie, Wallace invited his agent Bill McMurdo, whom he had dubbed ‘Agent Orange’ because of his Rangers allegiances and his political views, onto the team bus. A founder member of the Scottish Unionist Party and an acknowledged Orangeman and Freemason, McMurdo had turned his Uddingston home into a Rangers shrine, naming it ‘Ibrox’ and decking it out in the club’s colours of red, white and blue.
On the journey north, McMurdo provided Wallace with a cassette so that he could play Rangers songs over the speaker system and the manager encouraged his players to join in the singing of ‘No Surrender’. McMurdo later confided, ‘Jock acted as compere and… those who didn’t know the words were urged to learn them for the next away game. [Ulsterman] Jimmy Nicholl knew the words inside out and Jock said to him, “Brilliant Jimmy, you know all the words, you’re the captain today!”’ It’s an apocryphal story; Nicholl had only just arrived at the club, having been signed by John Greig in his final days in charge at Ibrox, and the Irishman didn’t in fact captain the side that day. But nevertheless, it’s easy to see how a Catholic player might have struggled to flourish in such an environment and, needless to say, by the time Wallace was sacked in April 1986, there was still scant sign of a Catholic football player at Rangers, with only youngster John Spencer having made a handful of first team appearances for the club.
Wallace’s replacement as team manager, in the wake of a boardroom coup at Ibrox which had cleared out a cabal of old guard custodian-directors, was the former Liverpool and Scotland midfielder Graeme Souness. Immediately on his appointment, Souness was quizzed about the signing policy, ‘I was asked the question the very first day I went to Rangers, would you sign a Catholic?’ He later recalled. ‘And my answer then was quite simple. I said, look, my wife is a Catholic, I’ve got two kids who’ve been christened Catholic, so you’re saying to me I can’t come to work with a Catholic, but I can go home to a Catholic? I said of course I would sign a Catholic.’ Once again, hope sprang eternal that this more genuine sounding claim would lead to the longed for breakthrough.
Souness seemed determined to end the policy and privately, behind the scenes, he was making enquiries about the potential impact of such a signing, almost from the moment he arrived. The sheer iconoclasm of the idea appealed to Souness’s maverick personality and, as well as the backing of the new Rangers board, Souness also found that there was tentative support from the wider community for the potentially seminal change, with one young Rangers supporting journalist telling the new manager that he thought such a signing would be accepted, ‘as long as it wasn’t Peter Grant or Maurice Johnston’! Publicly however, as time went on, the old issue kept reappearing, with the situation not helped by the fact that Souness was a provocatively confrontational figure, who seemed to be always looking for an enemy, and who now found himself at the centre of one of the most heated and intense rivalries anywhere in world football.
Almost inevitably, there were high-profile incidents; as early as November 1986, Johnston, then playing for Celtic, was involved in a particularly notorious incident at the end of the Skol (League) Cup Final against Rangers at Hampden, which would turn out to be Souness’ first trophy as Ibrox manager. After being sent off late in the game, in the face of gleeful abuse from the Rangers supporters, Johnston blessed himself as he left the field. This was considered provocative firstly because, although he was brought up in the faith, Johnston was not, unlike some of his Celtic teammates, a practising Catholic and it was later pointed out by an indignant press that the striker was the only member of Celtic’s large Catholic contingent who had not attended Mass on the morning of the game.
At the time, Johnston’s actions sparked outrage. The idea that he might one day sign for Rangers seemed utterly unthinkable. Yet a little over two and a half years later that’s exactly what happened. The striker had apparently grown restless with the slow pace of life and the relatively low profile of football in France during the period of his sabbatical from the Scottish game. After initially vowing that he would never return to Scotland as a result of the scrutiny and abuse which he was subjected to following the Skol Cup final incident, Johnston announced publicly, in May 1989, that he was indeed on the verge of returning to his boyhood heroes Celtic. The Parkhead side were then managed by club legend Billy McNeill, who had been made aware of the player’s willingness to return home by his captain Roy Aitken, whom Johnston had been entreating while the pair were together on international duty with Scotland. Johnston was subsequently paraded at a press conference wearing a Celtic shirt, where he professed, amidst a lengthy roll call of footballing platitudes and truisms, his undying love for the club. ‘When I joined Celtic in 1984 it was like an answer to prayers, and I don’t say that lightly,’ the striker assured readers of the Celtic View. ‘At that time I fully intended to see out my career at Celtic, if the club would have me,’ he continued. ‘I never fell out of love with Celtic… when I joined Nantes it had always been my intention to return to Celtic one day. No one can accuse me of being two-faced… I didn’t intend to leave Celtic then and I don’t intend to now,’ Johnston maintained, while rumours of a desire to join Manchester United were fabricated, chiefly because, ‘There is no other British club I could play for apart from Celtic.’
The son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Johnston attended St. Roch’s secondary school in the Royston area of Glasgow and supported Celtic as a boy. He played for Partick Thistle, then Watford, before Parkhead manager Davie Hay signed him as an intended replacement for Charlie Nicholas, who had left Celtic for Arsenal the previous year, and he went on to form a prolific partnership with Brian McClair, scoring 52 goals in 100 appearances for the Parkhead side. After his infamous Celtic press conference in May 1989, Johnston travelled with his proposed new colleagues on the team bus to the club’s final league fixture of the season against St Mirren in Paisley, where winger Joe Miller scored the only goal of the match to give Celtic a 1 – 0 win. The following week, Miller repeated the feat, lighting up the showpiece Scottish Cup Final with the game’s solitary strike against Rangers, leaving Souness furious at being denied a potential Treble. The Rangers manager is reported to have told his players in the dressing room after the defeat that he had something up his sleeve which would rock Celtic, and that the Parkhead club had a shock coming. Something had evidently changed during the week between Miller’s two winning goals and over the summer rumours continued to circulate that the proposed deal on Johnston’s return to Celtic might not be as cut and dried as everyone assumed. The fly in the ointment seemed to be the player’s agent Bill McMurdo, Agent Orange himself, the same man who had represented Jock Wallace and whose Rangers allegiances and political views were a matter of public record. McNeill had informed Johnston that he would not deal with McMurdo and the striker appeared to accept this condition when he signed a ‘letter of agreement’ to join Celtic, which, although not a contract, was later ratified by FIFA as being legally binding, the equivalent of a modern-day precontract agreement. It was on this basis that Celtic decided to go ahead with the May press briefing and photo shoot, but the jilted McMurdo sent a letter to the club informing them that it was his company, rather than Nantes, who owned the player’s registration and that the agent could not therefore be bypassed in any transaction. While Celtic were pondering the implications of all this, McMurdo was offering the player to Souness on the other side of the city.
The Rangers manager soon became aware of the contractual difficulties over Johnston’s proposed move to Celtic, and he immediately expressed an interest in the striker. Souness admired the player and he persuaded the club’s new owner, David Murray, that with one swoop they could secure the services of a talented forward who had apparently been destined for Celtic and at the same time end the exclusionary signing policy, which with every passing year was becoming more of a black mark on the club’s reputation. At the time FIFA were investigating racist and religious prejudice in the game and Rangers’ unspoken policy was sure to come under the microscope at some point, with the world governing body holding the power to impose the ultimate sanction of withdrawing licences and shutting errant football clubs down. Johnston and McMurdo subsequently met Souness at the manager’s Edinburgh home, where a deal to bring the player to Rangers was agreed in principle.
Meanwhile Celtic, who had been unable to contact Johnston over the close season, were becoming increasingly aware that their putative deal for the striker was unlikely ever to be completed. Souness and McMurdo had turned the player and it wasn’t long before Johnston was privately threatening to quit football altogether if he was compelled to honour the recent agreement with his former team. Despite the FIFA endorsed letter, and with Nantes waiting expectantly for receipt of the £800,000 balance which would conclude the transfer, the Parkhead club, faced with the prospect of having an unhappy player on their hands, announced publicly that they were pulling out of the deal. At the time McNeill was still on holiday in Florida and he received his employers’ statement down the telephone, read out to him by a journalist. Had Celtic dug their heels in, they could have controlled Johnston’s future – even if he would never go on to play for the Parkhead club, they could have had a hand in his ultimate destination.
As late as July 2, McMurdo was still describing the rumours of a link with Rangers to the Sunday Mail as, ‘a complete fabrication – you can run that story for ten years and it still wouldn’t be true.’ When the paper’s chief sports writer Don Morrison called Ibrox to try and get to the bottom of the matter, he was told by assistant manager Walter Smith, ‘Remember the traditions of this club and, if we were going to break them, it wouldn’t be for that cunt.’
But with Celtic now officially out of the way, things moved forward quickly and the deal to bring Johnston to Rangers was finally concluded in a Paris café. It seemed inevitable that news would leak, despite all the mendacity and espionage, and by July 9 the Scottish edition of The Sun appeared to have the story, thanks to a 16 year old trainee reporter who had noticed that Johnston’s name had mysteriously appeared on Rangers’ insurance documents, which were being handled by his girlfriend’s father. The young lad, having apparently unearthed the biggest story in the history of Scottish football, presumably with the help of his intended father-in-law, dutifully conveyed his information to the paper’s editor, Jack Irvine, who had just stepped off a plane after holidaying with Souness in Majorca. ‘Print it,’ the Rangers manager eventually confirmed the story to Irvine, who went ahead and devoted sixteen pages of Monday’s paper to their scoop. Still nobody could quite believe it, with the other papers, clearly paralysed with incredulity, refusing to run the story, even after early editions of The Sun hit the stands. It wasn’t until Johnston was unveiled at the press conference on the morning of Monday, July 10 that the rumours were finally confirmed. The striker was ushered into the Blue Room alongside Souness and McMurdo, where he spoke, in more guarded terms this time, to his astonished audience of his ‘huge admiration’ for the Ibrox club, something which, in amongst all the Celtic-loving hyperbole, he’d clearly managed to keep to himself up to that point.
After Johnston’s signing some Rangers fans burned scarves, cancelled season tickets, and even laid wreathes at the gates of Ibrox, while others who had perhaps seen a move of this nature coming for some time were heard to observe, ‘It’s not that I object to us signing Catholics, I just didn’t want us signing that Catholic.’ Fans spokesman David Miller summed up the general mood when he told The Herald, ‘It’s a sad day for Rangers. There will be a lot of people handing in their season tickets. I don’t want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox. It really sticks in my throat.’ Miller then went on to claim that signing a Catholic from the continent would have been easier to stomach. Within the club itself, opinion on Johnston’s arrival appeared to be divided; the English contingent at Ibrox, including Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Ray Wilkins seemed largely bewildered by all the fuss and agreed to attend a press conference, welcoming the new player to the club, but their Scottish counterparts declined the same request, and refused to be photographed with Johnston, while Ibrox kitman and bus driver, Jimmy Bell, snubbed the club’s new acquisition, preferring not to provide him with his playing gear and withholding chocolate bars from the striker.
Over on the other side of the city, the Celtic fans’ reacted to Johnston’s perceived treachery with predictable fury. They might not have believed every word of the striker’s regurgitated platitudes, but the last thing they could have expected was that he was about to join their greatest rivals. The Celtic fanzine Not the View, perhaps reflecting Johnston’s penchant for overstatement, captured the widespread sense of revulsion when they described the player as, ‘the human incarnation of the contents of Beelzebub’s dustbin.’ Others dubbed their former idol ‘Judas’, ‘le petit merde’ and during Old Firm games sang songs aimed at the forward, such as ‘Who’s the Catholic in the Blue?’ and ‘What’s it like to sign a Tim?’ At least they did for most of the game, until in November 1989, Johnston scored an injury time winner at Ibrox against his former club, silencing the Hoops faithful and precipitating something of a turning point in his acceptance at Ibrox.
In the aftermath of the signing, the press lavished Murray and Souness with praise for finally allowing Rangers to employ a prominent Catholic footballer, often with far greater enthusiasm than they had criticised the club’s now former, unofficial policy, which, given that it had just been so spectacularly done away with, was now able to be openly acknowledged. However, in retrospect, the signing of Maurice Johnston has to be seen as something of a missed opportunity in the fight against religious bigotry in Scottish football. In the years following the signing, there appeared to ensue a period of equivocation, appeasement and ‘whataboutery’, where Rangers fans and their apologists in the press seemed more inclined to try to deflect the problem onto other clubs, rather than acknowledge or attempt to deal with the ongoing issue at Ibrox. Some even claimed that Rangers now occupied the moral high ground, and the label of sectarianism could no longer be applied to the club. What was lacking from Rangers was some sort of admission of previous wrongdoing, or even a degree of humility or contrition after the Johnston signing, but instead it was almost as if a switch had been flicked: the club weren’t employing Catholics before, but now they’ve bought one and they did it while managing to stick two fingers up at their rivals at the same time. Perhaps as a result of the insensitive way in which the Johnston signing was handled, Rangers continued to be dogged over the ensuing years by the issue of sectarianism, which has refused, even in more recent times when the club has been regularly fielding Catholic footballers, to disassociate itself from the Ibrox side.
Any notion that the signing of Maurice Johnston, and Rangers’ subsequent recruitment of other Catholic players and even coaches, might have brought about an end to the wider problems associated with the club has proved to be misguided. Rangers supporters in recent years have continued to sing sectarian songs from the stands at Ibrox, even inventing new ones, such as The Famine Song, which was first aired in 2008 and has been subsequently proscribed, and the particularly unpleasant chant ‘Big Jock Knew’, a reference to a number of cases of child abuse at Celtic Boys Club in the 1960s and 70s, which was weaponised by Rangers fans and used as a stick to beat the Parkhead club and its supporters.
As journalist Graham Spiers noted in The Times when the slogan was first heard at Ibrox, ‘I have to admit I never thought I’d ever see the day when Scottish football supporters sang a song about a child sex abuse case, yet Rangers have duly delivered. Even more amazing is Rangers FC’s ongoing silence on the matter, as this cretinous chant builds up its head of steam among supporters.’ Spiers was correct about the increasingly frequent usage of the slogan and ‘Big Jock Knew’ or ‘BJK’ later migrated from the Ibrox stands to become a ubiquitous acronym graffitied around Glasgow as well as a salutation used by Rangers fans when they greeted one another in the street.
In the end, rather than any domestic authority, it was the European governing body UEFA who took exception to Rangers’ sectarian songbook and sanctioned the club after a number of high profile cases in the 2000s, including, in May 2006, a fine accompanied by a warning over any future misconduct, after incidents of hooliganism and bigotry surrounding the club’s Champions League tie earlier in the year with Villarreal. Privately, UEFA were disturbed and appalled when they uncovered what was still going on at Ibrox in the 21st century, with one official telling Spiers, ‘Yes we have racism today in football and many other problems. But it still shocking to us that, in the year 2006, we still have supporters in Glasgow shouting ‘Fuck the Pope’ and such things. We thought the world had moved on from this.’
The signing of Maurice Johnston may not have been the seminal moment that many were hoping for in regards to the wider problem of anti-Catholicism at Ibrox and in the wider community, but over the ensuing years, once Rangers had officially abandoned its dogmatic, discriminatory policies, it was as if the floodgates had been opened and a raft of Catholic players eventually arrived at the club, most of them foreigners, at a time when British football was opening up its doors to the world. Rangers have now been captained by a Catholic, and managed by a Catholic, an unqualifiedly welcome development, which has rightly exposed all the old lies and excuses about outsiders supposedly not being able to fully commit to the team’s cause. The present day Ibrox club has no compunction at all about signing footballers from all backgrounds, including even players from the Republic of Ireland, something that would have been unthinkable in Souness’s day.
So, in the end, we got there with Rangers, even if at times it felt as though the old institution had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The extent of the club’s denials and equivocations down the years, however, has inevitably left many observers unconvinced about the nature of the progress within Ibrox, with the glaring lack of contrition or humility, coupled with the ongoing problems amongst the club’s fans and even directors, suggesting that the changes at the club have been largely cosmetic and have been adopted chiefly for reasons of expediency. Regardless, what can be said with some certainty about the club is that Rangers lost the battle of ideas, in the present and in the past, of what football clubs were supposed to be for and what the game had the potential to achieve in an often troubled society, and in the years since the Johnston signing, the club has subsequently faced numerous and, in the end sadly, catastrophic difficulties in facing up to its past.