Former Red Bulls head coach Mo Johnston remembered his youth soccer days: “You’re running around for whatever minutes it was way back then. It was exciting. It got you off the street.”

When Mo Johnston started to prepare for the 2006 MLS season, Michael Lewis wrote a three-part series about the former MetroStars-Red Bulls coach on BigAppleSoccer.com.

First of three parts

By Michael Lewis

Mo Johnston is living proof that goal-scorers can be born and developed at the same time.

Born into the sport — the Red Bulls coach’s father played with Leeds United, young Mo Johnston had the ultimate role model.

He eventually blossomed into a scoring terror for several club teams. That included his first pro club, Partick Thistle, Elton John-owned Watford near London, Nantes in France and for both sides of the Old Firm rivalry — Celtic and Rangers — in Glasgow, among other clubs.

Johnston excelled so much that he eventually worked his way up to the Scottish National Team and performed in the 1990 World Cup, at which he scored a goal, converting a penalty kick.

By the time he hung up his football boots for good after the 2001 MLS season with the Kansas City Wizards, Johnston had scorched the back of the net 224 times in 595 competitive matches.

“I can only speak for myself,” Johnston said during an interview during training camp in Bradenton, Fla. “I was fairly successful.”

Indeed, it was.

Johnston said that “over three or four yards you really have to be sharp here [he pointed to his head] and with your feet.”

The secret to Johnston’s goal-scoring prowess?

“If you look at a certain DVD, you would see that nine times out of 10 it was all side footed or off my head,” he said. “It wasn’t blasting things at the goalkeeper or putting it over the bar. Everything was clinical. It was everything I worked out and that was an early age.”

Though he was only 5-9, Johnston turned out to be one of the most lethal players in the air, a skill he developed when he played at Partick Thistle, Glasgow-based side in the Scottish League.

“It was way back in the early days where we had a certain technique at Partick Thistle where it was a timing of everything,” he said. “There was a certain area where you had to go up and head the ball and they were all hanging. I was one of three who could hit the last one.

“I was never afraid. I felt I was getting respect from defenders. I would give them respect back. I didn’t mind putting my head in there. That showed for Kansas City. Once I needed 19 stitches.”

That happened in the MLS playoff semifinals on Oct. 6, 2000.

With the series tied at 1-1, the teams played a 20-minute sudden-death overtime in Kansas City. Johnston set up the game-winner six minutes into extratime. Galaxy defender Danny Califf had misplayed a long ball, chesting it down at the top of the penalty area. Johnston then leaped and headed the ball down the right side.

“I just threw my face in there,” Johnston said.

As goalkeeper Kevin Hartman rushed out of the net, Miklos Molnar got to the pass first and fired a shot into the upper right corner from a severe angle on the right side.

Johnston’s personal trophy for the goal was stitches under both eyes.

But he was more concerned about a much more important trophy when the Wizards took on the Chicago Fire for the Alan I. Rothenberg Cup for the MLS championship in nine days time.

“I never missed the final,” he said. “I’ve had aches . . .”

The Wizards and Johnston went on to capture the Cup with a 1-0 triumph over Chicago.

Not surprisingly, Desire, skill and determination are among the traits that have been used to describe Johnston’s career, which included three consecutive Scottish League titles playing for Celtic.

Born Maurice Johnston in Glasgow, Scotland on April 30, 1963, it seemed it was only natural Johnston was going to be a soccer player. He was born into it.

“My dad was a professional soccer player,” he said. “Growing up, he took me to certain games and obviously playing at an early age. You get a little bit better and you get signed by youth clubs. You become one of the best young prospects in the country. You get picked. I was picked in the top 16 and you play. You get offered a contract at 16 years-old.”

Nicknamed MoJo, Johnston made it sound so simple. But it took years just to get into a position to be noticed and get that contract. He remembered always having a ball since he was three-years-old.

“When my dad was on the road, he used to always would bring back soccer stuff, Christmas time soccer stuff,” he said. “So it was always there. I was scoring goals from an early age — frequently. I was scoring a lot. So it was one of these things you gradually build into. Scouts start to come and watch you. Celtic had come along. But my dad was best friends of one of the coaches at Partick Thistle. The coach was a legend, a big, big name player. They offered me to come in and play against Celtic. I scored a couple of goals and they offered me a contract.

“It was something I always wanted to do.”

Johnston wound up being one of three club apprentices as a teenage player.

“You did all the tidy work around the stadium,” he said. “You fetched the coffee and tea for the coach. Come two o’clock you were off, you were out in the field again. It was great.”

Added Johnston: “Growing up back home for me was all the European games, Celtic-Rangers games, all the big games, all the big crowds back then. . . . It was just excitement. You’re running around for whatever minutes it was way back then. It was exciting. It got you off the street.”

If he wasn’t playing the game, he was watching it on TV — especially those European Cup matches. He attended Celtic-Rangers games with his father, standing for others with the other soccer faithful. Johnston’s favorite teams were Celtic and Liverpool.

“It was something,” Johnston said. “I was never shy as a kid. I always knew what was working, what I was trying to achieve. I always wanted to go to all of the games. I used to go to Celtic games. My dad used to take me to Ranger games. He was a Rangers supporter. I remember the games from Rangers-Ajax, traveling over on the ferry at that time.”

The ferry went to Amsterdam.

Johnston said the atmosphere at the game was “magnificent. My dad was saying to me, ‘You have to watch such and such, which was (Johan) Cruyff and also the good Rangers players.’ ”

Soccer also was part of Johnston’s maturing process. At 14 he took a train alone to watch Liverpool host Nottingham Forest in the European Cup.

“That’s a long way to go when you’re 14-years-old,” he said.

His heroes included Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and Grahame Souness, for whom he would play at Rangers.

At the time, little did Mo Johnston realize he would he joining that trio as a household name in soccer in the British Isles in several years.

Next: The Celtic and Rangers years

 

You might be interested in this story:

MO’S STORY, PART II: Say it ain’t so, Mo: Johnston, playing for Celtic, jumps from the frying pan and into the fire with Rangers (repost)