Mo Johnston: “The thing for me was a little bit of devilishness on top of my terms. Can this be done? I asked myself the question 300 times. I kept coming up with the same answer.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
In the second part of our series about the upcoming Hudson River Derby confrontation between New York City FC and Red Bulls Saturday, we feature former Red Bulls head coach Mo Johnston, who played for both archrivals, Rangers and Celtic while making history. The story was written in 2006.
Second in a multi-part series
By Michael Lewis
Mo Johnston thought about the ramifications long and hard.
He once played for and proudly wore the green and white hoops of Celtic and now he was seriously considering wearing the colors — blue — of the enemy camp, Rangers.
But this Old Firm rivalry went well beyond the playing field and bragging rights in Glasgow, Scotland.
It was about religion. Rangers were supported, by and large, by Protestants. Celtic’s backers were Catholics. In Glasgow, Scotland, that was like trying combine oil and water and throwing a lit match into the situation.
Johnston? He was Catholic.
He had played two years for Nantes in France, but now — May, 1989 — Johnston wanted to return home. He publicly said he would play for Celtic. But as it turned out, the club’s offer never came through during an eight-week saga.
Another one came in — from Rangers manager Graeme Souness.
So, after receiving a lucrative offer from Rangers in July, 1989, Johnston pondered the consequences.
Was he going to break the barrier? Was he ready? Could he withstand the pressure?
Johnston already knew all too well about split loyalties between the two archrivals. He grew up with Celtic and Rangers. His father was a Rangers supporter. He was a Celtic fan.
This wasn’t just another signing or transfer for a well-known player and scoring star. This would transcend soccer and make social history, something that would follow him not only for his playing time, but the rest of his life as well. Former Celtic players at the time just didn’t become current Rangers players.
Johnston said he knew what he was getting himself into.
“The thing for me was a little bit of devilishness on top of my terms,” Johnston said during an interview when he was Red Bulls coach in 2006. “Can this be done? I asked myself the question 300 times. I kept coming up with the same answer.”
Yes, it could be done, he determined.
Johnston, then in his prime at 25, agreed to a $2.4 million transfer from Nantes in France and became one of the first Catholic players since World War II to sign with Rangers. He certainly was the highest profile of any player who dared to push the buttons of both sides.
He also turned into a pariah on both sides.
Celtic supporters called him a Judas and a traitor. Ranger fans couldn’t believe the enemy was playing for their side. Rangers backers were caught on TV burning their season tickets and scarves in protest.
“It was a scenario hard to believe,” according to the book, Rangers: The Complete Record. “It was nevertheless an act of cold courage by manager Souness and his chairman David Murray. The transfer news was received with horror by many Ranger fans, and there was talk of a boycott. Souness sought to disarm them by pointing out that he . . . married a Catholic girl and that the club’s only concern was to have the services of a quality player. At the same time, the more perceptive of the Rangers’ fans saw it as another manifestation of the Souness obsession with bigotry in Scottish football, and his ambition to put an end to it.”
Johnston just wanted to play soccer.
The book said later of Johnston’s decision: “Although little was made of it at the time, it took a great deal or moral courage on the part of Maurice Johnston to wear the blue jersey in new of his own background and history.”
In the beginning, Johnston needed bodyguards to come and go from practice. He lived in Edinburgh for peace of mind, as much as he could get in those days.
“I’m a strong person,” Johnston said in a rare interview about his Old Firm decisions and days. “There are a lot of things that won’t hurt me or get in my way. I don’t cry. I’m not someone who looks back in time. I’m more of apt to just move forward and get things done.
“When it came before me, I asked myself questions. I couldn’t ask anyone else the questions. I had to dig deep and if I could do it. I had to listen to what they had to say.”
They were Rangers.
“I had to be 100 percent sure that I had the backing for the club,” Johnston said during Red Bulls training camp in Bradenton, Fla. “Everything I asked for was there. I hadn’t scored in my first six games. But I played the first seven or eight in pre-season and maybe scored 13 or 14 goals.”
Johnston was a proud man and he wasn’t going to accept any charity to appease the fans or situation.
“Playing the first six or seven goals, I wasn’t going to take a penalty kick,” he said. “I was going to score on my own. I was playing well. But it doesn’t cut it in Glasgow. You have to be scoring.”
He broke his duck against Aberdeen, which had played Rangers to scoreless tie with two minutes remaining in the game.
“The ball comes in the box. A couple of minutes to go,” Johnston said. “I score 1-0. The goals kept flowing.”
Indeed, they did. By the time he left Rangers, Johnston had found the back of the net 51 times in 110 games, an excellent strike rate. Not only did Johnston survive, he thrived in the Old Firm rivalry, scoring three key goals in wins over Celtic. In fact, Johnston reportedly received a yellow card for over-celebrating his first goal against Celtic.
“They were always heated,” he said of the games. “You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. You had to be on top of your game. You had to be aware of it. If you were in the derby, you had to win that game. . . . If you don’t win, you’re going to get stick from both sides. I was very successful in the Celtic games against Rangers and vice versa. I never lost many. I was always fortunate enough to score on both sides.”
Johnston later added about the quality of play in those confrontations: “There was no soccer played. That’s the sad part. There was no soccer played.
“It was just about both sets of fans going at each other. Both sets of players going at each other. It makes me smile.”
Let’s face it, there’s no other soccer rivalry like that in the world.
“Nothing can tell me that,” Johnston said. “I’ve been to the Milan derby. I’ve been to the Genoa derby. I’ve been to most of the derbies. Been to Liverpool-Everton, Those clubs are not even close.”
It should be noted that will Johnston’s career in many quarters was defined by his tenure with Celtic and Rangers. He did play and was productive for several other teams.
MoJo, as he was called, made his professional debut at Partick Thistle in 1981 — he struck for 41 goals in 2 1/2 seasons — and had been filling nets since.
He turned into one tough dude to stop – on and off the field.
While with the Scottish Under-21 team in East Germany in November, 1983, Johnston discovered he had been transferred to Watford for $360,000, a pretty decent transfer sum in those days, before the inflated days of the English Premiership helped boost soccer prices in England, Scotland and all of Europe, for that matter.
But he wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t have an agent and needed the U-21 coach to help him out.
There he met up with Watford coach Graham Taylor, who would become English national coach someday. Things were happening at a dizzying pace.
“I met up with Graham Taylor,” Johnston said. “They sold the club. Twenty minutes later I’m talking to Elton John [the new owners] and his whole litany. From there on, I realized what really soccer was all about in terms of being professional and in terms of looking up to certain things. Graham Taylor took me under his wing a little bit, being a young kid coming down from Scotland. He spent a lot of money on me. I would say they got their rewards because I scored a lot of goals for them.
Indeed, he did. Johnston continued to score at a ridiculous rate for Watford — 23 goals in 37 league matches — while teaming up with John Barnes. He eventually was transferred to Celtic for a Scottish Premier Division record $640,000 in October, 1984.
Some English clubs went after the 21-year-old. But Johnston wanted to join Celtic.
“They couldn’t talk me out of it,” he said. “They tried. I believe Arsenal, Tottenham offered double on what Celtic paid for me. There was no going back. I told them I didn’t want to play for them anymore.”
Johnston quickly learned what a big deal it was signing, let alone, playing for Celtic.
“My first instinct was coming home because obviously I flew back all the time for national team games,” he said. “It was sweet. Everyone was always saying, ‘You’re going great for both sides.’ Then all of a sudden you’re playing for Celtic. I came back on Wednesday and went to a club that Wednesday night. I had been in the papers the whole day and obviously people were recognizing me.”
He was also entering the cauldron of the Old Firm derby.
“Then I realized what it was all about, what it was like to be on the other side,” he said. “It was great. It’s water off the duck’s back to me. I don’t care if you’re screaming at me. There could be 300 [fans]. It could be 500, 1,000 it could be 10,000. It doesn’t matter to me. I knew I could go out there and score goals. We won championships, we were successful. For me it was very successful.”
He scored in his second game in a 3-1 victory over Dundee United and off he went again, continuing to forge an imposing reputation as a lethal scorer, finding the back of the net 55 times in 99 appearances from 1984-87.
But things were changing.
“The coach was getting fired. I’d been rumored to a lot of teams,” Johnston said. “I just scored two goals against Spain and the Spanish teams came in. I always wanted to go that way. I had spoken to Fiorentina, Roma, a few other teams. Deep down, I wanted more from Celtic and I wanted my old coach to stay. I held on, I held on, they held off. I started to get some stick from Celtic fans for not signing with the club. My coach got fired. A new guy comes in. I said I didn’t want to be part of you and I just got up and left.”
He chose Nantes and transferred there in 1987.
“I felt it was a great fit for me,” Johnston said. “It was still Europe. I always wanted something where I could go and take my eye off somewhere and live in another country to see what it was like. It was the best thing I’ve ever done for my game.”
When he got to Nantes, Johnston said he knew three French words: cat, dog, bonjour.
“For me, it was taking a soccer ball with me,” he said. “It wasn’t always about language. How you play the game is not different to me. I’ve always felt that way. It was an easy transition. I scored in a derby game in my second game. The fans had taken to me. It was fairly easy after that. I finished second runner-up in the scoring charts. My team finished second. It was a really easy transition.”
But the honeymoon couldn’t last forever and Johnston found himself mired in controversy, as small appetizer for what would transpire playing for Celtic in the not-too-distant future.
“The second year was a lot more difficult because we had drawn the French in the World Cup [qualifying for 1990] and I was flying back and forth for our World Cup games,” he said. “The club wasn’t happy. I scored two goals in the qualifiers against France in Scotland. It was part of the territory. I grew up with it. So it was no different to me. At that time the club financially was a little bit on the backbone. They weren’t looking to sell me and scoring goals regular for the club. It got to the stage where I was being used as a pawn.”
So, Johnston decided: “I’m leaving. I’m going on my own terms. “I’m going to leave at the end of the season. Come January, I stopped playing. A lot of English teams came in for me. I spoke to Celtic. I called up Roy Aitken, a Celtic player. He said, ‘What’s happening with you?’ I said, ‘Well, all of these teams are coming around. I would like to come home.’ ”
Celtic quickly called and asked for Johnston’s terms.
“You have to make a decision straight away,” Johnston said he told club officials. “There’s got to be a certain way where I have to pay this and get paid this and I have to be paid here.
“Celtic flies me in for the cup final. Between then, a lot of teams tried to sneak me in through the back door. I needed a back to back check. . . . We sat down and we spoke and came out in front of a TV crew and I said, look, ‘I’m going to sign for Celtic on a three-year contract. We’ll tidy up everything else. I’m going back to France.’ I went home, nothing happened. Rangers came in and all of a sudden I signed for Rangers.”
And the rest, as we know, was Scottish soccer and social history.