SPOTLIGHT SERIES: MO JOHNSTON
Updated: Jan 25
This article was originally published on July 17th, 2019.
On July 10th, 1989, the date remains among the most infamous in Scottish soccer history.
Thirty years ago last week one of the most shocking transfers in the history of the game.
When Graeme Souness’s Rangers stunned the world of Scottish soccer by signing the striker Maurice ‘Mo’ Johnston from under the noses of the Glasgow club’s perennial rivals Celtic.
Less than two months after posing with his old club’s jersey, former Celtic star was unveiled as a Rangers player.
For Scottish soccer and Scottish society, the deal that took Johnston to Rangers was seismic. It was a move that caused shockwaves off the field. However, the significance on the field, cannot be underestimated.
The signing of Johnston was naturally front-page news given the personal, political, and religious aspects. In a sporting sense, the boost it gave Rangers was felt in equal force, albeit in contrasting terms, at Celtic and it was as positive at Ibrox as it was negative at Parkhead.
Graeme Souness changed the landscape at Rangers with the capture of Johnston and was fully aware of the historical significance of signing a high-profile Catholic at that time. Yet the first objective was to make Rangers stronger, more dominant, and Johnston’s arrival did just that as he rejected a return to Parkhead and joined the Gers.
Rangers and Celtic have exerted a vice-like grip on Scottish soccer for over a century. However, what underpins the bitter rivalry is the sectarian tension, that predates the existence of either Glasgow club.
The ferocious passion generated when the teams clash in the Old Firm derby makes global headlines but behind it is a hatred whose roots can be found in Scotland's history of religion and immigration.
Irish immigration to the industries of central Scotland brought with it sectarian rivalries and stirred a cultural anti-Catholicism, and even anti-Protestantism, that infected the workplace, local politics, and the shape of social life for generations.
"Rivalries develop between football clubs everywhere but the big difference in Glasgow was the clubs associated with this sectarian rivalry."
Celtic were founded in 1887 by a Marist (Catholic) Brother from Ireland and the club's origins were firmly embedded in Irish Catholicism.
Rangers, founded in 1872, became the team of the Scottish Protestant working-class, almost by accident.
At first, relations between the two clubs were cordial, with Rangers supplying the opposition for their neighbors' first game.
However, the opening of a huge shipyard in Govan, just a short walk from Rangers' Ibrox home, by industrial firm Harland and Wolff, saw an influx of workers from Belfast in the 1910s. The company's infamous "Catholics need not apply" policy soon spread to the club their workforce adopted.
The clubs' identities were shaped in direct opposition to each other, with Celtic associated with socialism and Irish Republicanism, Rangers with conservatism, and Northern Irish unionism.
This was reflected in the songs the clubs' supporters adopted, which have tended to use the political events being played out in Northern Ireland as their inspiration.
The signing of former Celtic player Mo Johnston in 1989 brought Rangers' boycott of Catholic players to an end.
Maurice John Giblin Johnston was born April 13th, 1963, in Glasgow. The son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Johnston attended St. Roch’s Roman Catholic secondary school in the Royston area of Glasgow and supported Celtic as a boy.
He would sign his first professional soccer contract with Partick Thistle in 1981.
His 41 goals in two and a half seasons there would earn him a transfer to English top-flight club Watford for a fee of £210,000. His arrival revived their season as they recovered from a relegation spot to finish mid-table, scoring 20 goals in just 29 league games.
Johnston would return to Scotland after only a year to sign with his boyhood club Celtic. He would quickly become a fan favorite at Celtic Park when he helped them win the Premier Division title for the 1985/86 season.
Throughout the previous decade, after Davie Hay left for Chelsea in 1974, Celtic had been losing players. Celtic's board’s infamous ‘biscuit tin’ mentality, meant that the club simply would not sanction the wages that were on offer elsewhere.
Johnston, therefore, moved on to French club Nantes in 1987, with little acrimony from the Celtic fans. They blamed the board for the steady stream of players departing for bigger bucks elsewhere.
After two successful seasons in France, Johnston was getting itchy feet and was looking for a move back to the UK.
Blaming the politics of international soccer for wanting to end his time in France, stating: “The second year was a lot more difficult because we had drawn the French in the World Cup and I was flying back and forth for our World Cup games."
“The club wasn’t happy, I scored two goals in the qualifiers against France in Scotland. At that time the club financially was a little bit on the backbone."
“They weren’t looking to sell me but it got to the stage where I was being used as a pawn.”
While on international duty with Scotland that he mentioned to Celtic player Roy Aitken, that he would entertain a move back to Celtic.
Aitken would go on to pass this information on to the then Celtic manager, Billy McNeill. The Celtic board sanctioned the move, with a Scottish club-record fee of £1.2 million set to be paid to Nantes.
With a deposit of £400,000 paid to Nantes and the Celtic board keen on gaining some PR, in a season that they had finished third, ten points behind Rangers. They announced the signing of Johnston, parading him before the end of the season in a Celtic jersey.
Johnston stated that day, "I didn't want to leave Celtic then [in 1987] and I don't intend to now."
"There was some rubbish about me wanting to join Manchester United but it never entered my head to play for any other club. In fact, there is no other British club I could play for apart from Celtic."
Johnston would even travel with Celtic on the team bus at the end of the 1988-89 season, to a game against St Mirren in Paisley.
However, Johnston only signing only a letter of intent and not a contract. A few weeks later rumors sprung up that he was having second thoughts on the move, due to a tax issue.
McNeill decided to go to the Celtic board and ask them to pay the remaining £400,000 on the transfer fee, to prevent any further hitches.
Sepp Blatter at that point Fifa's general secretary assured Celtic that the letter of intent was enough to make Johnson their player and Celtic's board refused on a point of principle to pay the remaining fee, for a player who was having second thoughts about joining them.
A few years before, in 1986, the new Rangers board lead by David Murray, had signed, former Liverpool and Scotland midfielder, Graeme Souness as team manager.
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.’
Souness made the promise that he would sign players based on their ability and nothing else. He would keep to that promise of signing players on ability and breaking taboos by signing Rangers' first black player Mark Walters and their first Jewish player Avi Cohen
A chance encounter between Souness and Johnston’s agent, Bill McMurdo, in the Ibrox foyer gave the Rangers boss the news that Johnson had not yet actually signed the Celtic contract.
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
Souness would later state in his book “There was some resistance within the club, with other directors feeling that the fans would desert us in droves in protest, but I argued that very quickly Maurice would win the right-minded majority over with his industry and goalscoring, and I was proved right on that score.”
Rangers would call a press conference to announce the arrival of the striker and despite The Scottish Sun has claimed the newspaper exclusive of the century, most journalists still expected to see another new signing, John Sheridan, paraded.
On this one, aware that Murray had made his dramatic move for Johnston on account of a tip-off from a young work-experience journalist. Still, most hacks arrived at Rangers' Ibrox Stadium on 10 July 1989 expecting to see another new signing, John Sheridan, paraded. Souness never did get around to sealing that particular deal.
As Johnston entered the room, there was a collective gasp for air, from the assembled media.
Johnston, in a Rangers' blazer and tie, seemed oblivious to difficulties as he said: "I'm thrilled to join Rangers.
"I'm an admirer of Graeme Souness and feel I'm joining one of the biggest, probably the biggest, club in Europe."
Souness would later say "I would have been a total mug not to go for Mo.
"I have said all along I would have nothing to do with a sectarian policy.
"My main concern is to get a team on the pitch to score goals and win games for Rangers.
"Johnston is a quality player and I simply had to go for him Immediately I knew the Celtic deal wasn't on I moved in."
Asked about the possible reaction of Rangers fans to the news, Souness said, “The fans have supported us since day one, and we’ve brought them the best center-forward in British football.”
After the news finally broke after the press conference, it became apparent that fans from both sides of the city were against the move.
There was widespread bitterness from Celtic's fans towards the boy wonder they once idolized.
The Celtic manager McNeill stated that he was "livid" with his board for not imposing sanctions via Fifa on Johnston. "I can't forgive him and I don't think the Celtic fans ever will," he added. "He disrespected us all."
Celtic fans at Parkhead officially registered a "We Hate Mo Johnstone Celtic Supporters Club."
Police were called to Ibrox to disperse an angry crowd that had congregated outside, to they protested the signing.
A wreath was laid outside the front door with a message reading "116 years of tradition ended”.
Some Rangers supporters burned and threw away their scarves in protest at the deal which they saw as a betrayal of the club’s strong Protestant tradition, and others stated they would not be returning to Ibrox in protest at the signing of a Catholic player.
"It's a sad day for Rangers," insisted one fan. "There will be a lot of people handing back their season tickets. I don't want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox. Rangers have always stood for one thing and the majority of the support have been brought up with the idea of a true blue Rangers team."
The general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, David Miller, stated "It is a sad day for Rangers. Why sign him above all others? 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."
It was not just with fans that the transfer had a reaction. Former Rangers and England defender Terry Butcher, in his autobiography, admitted that Johnston was treated as an outcast by his Scottish teammates at Ibrox.
Butcher said, “It was [signing Johnston], as far as I was concerned, a fabulous signing for the club because Mo was such a good player, while Souness had achieved his ambition of beginning to break down the sectarian barriers at Ibrox. Our only doubt was we knew Mo was fiercely proud of being a Celtic fan and we wondered how he would settle. We need not have worried – he was terrific.
“Next day, the club wanted the Scottish and English players to hold a press conference to tell the media what a good signing he was. There was no problem as far as Ray Wilkins, Chris Woods, Mark Walters, I and some others were concerned. But the Scottish players – Davie Cooper, Ian Ferguson, Ally McCoist, John Brown and the rest – declined because they had received so many calls from friends telling them not to become involved.”
The Rangers' kitman even refused to lay out Johnston's kit before each match as a protest against a Catholic playing for Rangers.
Johnston initially struggled to convince supporters he was worth all the controversy. Then came the biggest moment of all, a goal, the winner no less, in his first Old Firm game as a Rangers player. The majority of doubters and critics within his own support would soon be won over. Johnston went on to be a success at Rangers, 31 goals in 76 league starts emphasize that fact. He was part of Souness's all-conquering side who would go on to complete a run of nine titles in succession. He later served Everton, Hearts, and Falkirk before embarking on a coaching career in the MLS. His strength of character amid all that went on around him is to be admired. As, whether they admit it or not, was Rangers having the courage of their convictions to sign Johnston in the first place. As debates rage on regarding the sectarian behavior of the club's support in 2019, it is worth remembering matters is a world of improvement away from the time of Johnston's unveiling, and Rangers are all the better for it. Johnston has no plans to return to Scotland, unwilling to subject his children to the potential ramifications of the most controversial transfer the country's soccer scene has ever witnessed. Thirty years on, there are open wounds on more than one side.