Desmond Kane

Johnston could have unlikely Old Firm role

Desmond Kane

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Down and out in Glasgow, high and dry in Toronto. It may have appeared as a mere footnote on the week's wider sporting digest, but the endlessly engrossing life story of a man called MoJo has completed another telling chapter in North America.

The debatable Maurice Johnston has ended a nine-year period employed in the circles of Major League Soccer having been dismissed as the general manager of Toronto FC amid much griping about his value to the Canadian club's general health over the past four years.

Such moments of hardship are nothing new to such a forthright football explorer. Adversity and Johnston are natural bedfellows.

Johnston, now 47, is a figure who remains close to Scotland's sporting and cultural bosom, even when he can be found in far off places.

The parish of Scottish football has its own little library of JFK moments, but none drew a greater scorn from the masses, not in the liturgical sense of course, than the time young Maurice jumped the Glasgow dyke to become a Roman Catholic player of Rangers.

Back on a July day basking in high farce in 1989, some rabid football followers would have wished him to go the same way as JFK, however gory that may sound. His moniker attracted opprobrium in the city. 

Some may say Don Kitchenbrand and several others came first, but Johnston's second coming continues to mark him out as the first Catholic of major significance to wash up at Ibrox.

Rangers ripped up an 'unwritten policy' when they landed the Glaswegian forward.

Johnston joined Graeme Souness's team only days after indicating he was regrouping for a second stint at Celtic, a club where he scored over 50 goals in three seasons and won the league in 1985.

There was an outbreak of wailing and gnashing of teeth that would hardly merit inclusion in any theological doctrine.

We will perhaps never witness such theatre again, even if reconciliation and redemption remain in short supply at some outposts.

Without overstating the point, a collection of Rangers fans, steeped in the tradition of their club's willingness to avoid RC players, burned season tickets and binned scarves.

A helping of Celtic followers, invoking Last Supper undertones, claimed Johnston was a traitor when the figures who had really betrayed them and manager Billy McNeill were those running the club.

Souness was merely indulging in an act of one-upsmanship. All the fault should have been laid at the door of Celtic's custodians for failing to find the money to complete a transfer approaching over £1million that at the very least would have prevented the player from playing for another club.

There was a feeling promoted by some at Rangers that the Johnston saga damaged Celtic for several seasons, but that remains no more than a romantic notion.

Celtic were on a road to decline under a board of directors, the Kellys, Whites and Grants of the time, whose main concern was to keep Celtic within the family when it had clearly outgrown their vision of progress.

Supported by FIFA, their failure to find the money for McNeill to secure Johnston merely illustrated the board's amateurishness, and a need for a change of ownership.

Johnston may hardly be one of the great thinkers of our time, but he was never interested in ecumenical issues. There was method to his madness. He was more concerned about greenbacks than the green of Celtic, even if that meant wearing the blue of Rangers.

Whatever is said about Johnston, nobody could portray him as flawed as those who derided him.

Johnston naively made a rod for his own back when he made the Sign of the Cross when Celtic lost 2-1 to Rangers in the Scottish League Cup final of 1986.

The late former Celtic player and manager and deeply devout Tommy Burns wrote in his autobiography that he was somewhat shocked when Johnston drew the crucifix over his chest after being sent off as a Celtic player. He was aware that Johnston was hardly an acolyte.

Johnston has continued his fascinating sojourn in North America where he played for the Kansas City Wizards and won a Cup a decade ago. He assisted the USA national coach Bob Bradley during time spent working in New York.

Amid Celtic's annual pre-season pilgrimage to North America, the club's manager Neil Lennon, a figure who has not exactly been outlawed from Scottish football's odd interpretation of religious affairs, remarked that he would like Johnston to scout for the club.

Life is too short to drink bad wine when one reflects and sees terrific men like Burns cut away by cancer.

Gone, but not forgotten, Johnston may well get the time to work for Celtic, or any other Scottish club assessing potential bargains in The Americas.

Lennon has snared Mexico's midfielder Efrain Juarez and Honduran Emilio Izaguirre, a left-back who was in eye-catching form in his side's 2-1 win at Kilmarnock on Sunday. They are studying a potential move for the United States youth striker Adrian Ruelas.

Johnston has undertaken some notable work in the region since his playing career ended in 2001.

His star may have dimmed in Toronto, but he is unlikely to remain a pariah in the US. Johnston appears to have an eye for fresh talent as he had for a goal.

He played a part in Rangers's purchase of Maurice Edu from Toronto for over £2million a couple of years ago after Walter Smith sought his opinions.

One remembers chatting to Johnston shortly after Rangers won nine straight titles and got the impression here was a figure who genuinely enjoyed representing Celtic and Rangers. His others staging posts included Partick Thistle, Watford, Nantes, Everton, Hearts and Falkirk.

Johnston scored over 200 goals in a burgeoning career and appeared for Scotland at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, but a solitary decision defines him.

He was hit with brickbats and a pie on the head facing Celtic, but scored three times against his old club. In his own way, he unwittingly became one of the great reforming characters of Scottish society.

Souness, a figure with a Catholic wife and kids, reserved praise for him as recently as last year.

"If anyone deserves credit, he does. He broke that ridiculous situation that existed in Glasgow," said Souness.

"Any level-headed person who has an interest in this country would think he has done his bit for Scotland."

There was hardly a period of Gregorian chant to announce the news of Johnston's departure from Toronto, but in a week in which Pope Benedict shared tea with the Queen in Edinburgh, it would be reassuring, in such times of apparent social enlightenment, to recall Johnston's move to Rangers as a force for a greater good.

A homecoming may remain as remote as Bobby Williamson turning up as Uganda manager, but in football, particularly in its Scottish formation, one is never quite sure what is brewing.

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