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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 02:46 GMT
Johnston row still rages
Mo Johnston was signed for Rangers by Graeme Souness
Mo Johnson was signed by Graeme Souness
One of the most controversial moments in Scottish football history remains shrouded in mystery, despite a rare insight into the signing of Maurice Johnston for Rangers provided by BBC Scotland.

Johnston was the Glasgow catholic who turned his back on his beloved Celtic and effectively broke the sectarian, protestant signing policy of Rangers.

But the new BBC series, "Footballers' Lives", explained that the player, his agent and the then Celtic chairman still have differing accounts of how he ended up joining their Old Firm city rivals instead.

And it disclosed that it was the religious hatred that envelopes many in the West of Scotland and beyond that finally drove him back south to Everton.

Mo Johnston (left) always wanted to play for Celtic
Johnston (left) was a big hit with Celtic
Johnston had already had one successful spell with Celtic when he was paraded by Jack McGinn at a 1989 press conference as a returning hero from French club Nantes.

McGinn insists that Johnston had signed a document agreeing to a four-year contract and that this was verified as binding by world governing body Fifa through the Scottish Football Association.

It was only when the former Partick Thistle and Watford player failed to turn up the following week at Celtic Park that: "We issued a statement which said that we had withdrawn all interest in signing Mo Johnson."

But Johnston and agent Bill McMurdo tell a different tale.

McMurdo insists that Johnston had talked to Celtic without his permission and that he warned the club that they had to deal with him instead of Nantes as it was his company who held the Scotland international's contract.

Johnston claims that McGinn went ahead with the press conference in the full knowledge that the deal had not yet been sealed.

"Just kid on you've signed, those were the words that came out his mouth," he said, although McGinn denies such a statement.

Maurice Johnston in the blue of Rangers
Johnston split the Rangers dressing-room
Ibrox boss at the time Graeme Souness says that the idea of signing Johnston arose after a chance meeting with Rangers supporter McMurdo, who explained that, despite newspaper photographs to the contrary, the striker was not yet a Celtic player.

Rangers chairman David Murray jumped at the chance of signing his club's first, high-profile catholic player and dealing a very public blow to their sectarian signing policy.

"I thought we had the social responsibillity to take away this tarnish from the club," he said.

"It was the ultimate signing, but we thought it was the right thing to do football-wise.

"He was a brave little bugger at the time."

Indeed, former Rangers team-mate Terry Butcher disclosed that Johnston encountered opposition from the backroom staff and some players.

"The English players were delighted as he was a very good player, but the others were against it for all the wrong reasons I thought at the time," he said.

Johnston's scoring exploits soon won over the majority of Rangers' support.

Mo Johnston in Partick Thistle colours
Johnston started his career at Partick
But sectarianism was still alive and well in his home city and finally persuaded him to reject the offer of a new contract despite the promise of even more winners medals at Ibrox.

"Every time there was a Celtic-Rangers thing, something would crop up and somebody would throw something at your car or somebody would be spitting at you," he said.

Johnston continued to score goals with Everton, Hearts, Falkirk and Kansas City Wizards, who he led to the US championship before retiring, aged 38, in November.

Yet he describes as "the ultimate" helping snatch the championship for Celtic on the final day from long-time leaders Hearts.

Even so, former Celtic boss David Hay admitted: "He was a first-class player, but unfortunately, because of what he did, he will no longer be remembered in many people's eyes as a great Celtic player."

  • Footballers' Lives will later examine the playing careers of four other legends in Scottish football: Billy Bremner, Graeme Souness, Denis Law and Gary McAllister.

See also:

25 Nov 01 |  Scotland
The end of a great career
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