Following the dark days of the 1978 World Cup, Willie Johnston found himself playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the NASL. In the clip below Willie shows that he still had a taste for both football and controversy, as he accepts a beer from a fan before taking a corner.

Despite being one of Scotland’s greatest natural talents, Willie Johnston is likely to be remembered for the wrong reasons. In his autobiography, Sent Off At Gunpoint, ‘Bud’ recounts some of the best and worst moments of a rollercoaster career. The Guardian took a closer look:

Then there’s Willie Johnston, fated to go down in history for one thing: failing a drug test while representing Scotland at the 1978 World Cup. Which is a terrible shame as it misrepresents everything about Johnston: mainly because he was one of the fastest and most skilful left wingers of the era, still the only Scottish player to score twice in a European final, but also because the drugs bust, the result of an innocent misunderstanding, skews his status as a bona fide bad-boy hero whose scrapes with The Man would become legion and legendary.

Johnston’s antics at the Hawthorns are the stuff of typical Seventies Maverick legend. He once playfully kicked a referee up the arse. And over the course of two matches, he successfully negotiated the purchase of a greenhouse from a supporter stationed near the touchline. But he was rarely in the sort of bother he found himself in up north. In addition, his form was such that by 1977, and with the World Cup finals looming, the Scotland manager, Willie Ormond, was prepared to give him an international recall. “You’re the best winger in England,” Ormond told Johnston. “I want you in my team but the SFA doesn’t want you in the squad. Prove them wrong.” Willie would do so by — fatefully — grabbing his chance to go to Argentina the following year under new manager, Ally McLeod, with both hands.

What happened at the 1978 World Cup is well documented. After Scotland lost their opening match 3–1 against Peru, Archie Gemmill was asked to supply a urine sample. But Gemmill was severely dehydrated and so Johnston took his place. After filling an unmarked sample tube, Johnston thought nothing more of it. And then his world caved in on itself — he had tested positive for the stimulant Fencamfamin, innocently taken as a constituent part of over-the-counter medicine Reactivan.

The story was kept under wraps for a day as Johnston vigorously denied all allegations. “I was in the best form of my life and had no need for artificial stimulants,” he says today. “And in any case the Peru match was the worst of my international career, so you could hardly say Reactivan was performance-enhancing.”

But the gaff was blown live on television by young reporter Trevor McDonald, who approached a speechless Johnston at an official function. “Once the story went public the SFA were unwilling to fight my corner,” says Johnston, who to this day remains unhappy with McDonald. Although obviously the SFA (“amateurs”) and Fifa (“They were always looking for a drugs scapegoat; if this happened to an English player, or someone from a big country like Italy or Brazil, they would have turned a blind eye at the time”) took most of the flak.

On his return to Britain, Johnston’s life was made a living hell and he soon upped sticks for Vancouver, where he won the 1979 Soccer Bowl with the Whitecaps. He is also fondly remembered in the US for instigating a 20-man brawl against the New York Cosmos, after a clash with the notoriously hot-headed Giorgio Chinaglia; his Vancouver team-mate Alan Ball sat it out in the centre-circle alongside Cosmos defender Franz Beckenbauer.

Johnston would eventually head back home, returning first to Rangers, then moving to Hearts. But the final years of his career were dogged by controversy. His most shameful act came during his stint at Ibrox, when he stamped on John McMaster’s head; the Aberdeen player needed the kiss of life as a result. “I’m not proud of that,” he says today. “It’s no excuse but I thought he was Willie Miller. Miller was a great player but he was a hard man and deserved some of his own treatment back. Unfortunately I got the wrong player.”

Then at Hearts Johnston was sent off for allegedly butting Davie Provan, though he maintains the Celtic man, attempting to impede a throw-in, went down with no contact having been made. As he walked down the tunnel, Johnston got in a “wee altercation” with the Celtic manager, Billy McNeil. In both instances, SFA bans were not long in coming.

His final appearance in front of an SFA disciplinary board was, ironically, nothing to do with a red card. Portions of a book Johnston had put out, relating to the Provan incident, had been published in a national newspaper and the SFA mandarins were not happy. Johnston was summoned to state his case and did so — but to no avail. He was fined £200. “You’ll all be going to lunch now?” asked Johnston of the panel. “Yes,” replied SFA suit Ernie Walker. “Then the wine’s on me, you arseholes.” Johnston walked out of the room, for once up on the deal — the newspaper serialisation had made him £1,000.

Excerpts from The forgotton story of…Willie Johnston in The Guardian, 23 December, 2008

Thanks to Billy for the video.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9ckZUpGoNI

Comments

  1. Apparently he owns a pub in Kirkaldy now. They should have a corner flag behind the bar in tribute!