ANDREW Smith talks to legendary winger Willie Johnston about a fateful tie between Rangers and the Wee Gers.
It is standard to hear any Rangers player who turned out in the club’s seismic Scottish Cup defeat at Berwick in 1967 talk of the pain and the trauma he felt that day. Willie Johnston, though, deploys these terms to describe real physical distress rather than any mental torment.
When the 65-year-old recalls one of the most storied afternoons in the annals of our game – “the biggest upset in Scottish football history,” the winger calls it – his mind is drawn to what happened in the local hospital rather than the confines of the Shielfield Park.
“I dinnae remember much aboot the game because I got my ankle broken,” says Johnston cheerfully, Berwick Rangers keeper and future Rangers manager Jock Wallace “doing” the winger just after the hour mark. That meant Johnston was being attended by nurses when news filtered through that Sammy Reid’s 32nd minute goal had won the tie against a team separated from them by almost the entire length of the senior set-up.
“I was in agony as they wouldn’t set my ankle because a specialist in Glasgow’s Victoria Infirmary had told them not to do it and that he would arrange it once I came back on the team bus. When I was in the bed, I kept asking the nurse the score and there was this Rangers-supporting boy next to me all bandaged up. He had either fallen or been in a fight, but was covered in blood. He was half drunk anyway. At the end of the game I’m saying ‘nurse, what’s the score?’ ‘One nil, one nil for Rangers’, she said. ‘Berwick Rangers’. At this the boy got up and he punched the lights oot the f****** windae.”
Johnston makes no bones over the fact Wallace took him out. And never apologised. (“Did he f***”) Not that the winger was any innocent. “My leg was up and I tried to hit him, and big Jock came roond, and…oh, he done me. I just heard it crumble. He was a big man, to my cost. When Willie Waddell came, he brought in Jock as his assistant, and he would always say; ‘how’s the ankle?’ ‘It is fecked’, I’d say, ‘nae thanks to you’.”
Johnston just remembers the bus journey back to Glasgow and subsequent trip to the Victoria blinding him to any interest in football talk. “I was in the team bus lying across seats in agony saying: ‘I want to go hame!’ But the worst part was getting oot the bus at Ibrox and in to Scott Symon’s car. Scott was driving, and I mind him saying to Davie Smith ‘David, David, this is a very bad day’ and I’m saying: ‘Get me to the hospital for feck’s sake.’ I was in there with my tracksuit top on, in my shorts and with a blanket over me. I had a blanket over me in Argentina too, but that’s another story I’m not going in to...”
The disgrace of the Scotland winger’s expulsion from the Scotland squad in the 1978 World Cup for failing a drugs test seems tame by comparison to what has befallen Rangers in recent months. Johnston says its is “unbelievable” that the modern day Rangers have had to be reborn as a Third Division club. “I wouldn’t have believed in a million years I would see the day when Rangers would play Berwick in the league. I was asked if I wanted to go down for the game... do I stuff want to go back to Berwick.”
Ibrox will be a regular haunt after Johnston was last season recruited to press the flesh and share a few anecdotes – of which he has countless he likes to recount in ribald fashion – in the hospitality lounges. He was there for last week’s East Stirlingshire game that drew an astonishing 49,000 crowd. “It was brilliant, the atmosphere was unbelievable. It was a lovely day and folk were just back from holiday but if Rangers can average 30,000 crowds that will be great for them. I am sure the fans will stay with them and I hope and think they will be back in two, three years time and that they look after the finances better than they did.”
The fans didn’t stay with Rangers in the supposedly disastrous year of 1967. In retrospect, the players who remained more than atoned for Berwick by reaching the final of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. They lost 1-0 in extra-time to Bayern Munich, having been forced to play centre-half Roger Hynd up front because strikers Jim Forest and George McLean had been scapegoated for missing chances in Berwick and sold in the immediate aftermath. Johnston believes the team couldn’t cut a break that season.
“If we had had a natural striker I think we could have won the final but the pressure was back on us because it came a week after Celtic had won the European Cup. They came back to Glasgow to huge crowds, when we returned there were two men and a dug. I think one of the men was that guy wi’ bandages.”