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The Scotsman
The Scotsman
Jinky is back in spotlight as legend hits screen
Richard Purden
24 April 2004
IN A cab on the way to visit Jimmy Johnstone at the Celtic legend’s home, the driver talks endearingly about "Jinky" and enthuses about Celtic’s history in European football.
As he pulls away after dropping me off, the driver shouts: "I’m a bluenose, by the way!" When it comes to Jimmy Johnstone, Old Firm loyalties seem to melt away.
There is, of course, huge sympathy for the former footballer’s condition, as he fights motor neurone disease. But it is fair to say that even before he was diagnosed, Johnstone was one of football’s favourite sons who could force a smile from even the most staunch Rangers supporter.

Johnstone may be physically diminished, with the disease affecting his hands and arms, but he brims with enthusiasm and his eyes burn with a passion for life.

Anecdotes about his football career come tumbling out, all fond memories of a life in the spotlight, a situation he once again finds himself in after the relatively quiet years of his football ‘retirement’.

Tomorrow night he will be centre of attention once more at Glasgow’s SECC for the premiere of Lord of the Wing a new documentary film of Johnstone’s life to highlight his battle with motor neurone disease and raise awareness of the condition.

What was always going to be an emotional occasion now seems even more poignant following the death of Ronnie Simpson, one of Johnstone’s team-mates in the legendary Lisbon Lions side who won the European Cup in 1967. The Lions are expected to attend tomorrow night’s screening, to pay tribute to Simpson and give their support to Johnstone.

Johnstone was diagnosed with the illness in October 2001. Faith and a positive outlook have remained essential to his everyday life since that dark day two-and-a-half years ago.

"I’ve got it in my hands and arms but it hasn’t affected any other part of me," says Johnstone. "There are cases more severe than mine; nobody has died with this particular condition. I think everything that has happened to me has been God-given from my success with Celtic to my illness today. I think that part of my purpose in life is to raise awareness for this illness and who more than me can do that?"

True. Johnstone’s appeal doesn’t just cross the Old Firm divide - there can’t be a football fan in Scotland who doesn’t know the legend of Jinky, the type of player who is more or less extinct in the modern game.

Naturally, it was the Celtic supporters who quickly rallied round their idol, raising money to help his cause and promote awareness of the condition. Surprisingly, there has been a backlash within the Celtic community over the issue of embryonic stem cell research, which has been debated in the unlikely platform of the Celtic View, with some readers objecting to their donations funding the controversial practice.

Johnstone is anxious to allay those fears. He is pursuing the fight for a cure with evangelical zeal, but he is aware that there are boundaries which must be respected.

"Scientists have removed the ethical problem because they have found ways of using adult stem cells," he says. "This could help all kinds of people with degenerative illnesses from Parkinson’s to cancer.’’

Gayle Sweet, spokeswoman for the Jimmy Johnstone MND Tribute Fund, confirms that supporters’ worries are unfounded.

"There is no embryonic stem cell research being done in the UK," says Sweet. "The money being used for Jimmy’s fund goes towards caring for patients and ordinary adult stem cell research.’’

Johnstone’s relationship with Celtic’s fans has, incredibly, strengthened over the past two years, and the outpouring of support has given him untold strength.

"The Celtic fans have been amazing," he said. "They raised over £25,000 in one afternoon selling badges at a home fixture last year and I’m very grateful for that support."

The backing he has received doesn’t stop at the Celtic family. Lord of the Wing film producer Jeff Healey was able to persuade many of the greatest names in football to take part in the film.

"Football fans all over the world will appreciate this film," says Healey. "All the greats are in the film: Eusebio who flew back early from New York to pay tribute, Johann Cruyff and Di Stefano - which was a very difficult interview to get. The Lisbon Lions are on there, ex-Rangers players Willie Henderson and John Greig, Martin O’Neill, Henrik Larsson, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Alex Ferguson - the list is endless."

Hollywood icon Robert Duvall also makes an appearance and the narration is by Billy Connolly.

Johnstone’s rapport with Celtic’s legendary manager Jock Stein and the rest of the Lisbon Lions was essential to the club’s success. Much has been said about the Lions’ togetherness following the death of Simpson. There is no denying the Lions would not have been as successful had they not lived out of each other’s pockets.

"It was a family back then and big Jock was very much like the father figure,’’ says Johnstone. "He was held in complete respect and we all looked at him in awe - if he gave you a hug, then it meant something."

Inevitably, conversation turns to that afternoon in Lisbon, and a match that changed forever the lives of all those who represented Celtic: witness the death of Simpson being referred to as the loss of a Lion.

"Lisbon was strange," says Johnstone. "We knew we were going to play a team that had won two world championships. I still look at the tape and I can't believe the amount of chances we made. We started the game at a fair pace and they were waiting on us collapsing but we just kept going at them. People forget it was over 80 degrees on that pitch. I can still smell it yet, I can see it ... feel it."
Source: The Scotsman
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