x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The signing that stunned a city

Despite their world record 52 league championships, along with 33 Scottish Cup victories and the 1972 European Cup-Winners' Cup, July 10 1989 can be considered the most important day in the 139-year history of Rangers.

Despite their world record 52 league championships, along with 33 Scottish Cup victories and the 1972 European Cup-Winners' Cup, July 10 1989 can be considered the most important day in the 139-year history of Rangers. Owner David Murray and manager Graeme Souness had long been in agreement that the time had come to end Rangers' religious apartheid policy. Neither man could condone the Glasgow club's steadfast refusal to knowingly field a Roman Catholic player (a few had been signed in ignorance) for entirely different reasons.

How could Murray expect to be treated with respect in the boardrooms of the world when the highest profile business in his empire was guilty of rampant sectarianism? And how could Souness, whose wife and children were Catholic, separate his professional from his private life? As he put it: "Did people really think I could go to work and behave like a bigot while being like a normal person at home?"

They could, of course, have signed a utility player and hidden him away in the reserves, but that was not in the nature of the two men. Whatever the identity of Rangers' first Roman Catholic signing, his arrival at Ibrox was guaranteed to make headlines far beyond Glasgow - where it was certainty that the news would generate vicious condemnation across the city's religious divide. It had to be a player, therefore, who would be impervious to the bitter hatred that he would ignite among Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

Ray Houghton was sounded out but the Glasgow-born Irishman was reluctant to become the focus of such global attention and when he subsequently left Oxford Town he chose Liverpool, where he went on to enjoy a distinguished career. Thwarted but not disheartened, Murray and Souness sat down to plot what would be the ultimate coup. Enter the former Celtic striker Mo Johnston. Idolised by Parkhead supporters, Johnston had appeared at a press conference in Glasgow in May of 1989 at which he proudly announced he would leave Nantes at the end of the season, adding: "And Celtic are the only club I want to play for..."

What happened next remains clouded in claim and counter claim; Johnston insists that the Celtic chairman Jack McGinn had persuaded him to "pretend that he had signed" until all the financial details had been sorted out; Billy McNeill, the club's manager at the time, is adamant that he had Johnston's signature on a contract. Twenty years on, it is now known that with Celtic confident of the return of the crowd favourite, Souness secretly flew to Paris to meet Johnston and his agent Bill McMurdo. As rumours began to sweep Glasgow that the unimaginable would soon happen, Rangers strenuously denied suggestions that Johnston was poised to snub green for blue, while McMurdo laughingly told journalists: "You can run that story for the next 10 years and it still wouldn't be true."

But true it was and the reaction was swift and ugly; some Rangers' fans burned their scarves outside Ibrox, and in the Celtic stronghold of Baird's Bar across the city Celtic followers daubed a blue nose (a "Blue Nose" being their nickname for a Rangers' supporter) on Johnston's photograph on the wall. To those in green, Mo-Jo had become a Judas, and he had be given a squad of 24-hour bodyguards amid a rash of death threats.

Celtic fans have never forgiven or forgotten Johnston's perceived treachery, but he swiftly won over most Rangers diehards by scoring the only goal of the game on his Old Firm debut. More importantly, Rangers now sign Roman Catholics regularly without a voice being raised in protest. @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae