John Johnston: A goalkeeper of stature

Wednesday, March 7, 2018
John Johnston: A goalkeeper of stature

Born in Bo’ness on September 10, 1921, John Johnston had been watched by John Hunter and the Motherwell chairman in the Scottish Junior Cup final as his Armadale Thistle side drew with Glasgow Perthshire at Firhill.

He must have suitably impressed the duo from Fir Park because during the following week they visited the player at his home in Bo’ness and offered him terms.

John was reluctant to sign before the season was completed with his local club, and it was two weeks later on May 13, 1941 that John joined Motherwell, in the midst of World War II.

He had previously played within his own community having starred with his local Academy and Winchburgh Albion. Indeed, he had been a provisional signing with Rangers when he was only 16, and turned out several times for the reserves without ever being called up to the first team squad.

Johnston would become a stalwart Motherwell ‘keeper of the mid 40s and early 50s who frequently had his name incorrectly spelt with an “e” at the end, much to his annoyance. Johnny’s first five seasons at Fir Park were over shadowed by the hostilities taking place in Europe and beyond, as Motherwell competed in “unofficial” competitions, namely the Southern District League, Southern League Cup and latterly the Summer Cup.

John was an important member of the Summer Cup winning side of July 1944, a memorable occasion as it saw Motherwell smash their long standing Hampden Park cup final jinx. Johnston had been an ever present in the cup run as the Steelmen beat St. Mirren, then edged out Falkirk 3-2 in the semi final.

The Steelmen then defeated Clyde 1-0 in the final, with right winger Gibson the goal hero, in front of 40,000 fans, a pretty impressive attendance considering the country was still at war.

Johnston was to win other medals and enjoy further Hampden occasions. Indeed, less than a year later, he was back between the sticks in Mount Florida as the Steelmen lined up against Rangers in the final of the Southern League Cup, which the Light Blues edged 2-1 in an reportedly exciting tussle.

In 1947, John played against Hibernian in a Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden Park which lasted until the 152nd minute, when the Easter Road outfit hit the winning golden goal.

The Steelmen acquitted themselves very well in the 16 team league during this period. The club finished fourth, fourth, fifth and third, before ending in sixth position after the victory season in 1946, all with Johnston the favoured Motherwell custodian.

When Rangers visited in the opening game of the 1946/47 campaign it saw the official introduction of a number of players who were to become legends at Fir Park, including names such as Willie Kilmarnock, Archie “Baldy” Shaw, Andy Paton, Willie Redpath and of course John Johnston. In front of a vociferous audience, Rangers ran out 4-2 winners, with Brown scoring a double for Motherwell.

Johnston had a very good season playing in all 42 matches the club played in, achieving eight clean sheets, no mean feat in an era where football was all about scoring goals rather than preventing them. The following year, the club claimed a second consecutive eighth place finish as John once again gained ever present status playing 40 matches with 12 shutouts.

Seasin 1948/49 saw Motherwell struggle a little with injuries to important players taking its toll on results. Despite this, Johnston once again was an ever present, appearing 38 times and keeping the opposition at bay on nine occasions. On one notable occasion that season, John saved two penalties against Hibernian at Easter Road. Sadly, the duo of stops mattered little, as the Hibs had already romped to a 5-1 lead.

As the new season, which would take the club into the 50s, was appearing over the horizon, John was the only player to have played in all 120 competitive matches the club had taken part in since the ending of the war.

He kept that run going in all the six league cup sectional ties from which Motherwell narrowly failed to progress against Partick Thistle, Dundee and Clyde.

They missed out despite only losing once and Johnston posting two shut outs. As the league campaign kicked off with a 2-2 draw at Fir Park against Falkirk, followed by a tough looking away fixture to Third Lanark.

John Johnston took to the field in Motherwell colours for the 128th match on the bounce that day, and nobody could have foreseen what was about to happen. Johnny was badly injured in the 3-3 draw at Cathkin Park, to such an extent that he wouldn’t turn out again for another seven months after totting up more than 180 consecutive appearances stretching back into October 1943 and the “unofficial” competitions played during the war years.

John returned to his goal line, replacing his more than able deputy, the admirable Dick Hamilton, just in time for the last game of that season against East Fife, much to the delight of everyone with Motherwell at heart.

Unfortunately it was to be no glory return for John as he couldn’t prevent the visitors winning 4-3 at Fir Park despite two goals for Johnny Aitkenhead and a late effort by Archie Kelly.

This was an era in which Motherwell were recognised as a solid mid-table side, who could be dangerous opponents at any given time. This would certainly prove to be the case over seasons 1950/51 and 1951/52. During the former campaign, John missed a dozen games which was unusual for him due to a variety of reasons, with Hamilton once again proving an able back up.

Johnston played 35 games, two of which were Hampden Park cup finals. In the League Cup version against Hibernian, John had been drafted in for the final after an injury to Dick Hamilton, and as is often the case, the player coming into these situations was tremendous.

Johnston was a stand out with a confident display as part of a well organised Fir Park defence against an attacked blessed with pace, trickery and deadly accuracy. Three second half goals by Motherwell’s Kelly, Forrest and Watters allowed Johnston and his team mates to lift the silverware much to the delight of the travelling Motherwell fans in the 64,000 crowd.

Five of the victorious players that afternoon – Willie Kilmarnock, Archie Shaw, Andy Paton, Jimmy Watson along with Johnny – had all taken part in the League Cup final of 1945, when they had lost 2-1 to Rangers, so it must’ve been so much sweeter for these guys to finally lay the club’s cup bogey to rest.

Following the 3-0 victory, the team headed back to the Steel Town on a high to meet a welcoming committee of over 8,000 fans waiting at Motherwell Cross desperate to catch a glimpse of the first major cup bedecked in our famous colours.

The Scottish League Cup, if you include the Southern League Cup, was to be a favourite competition for Johnston, who played in a quite remarkable 71 League Cup ties. The winning of the trophy was recognised by Motherwell Town Council with a civic reception at the town hall two months later.

Four months after the reception, Johnny and his team mates were back at Mount Florida attempting to win the cup double against Celtic in the Scottish. Despite Motherwell dominating much of the final and playing the better football, the Steelmen narrowly missed out on what would have been a unique achievement for this club.

The normally deadly forwards Kelly, Humphries and Aitkenhead all spurned great opportunities before Celtic’s McPhail shot beyond John to send the Celtic fans in the 132,000 crowd home happy, leaving the Motherwell supporters to reflect on what might have been.

The following season of course, as every ‘Well fan should tell you, ended in Scottish Cup glory for the extremely talented Fir Park squad in which John Johnston was integral. The defence of the League Cup was going well for Motherwell with Stirling Albion, Hibernian and Partick Thistle all defeated by the Fir Parkers lining up a quarter final two legged affair against St. Johnstone. On the face of it, the tie was won in the first leg at Muirton Park, but the 4-0 score line for Motherwell masked the important part played by Johnny.

After Jimmy Watson had fired the visitors ahead, Johnston pulled off a terrific penalty save after Willie Kilmarnock had handled in the box. Two more spectacular saves were recorded before the interval allowing for the Steelmen to score two more goals in classic breakaway fashion to pretty much wrap up the tie in the first 45 minutes.

Sadly for the club, when the defence of the trophy finally ended it was with a whimper, being hammered 5-1 in the semi final at Ibrox against Dundee.

Of course, the Scottish Cup final would see Motherwell try to lift the silverware for the first time in their history at the fifth attempt, while looking to gain revenge on the Dark Blues.

John Johnston probably had his finest 90 minutes in a Motherwell shirt in front of almost 137,000 paying punters. Time and again he denied the Dundee attackers, particularly in the first half facing a stiff wind, building the platform for two sets of quick fire goals by Watson, Redpath, Humphries and Kelly. Johnny had also made a terrific point blank save from Dundee inside forward Pattillo midway through the second half to keep his clean sheet intact.

On the way from Hampden to Fir Park, John was part of the party which edged slowly through vast crowds in Viewpark and Bellshill before inching through Motherwell Cross once again, with an estimated 25,000 cheering fans acclaiming their heroes as they headed for a celebration dinner at Robb’s Restaurant.

John was back to being the undisputed number one around these parts, turning out in 48 of the 49 competitive matches played by the Steelmen, only missing out on a 2-1 home win over East Fife in January.

In September 1952, a 31-year-old policeman was shot and killed as he approached a suspect of a bank robbery. PC John MacLeod left a wife and young son as a result of this awful incident, and a fund was quickly set up, the centre of which was a football match with the proceeds hopefully boosting the monies significantly.

The league champions, Hibernian were to take on the Scottish Cup holders Motherwell for the Lord Provost Trophy at Firhill in Glasgow, 18 days after the tragedy. Johnny and his teammates turned in a scintillating display, routing the champions by five goals to one. As superb as the performance was, and as memorable as the victory turned out to be, it was a bittersweet night for the ‘Well fans in the ground given the sad circumstances surrounding the occasion.

John’s last ever game for Motherwell at Fir Park was a 2-1 win over Arbroath in April 1954 as Motherwell wrapped up the Second Division title and returned to the top flight of Scottish football. Johnston was an ever present in the championship winning side playing 43 games, earning 12 shut outs.

His final appearance for the club came at Pittodrie in January 1955 in a 4-1 loss to Aberdeen. He finally left Motherwell later that year as the much younger Hastie Weir, recruited from Queen’s Park in August 1954, established himself as the new first choice.

John Johnston was a popular man with his team mates and amongst the Motherwell support in an era where the club had had decent success and lifted trophies.

His was a long and interesting career and perhaps suffered less than most from the impact of the war. John died in Law Hospital on January 21, 1989, just one day after the death of his former team mate and cup final winning legend Willie Redpath.

John Johnston played 323 times for the Steelmen, a legendary Motherwell goalkeeper who delighted in collecting cross balls and enjoying the physical challenges of his position in the 40s and 50s. He spent a season across the river with Hamilton Accies, playing five games before hanging up his gloves – had he worn any.

Agile, brave and a wonderful shot stopper, he was very highly respected within the Scottish game and had only that one notable absence in his 14-year career at Fir Park. A player of stature, integrity, consistency and quality, there is little doubt that John Johnston not only has a claim to be a legend of this football club, but also to be the finest goalkeeper ever to represent it.

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