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Looking back, 25 years on: the day that Mo Johnston signed for Rangers

THERE was also other news on July 10, 1989.

Rangers manager Graeme Souness, flanked by  the club's  vice chairman Jack Gillespie, at the press conference unveiling Maurice Johnston. Picture:  Herald Archive
Rangers manager Graeme Souness, flanked by the club's vice chairman Jack Gillespie, at the press conference unveiling Maurice Johnston. Picture: Herald Archive

There were hopes of a breakthrough in a rail dispute after British Rail and the unions agreed to meet at the offices of Acas. The veteran comedian Tommy Trinder died at the age of 80. Those may have been the stories which accounted for the big spike in Scottish newspaper sales 25 years ago today. Or maybe it was the tale which The Glasgow Herald - as it was called back then - splashed on page one: "£1.5m signing makes football history at stroke of a pen".

Mo Johnston to Rangers. The daddy of all Scottish football stories. The monumental transfer to end them all. The JFK moment for fans of Rangers, Celtic, all other clubs bar none. The basics hardly need retelling now but signing Johnston smashed Rangers' abhorrent, unspoken policy of not signing prominent Catholic players.

Pouring petrol on the flames, and ensuring that if one half of Glasgow would be provoked they might as well go the whole hog and annoy the other side too, Rangers had beaten Celtic to the punch on a player who had posed in green-and-white hoops eight weeks earlier.

He had supported Celtic all his life and played for them before moving to Nantes. A return seemed certain - hence the premature publicity shots - but the deal collapsed over personal and tax problems. That was when Rangers stepped in. The cocktail was as incendiary as a football story can get.

"Rangers yesterday paraded their latest, and most controversial signing, Maurice Johnston, in the process demolishing any remaining notion they were sectarian, and upstaging their arch-rivals Celtic," wrote Allan Laing in the Herald. The deal had "astounded the sporting world" and "provoked strong reaction from their fans". The latter was incontestable and Laing then carried some astonishing quotes from the general secretary of the Rangers Supporters' Association, David Miller.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would sign him," said Miller. "It is a sad day for Rangers. Why sign him above all others? There will be a lot of people handing in their season tickets. I don't want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox. It really sticks in my throat."

The Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic Church in Scotland were asked to comment. A powerful, approving leader column in the Herald talked of a shameful totem of Scottish religious intolerance being toppled. "At the time of writing the world is still on its axis despite the signing yesterday of a Roman Catholic by Rangers FC and the wholly predictable reaction of various interest groups with a prejudice to defend."

How many fans thought like David Miller? That was the dreaded imponderable. Rangers' season-ticket base mushroomed after Graeme Souness became manager in 1986 but there were real fears that signing a Catholic could alienate a huge swathe of their support. Might 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 stop coming?

On the day Johnston was announced the club received 30 calls from fans wanting refunds on their season tickets. 100 fans gathered outside Ibrox. On the television news that evening a couple were shown setting fire to scarves in front of the Main Stand. There were some muted boos when Souness emerged at the front door.

The most audacious transfer of them all had four architects: Souness, Johnston himself, Rangers owner David Murray, and Johnston's agent, Bill McMurdo. The story was broken in The Sun's Scottish edition on the morning of July 10. Other newspapers scoffed but when Rangers called a press conference in the Ibrox Blue Room there were audible gasps when the club's management and directors walked in with Johnston among them.

In The Herald, Laing wrote: "not surprisingly there was an atmosphere of undisguised smugness about the Rangers officials when they paraded their sensational signing before the media".

But all of them knew what they were letting themselves in for. McMurdo was cute enough to be sensitive to the prospect of an intolerable backlash against his man. "We considered the possibility that if things went wrong we would get a release," he said yesterday. "That was agreed with Rangers verbally, that if things became too bad then he would be allowed to move on.

"Fortunately that never happened. Things calmed down quite quickly. I had a security guy at the house for six months but I think he was on a jolly! Really there were no concerns whatsoever. Do you know how many season tickets were returned after Maurice signed for Rangers? One."

The deal generated endless arguments and great stories. Supposedly there was a Larkhall pub which kept its own Premier League table which did not count any Johnston goals (with those deducted Rangers did not win the league). And then there was the one about the death threat issued to a dog called Mo.

In time it was clear that the real Mo could have a working relationship with Rangers fans but he had been irrecoverably estranged from Celtic. They called him "Le Petit Merde", referring to his spell in Nantes between Celtic and Rangers. He was called plenty more besides.

"Maurice was brave, without a doubt," said McMurdo. "Graeme was very brave too, we had no idea what sort of reaction we were going to get. We thought there would be a real kickback. I don't think it was as bad as we feared at the time. I was convinced that Maurice would turn the fans round. I didn't think there would be any problem with that. That proved to be the case."

Most of the 100 who stood outside Ibrox on day one supported Johnston's arrival. The possible boycott never materialised. Rangers' average league attendance in 1989/90, his first campaign, was 38,436, barely down at all on the previous season.

Johnston was a hit at Ibrox. He scored 31 times in 76 league starts and three goals against Celtic convinced any Rangers doubters that he could be trusted. Any lingering resistance to him within Ibrox melted away. He was there for two-and-a-bit seasons and left on good terms (he later played for Falkirk and Hearts), but the wounds with the Celtic support would never heal.

Today, 25 years on, the Scottish football landscape has changed significantly and Catholics at Rangers are no longer an issue. There are still some hardliners on both sides who would resent Johnston's presence around Glasgow or else use it for aggressive point-scoring.

He has made a successful coaching career and a comfortable, civilised life for himself in the USA. He does not give interviews about the transfer and is unlikely to ever make a permanent return to Scotland.

"Not a day goes by without me being asked about that deal," said McMurdo. "Every single day in life, no matter where I go in the world. The first thing people say is 'Maurice Johnston', 'I was here when I heard, I was there when I heard'. It's a JFK moment. People don't speak to me about it in a hostile way, they just want to share it with me. I enjoy that from the point of view that I think it was the right move to make at the time, and after 25 years I'm even more convinced it was the right.

"In my opinion he was the only one who could have done that. A high-profile, first-class, world-class player. There were others Souness wanted to sign prior to Maurice and for me they just couldn't have done it."

McMurdo is still a prominent agent today. For 15 years he represented George Best, travelling the world with him, but he maintains that people tend to distil his entire career down to just that one astonishing piece of business. Best, by the way, was all for it. "George thought Maurice was an absolutely tremendous player. He told me 'ach, tell him to go for it'.

"I'll take it to my grave. I've had a few big ones over the years but that one was up there on its own. It's the 10th of July 2014 and this morning I completed the transfer of a Spanish player to China. That's not gonna make the same level of news, is it?"

As for the comparison to everyone remembering where they were when JFK was assassinated, this writer found out about the Johnston deal via a newspaper bill advertising The Sun in Inverness: "Mo Joins Gers". A sensation in three words.

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