July 10, 1989, turned out to be a day few Scots will ever forget. It was the day they heard of the death of the ugliest tradition in Scotland. The Scottish media have sometimes been accused of being obsessed with the issue in a way well beyond anything that

public interest in the matter would justify, but, despite later claims, this was no media-induced sensation. The attention it received from the media was merely a reflection of all that everyone talked about for days and weeks.

Any major signing always has its own twist of interest. Whether it was Woods, or Butcher, and their English eminence; or Roberts and his primeval hardness; or Gough and his swift return; or the colour of Walters; or the persistence of the pursuit of Ferguson - all of Souness's major signings contained both an anticipation of their football meaning and effect on Rangers and a view about wider issues.

Even the Cohen and Ginzburg signings had a religious and exotic dimension to them. The football implications would have been there for the signing of any Catholic and no doubt some added dimension depending on whether they were Scottish Catholic or English as well as Catholic, or Italian Catholic or South American. But the major emphasis would have been on the ending of the religious discrimination and the implications of a Catholic at Ibrox.

But what made this July 10 signing so sensational was the specific history of this particular Catholic. Mo Johnston had starred for Celtic against Rangers, including on two famous occasions where he crossed himself, once after scoring against Rangers and the other time after being sent off against them. A short-sighted Celtic management had let him go to Nantes where his game improved under warmer climes and lesser hassle.

Earlier in 1989 it had seemed set for Johnston to return to Celtic and on May 12, 1989, he was photographed at Parkhead holding the Celtic jersey he had always wanted to wear again. The next day he sat with the Celtic directors in the Love Street stand and travelled on the team bus with his soon-to-be team-mates. Celtic supporters took great emotional comfort in the return of their hero and instantly became much more positive about their ability to match Rangers in the coming season. It soon became clear to Johnston and his agent Bill McMurdo, a well-known Rangers fanatic, that a more beneficial financial arrangement might be possible elsewhere.

The true story of the breakdown in the arrangements with Celtic and the subsequent transfer to Rangers has never yet emerged. Graeme Souness has always maintained, at the time and subsequently, it never occurred to him Johnston might be available until the beginning of July when news of the breakdown of the Celtic deal became public. Once he became aware of this development, he acted very quickly and the whole deal was discussed and concluded in less than a week.

This timescale, the orthodox version of events, does not tie in with some of the information I have been able to assemble and the reality is somewhat different from the official story that has become the accepted version. Within a week of the public wearing of the Celtic jersey, Johnston visited Souness at his house in Edinburgh. On May 20, in the aftermath of a Cup Final defeat by Celtic, Souness, the second-half substitute, threw his runners-up medal angrily on the floor of the dressing-room, claiming he had no time for such loser's baubles. But he did tell his troops he was going to do something that would knock Celtic for six.

The following week Ally McCoist shared a room at a Troon hotel with Mo Johnston in the Scottish party preparing for Rous Cup games at Hampden against England and Chile. While in training camp Johnston received a phone call from Graeme Souness and told McCoist he was about to become a club-mate of his. On June 2, Mo Johnston told Jim Kerr of Simple Minds that there was more chance he would be joining Rangers than Celtic, but the pop star assumed he was kidding. It took several weeks after the initial contacts between Souness and Johnston to disentangle the striker from Celtic's grasp and even as late as June 23 FIFA ruled Johnston was definitely a Celt. Eventually, after Johnston took Celtic to the Court of Session on June 30, the situation became resolved enough for Rangers to act publicly. The full story of these tortuous events will probably never emerge, even if Bill McMurdo decides to

go public on his version.

Whatever the actual timescale, we know from Graeme Souness's account the religious factor was considered by him and Murray but not as a reason for not signing Johnston, only in terms of the briefest consideration of possible consequences for Mo. They wanted to be sure he had the character to cope with the hassle that would undoubtedly come his way. As well as the consequences for Johnston, Souness and Murray considered the implications for themselves and their club. Being the men they are, they had no difficulty in finding the courage required to decide to proceed. As Brian Meek neatly put it in The Herald: ''David Murray and Graeme Souness do not have blue noses, just hard ones.'' Souness said: ''It is a risk we are prepared to take. All of us feel this move could finish the problems of discrimination once and for all. We will have broken down a barrier which has been at times an embarrassment

to everyone at Ibrox. It was essential that it should have been done and I am glad that with the backing of David Murray I have been the man to do it.''

Previous considerations of the scenario of a Catholic player signing for Rangers always had the Catholic community in Scotland welcoming the signing, having a new hero of their own, the breacher of the last rampart so to speak, and decent Protestant Scots rejoicing and supporting too. What had not been entered into these calculations was that the signing would produce fury and indignation in the Catholic community and that rather than being seen as a conquering hero the Catholic signing would be seen as a deserter.

It was a powerful combination for a wee boy from Partick to take on, the resentment of not one but two communities and the disappointment of the aspirations held for many years about the Messiah. It is an open question as to whether Mo Johnston knew what he was getting into. From his upbringing and previous Celtic experiences, he knew of the tensions and strength of feeling around the Old Firm, but it is likely he did not fully appreciate the depth of the reaction from the negative side of both communities. One fact which got remarkably little publicity at the time, given the intensity of interest, was the revelation that Mo Johnston's father was an ardent Rangers supporter. It was Mo's mother who got him the label of Catholic, through the ethnic and the school routes rather than any notion of spiritual identification or activity.

Rangers provided him with a large bodyguard and arranged that he would stay in Edinburgh, far away from the west of Scotland fevered lands. He moved into Souness's own magnificent house, no longer required by the manager following the break-up of his marriage.

In many ways Johnston handled a difficult situation with a dignity not anticipated from his previous experiences. He found it easier to cope than most others might have done. Already friendly with many of the Rangers players through Scotland get-togethers and previous Glasgow encounters, his laddish nature let him fit in quickly, from his acceptance of the first prank of setting his dinner place away in a corner separate from everyone else's. The tone of that action, a joke and not anything important, demonstrated that there was no problem for the new signing from within Ibrox.

There had always been an argument about the net effect on Rangers' support levels of signing a Catholic. There was the feared loss of the diehard bigots who would never again deign to darken their doors. It was always anticipated there would be some loss, but estimates of the numbers varies from only a few to tens of thousands. Against that was offered the possibility of increased support from two different sources.

The first was related to the assumption that ending the restriction on Catholics would increase the pool of recruitment and therefore lead to a better team being assembled which would attract a higher level of support through its greater success. The other possibility was that ending the socially embarrassing and unacceptable discrimination would make it more possible for sensitive Protestants to return to support the team and encourage their children to do so. It should also make it possible for Catholics to be more positive about Rangers, even to the extent of supporting them.

In the event, the people who vowed to refuse to go back if they ended their policy turned out to be far less than the number who would never go to Ibrox until they did, and both lots were far less than the numbers who proved they would support any winning Rangers team. All the years of argument based on the premise that the financial consequences to Rangers of ending the ban on Catholic players would be

considerable and negative proved meaningless. The attendances, already in Souness's first three years pulling close to maximum, were maintained and even increased themselves after the Johnston signing and the unsated demand for season tickets continued to grow.

The reaction of the Scottish Catholic community to the news was if anything more distressed than that of its religious counterpart. The long-awaited Messiah was castigated as Judas Iscariot and many references were made to pieces of silver. There was very little of the joy that should have accompanied the ending of the last major piece of anti-Catholic discrimination in Scottish society and very little good grace.

Tom Connolly, the official press spokesman of the Glasgow Archdiocese, welcomed the signing in a statement heavy with reservations and lacking enthusiasm. Slightly more gracious, Archbishop Winning was able to ''hope the signing will help overcome the religious bigotry which has divided Glasgow for decades''. Souness received no recognition from this quarter for his courage in taking on the bigots in his own supporters.

Celtic supporters were even less

gracious than spokespersons for the Catholic Church. Souness was given no credit at all for ending a moral stain on Scottish football. Instead the Celtic response was a unanimity of hatred directed at the Rangers manager which in its intensity seemed even to surpass that of the Rangers support, many of whom actually welcomed the signing.

By signing Mo Johnston, Rangers did win back many of their own lapsed supporters, those Protestants whose conscience had bothered them about the discriminatory policy and practice. One major legacy of Graeme Souness's action, ironic in view of his own reactionary politics, was that he made it possible for many trade union activists and Labour Party supporters to resume vocal support of Rangers after a long time of silent shame.

Of course, Glasgow's 500,000 comedians had a great time. Tom Shields in his Diary in the Herald ran the best of them for several days over three weeks. My own favourite was: ''Mo Johnston goes to confession and says to the priest, 'Father, forgive me, for I have signed'.'' Others included ''The cry was Mo surrender'', ''Hello, hello, we were the billy boys'', and ''A Rangers supporter's wife gave birth to quads the day after the signing and he called them Eeny, Meeny, Miney and . . . Billy.''

Perhaps fortunately, Johnston was spirited away to Italy to pre-season training immediately after the signing but soon it was time for the real business of playing for Rangers, and there were still some fears about what the reality rather than the notion would provoke. I was at the first public performance of Mojo the Ranger, at Broomfield Park in a friendly against Airdrie. The only verbal aggression to Johnston came from Airdrie bears, notorious loyalist Protestants.

The Rangers fans were either positive, with a chorus or two of ''There's only one Maurice Johnston'', or quiet. There was no overt hostility. That pattern, a mixture of silence and positive support, greeted his first few appearances in official games. His first official game at Ibrox was against St Mirren. 39,951 turned up, four thousand more than for the similar game the previous season. One paper described the reception Johnston got as ''muted, not entirely rapturous but neither was it hostile''.

By the time he scored the winner, the only goal, for Rangers against Celtic on November 4, 1989, it was no longer an issue. That first season Johnston won over most of the Rangers fans by the quality and sharpness of his play and by his courage and unselfishness on the park.

Why did Graeme Souness sign Maurice Johnston? In purely football terms what he needed, to implement the pattern in his head, was a target man, a successor to West, Falco, and Drinkell who were not good enough to match the manager's hopes. In 1990 he finally got the very man he had always wanted, Mark Hateley. But Johnston was not that kind of player. He was of the same mould as Ally McCoist whom Souness did not rate as good enough for his Rangers. In the previous season McCoist had only scored nine league goals in 18 league games, and Drinkell 11 in 32.

In 1989 Johnston was rated as one of the best strikers in the game. He became available for #1.5m, a reasonable fee. Even with the tax bill to settle and his considerable signing-on fee and wages to find, it was a good investment. He gave Rangers two seasons of top-class performances and then he was sold for a profit. In purely football terms Johnston has to be judged as a successful signing.

There is no doubt one element in Souness's decision to sign him was to sicken Celtic. Souness knew that snatching Johnston from their rivals would be a considerable blow to them. He later boasted to his friend Brian Meek of The Herald that it was a psychological blow from which Celtic have still never really recovered. Without Johnston, the Celtic team had a poor season and continued their decline.

These two factors are the reasons Souness wanted to sign Mo Johnston. If Johnston had been a Protestant that would not have reduced Souness's interest in signing him in the slightest. The fact that he was a Catholic and would therefore end the despised tradition was just a bonus, a secondary issue, certainly not a reason for not signing him, but neither was it a reason for signing him. Souness never set out to sign a Catholic in order to end the tradition. He always set out to sign players who would improve his team.

n Tomorrow: The Biggest Mistake Of His LIfe.

HIS thighs were the key to the man. The rumoured size of his thighs was 28ins, thicker than many a Miss Scotland's waist. There are stories about how he had to get his trousers specially made to accommodate the muscles of his thighs. Thighs to slaver over. Strong muscular thighs that allowed him to dig, to stand firm, to give and to absorb forces that would fell lesser pins, the strongest thighs in the history of the game.

Another player, again wanting to remain anonymous, made an important distinction between Souness and other hard men. ''They would be strong on retaliation. Graeme was too controlled, too disciplined to make that mistake. His agenda was retribution not retaliation, a much more considered and planned activity, but one dispensed with a sense of justice rather than rage. That's why he was never sent off at Liverpool. Most referees miss the subtleties, all they tend to see are the obvious retaliatory flare-ups that immediately follow the (often missed) provocations.''

By settling for retribution, Souness was able to set the agenda, control the timing and the setting, avoid referee awareness of the nature of his interventions. It made his actions less personal too. He would ''nip'' people, as he would put it, not for revenge but for control. If he had control, of both the tempo and the temper of the game, and that was most of the time, he would not even have to do that. And the means of establishing control was not by snide kicks off the ball, or punches, but by bruising tackles, across the body, high but controlled, knocking both the wind and the ambition out of opponents. Sometimes he would be booked for those tackles, but never, in England, twice in the one game. More often he was given the benefit of the doubt, for a hard tackle rather than an undisciplined lunge.

That is not to say that Souness never lost the place, never struck out in anger rather than cold control. Twice in his younger days, once with Spurs and once with Middlesbrough, he was sent off for fighting an opponent. But he learned the arts of discipline and control in his indiscipline. Then there were the one or two the referees missed. But these were aberrations, not the essential Souness, the cold master of the midfield.

Souness has acknowledged a degree of moral imperfection in himself on the park. ''I admit that, now and then, I have trodden the thinnest of lines on the pitch. Occasionally the rules have to be bent to achieve your ends, or to combat your opponents' rule bending. But I am not a dirty player. I go in hard and fair.''

Souness uses a term for how to assert control over midfield opponents that could cause communication difficulties in Scotland. So if Graeme Souness offers to give an opponent ''a wee nip'' he shouldn't look forward to a small whisky but instead order a large brandy, because he'll need it after being tackled high, hard, and with the full weight of those massive thighs.