FIFTEEN years may have now passed since Jimmy Johnstone left this mortal coil, but for the Celtic support, the memory of Jinky will always live on.

It was on March 13th 2006 that the greatest ever Celt finally lost his last and most formidable battle, succumbing to the Motor Neurone Disease that he had fought gallantly for the last four years of his life at the age of just 61.

That trademark bravery was exhibited throughout a sparkling career with Celtic that lit up the footballing world, drawing praise from some of the biggest names to ever have played the game, and ensuring his immortality as one of the Lisbon Lions who lifted the European Cup in 1967.

And there behind him to witness it all, with ‘the best view in the house’, was right-back Jim Craig.

“I think that everybody who saw him play should be very grateful that they saw such a talent,” said Craig, now 77.

“You do get some really good players, but then you get the truly outstanding ones like a Pele or a Maradona, and the name of Johnstone is right up there alongside them.

“There are a certain number of players who just transcend their stage, and Jinky, you would have to say, was one of them. You just recognised straight away that you were in the presence of a special player.

“Somebody who had the talent to take on people the way he did was quite amazing to watch. I was grateful to have had the best view in the house from behind him. I’m in a room just now about 12 x 12 and he could keep the ball off me in here.

“He came in for some really rough treatment, so for all his talent, bravery is up there amongst the main qualities that he had.

“He wasn’t the easiest person to play behind, I would be the first to admit! If he lost the ball, he would sometimes put the head down for a wee second or two.

“I would say to him at half-time not to do that, and he would say ‘Och Cairney [Craig’s nickname] I’m sorry’, and he always looked so humble about it.

“He was just a truly great player. The curious thing is that when it came to voting for Celtic’s greatest ever player, which Jimmy won in the end, I voted him second! I probably knew him better than most playing behind him all the time, but I just thought that Jimmy McGrory’s goalscoring record was unbelievable.

“I told him I was going to go for McGrory, and he said ‘Ach it’s alright Jim, I would have done the same.’”

There weren’t many seats at Celtic Park back in Johnstone’s heyday, but the few were often rendered redundant in any case, such was Jinky’s knack for getting bums up out of them.

“People were just captivated by the sheer talent he had in beating a man,” said Craig. “There’s only a few can do that.

“If you’re watching a match and you see somebody dribbling with the ball, that’s the bit that sticks in your mind, isn’t it? Not many players do it, you get the ball and you pass it like Barcelona, you pass and you move. Not Jinky. He would just take people on, and it must have been tough to have been a left-back playing against him.

“People always ask me what it was like playing against him, but I have to be honest and say that I don’t know. At the start of the season you were allocated a team, bibs or non-bibs, and they played each other at the end of training.

“It might be 18-a-side, depending on who was training, but it was two-touch so that everybody was involved. If Jimmy had the ball he had to get rid of it, one touch to kill it and one touch to pass, so I was never ever in a position where I had to play against him.

“I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the experience! It would have been interesting to try various ways of coping with him mind you, so I regret in some ways that I never got the chance.”

That he had the chance to know him so well though, particularly off the park, is consolation enough for Craig though.

“He was great fun the wee man,” he said.

“We were very cruel to him once. He was terrified of flying, and in 1983 I got call from John Clark. He tells me we have a game organised, but the only details were that I had to be at the airport on Sunday week at seven o’clock. Typical organisation.

“I get to the airport and find out we’re going to Iceland, though we were still not too sure who it was against. When we got there, we turned out against the Icelandic national team, who were 10 years younger than us.

“Anyway, at the airport we were sitting having a coffee and a guy in a pilot’s uniform comes in and sits down. He says ‘Are you guys going to Iceland?’, and Jimmy says ‘Aye, what kind of plane have you got?’

“He says ‘We have one big plane and one small plane, so Jimmy makes a beeline to get on the big plane. We’re out the door and we find out that the big plane is an eight-seater and the small plane is a six-seater.

“So, we travelled to Iceland, played the game, won 3-1. At the banquet afterwards, the players had a wee notion that the next day, we would make sure Jinky had to go on the six-seater.

“Next morning, when the planes were announced, the boys all ran like hell to get on the eight-seater, so Jimmy was on the six-seater. So was I, because I wasn’t that quick off the mark after the night before.

“He’s sitting in the front seat cursing the lot of us. The pilot comes on, shuts the door behind him and says ‘Good morning gentleman’, and Jimmy said ‘Excuse me one second, where’s your mate?’ because there had been two pilots on the way up.

“The guy said ‘Ah it’s ok, I’m flying myself’. Jimmy says ‘Aw that’s all we’re needing. So what happens if you have a heart attack when we’re 30,000 feet up in the air?’ And the boy lifted a sheet of paper and said ‘There’s the instructions!’

“I won’t tell you what Jinky said, but it was to the effect that he didn’t find it too funny.”

Alas, grainy footage, countless fond memories of Johnstone’s ability as a player and his warmth as a man are all that is now left, but it is a legacy which will remain forever part of Celtic folklore. There is a visual testament to this in stone at the main entrance to Celtic Park, where the statue of his gaffer Jock Stein now watches over Johnstone's own almost as closely as he had to in life.

The love he had for the club and the supporters was more than reciprocated, a fact not lost on Johnstone before he slipped away

“We always knew how loved he was, because if there was ever a mix-up between the two of us, I always got the blame!” said Craig. "That invariably happens, the small loveable one is adored instead of the big fella!

“He’s much missed. I keep in touch with Agnes [his wife], and I can imagine it must be a quiet house these days compared to what it was like when the wee man was around.

“It will certainly be a quieter dressing room.”