There is a distinct theme emerging from first encounters with Alistair Johnston.

Even with continents between them, a first video call was enough for Ange Postecoglou to turn to his staff and declare: ‘He’ll do for me.’

Five years earlier, Wake Forest University coach Bobby Muuss made the 700-mile trip from North Carolina to Toronto on the advice of a friend, all to get a closer look at a teenage centre midfielder looking for somewhere new to play his football.

It was not a wasted journey.

“The kid was running around like a lunatic,” Muuss recalls. “He covered so much ground in the centre of the park. But we didn’t need a centre midfielder, and that was his main role. He’d played four or five positions with other teams but he himself believed he was a centre midfielder.

“He had attributes: he works hard, covers ground, and is fit as a fiddle. I told him he was a kind of pivoter – he never used his left foot! He would run around in circles to get it onto his right foot and would take too many touches.

“But after speaking to him – and we still joke about this today – I said: ‘Here’s the deal: I don’t know if we need you, but we want you.’

“I think if anyone speaks to Alistair, they’re then like: ‘OK, I want this guy around’.”

First impressions are very much Johnston’s forte, it seems. They are irretrievable things, not least in this chronically knee-jerk corner of the football world. An unfavourable one at Ibrox on his Celtic debut could have spelled danger for this 23-year-old Canadian who had never kicked a ball in Europe, and who rapidly found himself incurring the wrath of 50,000 Rangers fans after he left John Lundstram lying in an unflattering heap.

Simply surviving a derby baptism would be enough for most, and from an outsider’s perspective, it felt like a risk for Postecoglou to expose him to it so quickly. Johnston, however, emerged with a man of the match award before delivering a strikingly self-assured post-match interview which revealed why his manager was not in the slightest bit worried about him.

We should have known, mind you, when the player’s first meeting with the media included the line: ‘As a defender I can get into a game just by smashing someone.’ He is unmistakably Canadian, but that was a soundbite plucked straight from the streets of Glasgow.

Across the Atlantic, though, there are plenty who always knew he would fit right in on the big stage.

Born in Vancouver to Canadian and Northern Irish parents, Johnston discovered the football at age four when his family decanted to Montreal. He was to find his way back eventually, but from there it was on to Ontario to sow the first seeds of a professional career, interwoven with a brief but formative foray into ice-hockey.

After playing semi-professionally for Vaughan SC, where he would return intermittently during close seasons in the US, Johnston entered the American college football system at St John’s University in Queens, New York.

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Head coach Dr David Masur was instantly struck by this bundle of energy.

“When he was younger, he was probably a little more exuberant, but you knew he always had it,” said Masur. “He was exuberant to try things, always wanted to do well. He was 18 when he was with me, really good at learning and growing with experience.

“As he grows as a player, he takes a little bit of everywhere he goes and puts it into improving himself. He earns confidence through hard work, preparation and having some success.

“You can see that in him, and I think he knows that personality is a big part of him becoming a successful player. Alistair got As in everything, he was a dedicated student, a dedicated athlete.

“He’s a smart kid. His high IQ and determination to do things right are the reason he keeps growing and becoming this high-level international player now.”

Masur soon discovered he could call upon Johnston to cover just about any role required, and he would embrace it.

“I remember him being able to press centre-backs from right midfield, make them edgy and help us win the ball,” he said. “If we were in trouble, he could even win flick-ons to help us get out. He could even drop in and play number 10.

“There are not many who have both the mentality and athletic ability. He’s certainly in the top three or four guys I’ve ever had, and I’ve been here 33 years.”

Eager for a bigger challenge, Johnston traversed to North Carolina and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in 2019 after his conversations with Muuss, a place previously home to Dundee United’s Ian Harkes and Leeds United’s Jack Harrison.

The Herald: Head coach Bobby Muuss remains in touch with JohnstonHead coach Bobby Muuss remains in touch with Johnston (Image: Wake Forest University)

He had started all 36 matches at St John’s, but some patience was required here as he rubbed shoulders with older players. Johnston’s former coach at Vaughan, Patrice Gheisar, had previously told Muuss: ‘He could be a pro as a right-back.’

That stuck in his new manager’s mind, and so the transition began.

“He was like a sponge,” Muuss said. “And the rest is history. We lost in what we call the final four of the college cup, and I looked at him walking from the locker room to the coach and said: ‘My man, that performance right there… you just became a really high first-round MLS draft pick.’

“He looked at me with surprise; he wasn’t even thinking about the draft, he was thinking about winning For a kid playing in America nowadays, the draft is all they think about. A lot don’t care about winning or being a pro.”

Muuss and Johnston did plenty of winning by the time he departed two seasons later, and their relationship endured even after the freshly moulded right-back made the jump to the MLS, firstly with Nashville and then to CF Montreal. Muuss is now desperate to bring his family to Celtic Park for the final home game of the season, one that will almost certainly be a title celebration.

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It is striking how effusive he is in discussing his former player, and the conversation is as much about Alistair Johnston the person as it is Alistair Johnston the footballer.

“When he was at Montreal last year, there was some national team stuff and he was in Florida pre-season and he got Covid,” Muuss remembered. “I think he’s still allowed to be a Manchester United fan, so I’m allowed to tell you this. I’m a Liverpool fan, they were playing each other, and he Facetimed me with about six minutes left in the game.

“It was strange because Liverpool were winning, and normally he only FaceTimes to talk s**t. He loves to jab, oh my gosh. He’s always pressing buttons and giving it out.

“The game was almost over so I said ‘I’ll call you back’. I went for a walk and called back, and he was just going and going and going.

“Eventually I just went: ‘What’s up? What do you need?’ Because he obviously felt weird about asking whatever it was.

“He said: ‘Well, I had Covid and I can’t go to our [CONCACAF] Champions League game in Mexico, but they want me to find somewhere to train. Can I come train with you?’

“He came for a week last winter. Any time you can possibly have him around young, aspiring players – or even older ones – he makes them better.

“I tell you that story because he was here a week, and you want to hang out with him: he’s in the office, talking to the young guys about their game, going over body positions for receiving the ball, he just loves the game, and he loves people.

“That’s the impact he has. My kids, who are seven and eight, they watch him play and I want him around them, that’s the type of character he is.

“When you talk to him now, he’s the same person as when he came here. His value of the dollar is exactly the same, in that he still thinks 20 dollars is a lot of money.

“I think that’s awesome, he hasn’t changed a bit.”

The Herald: Johnston was named captain at Wake Forest Demon DeaconsJohnston was named captain at Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Image: Wake Forest University)

Muuss suspects those attributes stem from the Johnston’s being ‘a family of winners’. His mother is a fitness coach, and brother Malcolm was drafted to New York City in the MLS earlier this year.

Johnston, of course, arrived in Glasgow straight from the Qatar World Cup with Canada after Celtic paid Montreal £3m for his services. It did not take long for the word ‘bargain’ to commence being thrown around.

And it is obvious he is enjoying Celtic as much as Celtic are enjoying him. ‘He’s having the time of his life’ according to Muuss, who regularly fields calls from people declaring how much they ‘love seeing Ali in the Hoops’.

With another dynamic display, Johnston added a second derby man of the match award to his cabinet, playing a key role in a win that was not only effective confirmation of the title, but of his rapidly growing cult hero status.

That old coach-student dynamic, however, never really goes away.

READ MORE: Why Alistair Johnston arrived primed and ready for life at Celtic

“We spoke about the Rangers game,” said Muus. “Someone sneaked him at the back post and I blamed him. He said: ‘No, look at it, that’s not my fault!’ And I said: ‘Well, aesthetically, it looks like you!’

“I like busting his balls over stuff like that, because he does the same to me. He’ll text me after a loss!

“The way the club, the Celtic fans have embraced him – how can you not thrive in that environment? Maybe people were like ‘what are we doing bringing in this guy from North America?’

“It’s the way he embraced them, and they embraced him. It’s been pretty seamless.

“People might have said ‘he won’t understand Celtic vs Rangers’, but nothing frazzles him. He would have been excited.

“It would have been a ‘pinch me’ moment, a kid from Canada playing in that derby. You’re always cheering for your guys, and I just want him to flourish.”