WEARING a protective mask as he returned from a serious head injury in the cinch Premiership game against Motherwell at Fir Park last month proved to be an uncomfortable experience for Celtic right back Alistair Johnston.

The Canadian internationalist removed the contraption at half-time, performed far better in the second half and helped the Scottish champions to come from behind and record an important 3-1 victory.

He has, with the full approval of medical staff, persevered without it since.

Johnston, though, has become pretty adept at putting a different face on every time he steps outside his front door since he moved to Glasgow in January last year.

The 39-times capped 25-year-old has experienced no difficulties adapting to the rough and tumble of the game in this country.

He quickly established himself as a first team regular at Celtic after arriving, helped the Parkhead club to complete a world record eighth domestic treble and became a firm fans’ favourite in the process.

The Herald: But Johnston has, he admitted at Lennoxtown earlier this week as he looked ahead to the Scottish Gas Scottish Cup quarter-final against Livingston at Parkhead this afternoon, taken some time to adjust to life outside of football since completing a £3m transfer from MLS franchise Montreal in his homeland.    

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“That’s the biggest difference,” he said. “Back home, I could walk around whatever city I was in and no-one would know who I was. Here I can’t get gas, I can’t get groceries without hearing a comment, whether it’s good or bad.

“Whenever you share a city with multiple clubs that also becomes interesting. Everyone knows you, but you’re not sure if they love you or hate you, and that’s a fun one too. That is probably the biggest difference.

“When I was in Montreal the local rival was Toronto which was a five or six hour drive. That would be our biggest away game by far which puts things in perspective. But you’ve got to love it, you’ve got to live it and you’ve got to breathe it.”

Johnston has probably been on the receiving end of a few less than complimentary remarks in recent weeks as Celtic have allowed their city rivals Rangers to edge two points ahead of them at the top of the Premiership.

His admiration for team mates like James Forrest, Joe Hart and Callum McGregor, players who have lived with that constant pressure, expectation and scrutiny for the vast majority of their careers, is great. 

“For guys who’ve done it year after year, it’s really impressive because it’s mentally draining,” he said. “A lot of people forget that.

“You have to have that face on when you go out the door. People are going to know who you are and they’re going to expect a certain level from you. It’s difficult to get away from that in Scotland.

The Herald: “The mental wear and tear is a grind. For guys like Cal, Joe and James as well. It’s a really impressive feat for guys who’ve been doing that for a decade.”

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Johnston has found the style of football to be very much to his liking in Scotland. He defends the standard of the MLS, where he plied his trade for three years with Nashville and Montreal, in the United States. However, he feels that he is perfectly suited to the frenetic nature of the game here. 

“I think my game fits because of the physicality,” he said. “I like to hit people, I like to get into a tackle. That’s something I’ve noticed since I’ve been here - the loudest the crowd get is at a goal, I think the second loudest is for a good tackle. As a defender I feed off that, I don’t like to tippy-tap around, I like to get into it.

“When you’re playing in Scottish weather you have to be a bit physical, if you shy away from that you’re going to struggle. Pitches aren’t going to be like Wembley, especially in winter when you’re away to Livingston or in Perth. You have to be aware it’s not going to be a perfect game, so to speak. I thrive when it’s not perfect.”

He continued: “The technical quality in the MLS is very high, a lot of people under-appreciate that. But since I’ve been over here, what I’ve noticed is the pressing and togetherness of teams in terms of being on the same page.

“In the MLS games get very stretched in terms of the backline being so much deeper and there’s so much more space if you’re a smart footballer. Here everyone’s in close contact, you’re constantly in 50-50s and that’s the biggest difference.

“There’s a little more leniency with the tackles here. It’s definitely getting stricter with the introduction of VAR, everything gets frozen so you need to be careful about how a tackle looks in freeze-frame as opposed to what it’s like when it was made. But here you can get into it a little more and they let things go a bit more.

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“We’ve been in the Champions League and how those games are refereed is different to the Scottish league. I personally prefer the Scottish way. It allows there to be a bit more contact. In the Champions League there’s an element of protecting the top players and I understand that. But as a defender you have to prefer letting guys play a bit.”

There is no margin for error in the final weeks of the season for Alistair Johnston and his Celtic team mates - but the full-back will meet the challenges he faces both on and off the park head on.

The Herald: