Obituaries

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Bobby Johnstone

Friday, 24 August 2001

Bobby Johnstone, footballer: born Selkirk 7 September 1929; married 1961 Heather Roden (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1985); died Selkirk 22 August 2001.

Bobby Johnstone, footballer: born Selkirk 7 September 1929; married 1961 Heather Roden (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1985); died Selkirk 22 August 2001.

In the absence of video footage to preserve such talent, it is left to word of mouth to pass on any lasting footnote in football history. Bobby Johnstone's membership of "The Famous Five", the Hibernian forward line of the early Fifties regarded as the finest ever seen in Scottish football, meant that his standing among supporters lived on long after his 19-year playing career ended in 1965.

Although every footballer bemoans that he missed the boat, in comparison to the wealth and public adulation enjoyed by modern players, Johnstone had more cause to complain than most. There is no shortage of witnesses to the talent of man who won two Scottish league championships with Hibernian and scored in two successive FA Cup finals for Manchester City. Johnstone's era was the 1950s, when the drabness of post-war Britain meant that attendance records at every club were broken, and the diminutive Johnstone was one of the reasons why.

Though Johnstone ensured greater recognition for himself by moving to England, where he also played for Oldham, it was Hibernian with whom he was synonymous. The Edinburgh club were among the foremost clubs in Britain at that time, winning three Scottish titles between 1948 and 1952, and regularly beating top English sides such as Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United.

However, it was their brand of attacking football, signified by five forwards – unheard of now – which prompted newspapers of the time to refer to Johnstone, Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond as "The Famous Five".

In those days, Easter Road, the club's ground, had steep terracing slopes which were needed regularly to accommodate crowds of 60,000. The 65,850 who paid to see the Edinburgh derby with Hearts in 1950 – a club record – is testimony to the regard in which Johnstone and his four colleagues were held.

Though Johnstone's achievements included 17 caps for Scotland, six goals for his country, including one at Wembley against England, those championship medals with Hibs and FA Cup winners' medals with Manchester City, his start could not have been more innocuous.

Born and brought up in Selkirk, the shy Johnstone seemed as a youth to possess no football horizon beyond the hills of the Borders town whose real sporting passion came from its location in the heartland of Scottish rugby. He was serving his apprenticeship as a painter and "playing quietly away" for the non-league side Selkirk when he was signed by Hibernian as a 17-year-old in 1946.

Though the black hair which flopped over his eyes seemed to add to the notion of Johnstone as a boy in a man's world, his impressive showings at inside right for the reserves soon ensured his first-team début in 1949 against Partick Thistle. His mazy dribbling, deft distribution and fierce shot ensured he was the final piece in the Hibernian jigsaw. However, they failed by a point to regain the Scottish title in 1949-50, when 101,000 people at Ibrox Stadium, the home of Rangers, saw the Glasgow club chisel out the goalless draw they needed to be champions. It was only a momentary halt to Hibernian's progress. The Famous Five imprinted themselves on the public consciousness by taking the league championship in 1950-51 and 1951-52.

Scotland also benefited from the Hibernian connection, with Johnstone and Reilly scoring in the 3-2 defeat of England in 1951 at Wembley and then the latter scoring a last-minute equaliser two years later from Johnstone's sublime pass.

Johnstone's love affair with Wembley was rekindled in 1955 when, as the first of the Famous Five to leave Hibs, he was sold to Manchester City for £22,000. He scored in the Cup final but a 3-1 defeat by Newcastle meant only a losers' medal, though the Scot rectified that by netting at the Twin Towers again in the 1956 triumph over Birmingham City.

In modern parlance, Johnstone would be a playmaker, yet his deft gifts were accompanied by an eye for goal that many midfielders today would be proud to claim. He scored 42 league goals in 142 games at Maine Road, while at Hibs his 132 goals enshrined him as the sixth best in the club's history, eclipsed only by other members of the Famous Five and Joe Baker.

It was Baker, a prolific young striker who was capped by England and sold to the Italian club Torino, that Johnstone was brought back to provide service for, when Hibs acquired Johnstone for just £6,000 in 1959. Though Baker would go on to stardom in Italy and with Arsenal, it was a final hurrah for Johnstone, who had by now grown heavy. He departed Easter Road in 1960 after a row over money with the directors and wound down his career at Oldham.

Johnstone remained in Lancashire for over three decades, setting up in business as a fish wholesaler and playing cricket for Saddleworth before making his home in Selkirk last year.

Phil Gordon

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