He won most Celtic fans over the first time they heard him speak, but it’s with goals, assists and ‘smashing’ people that Alistair Johnston has begun to truly earn his cult hero status.
For all Alistair Johnston’s many positive traits as a player and person, keeping a secret doesn’t seem to be one of them.
When asked about the rumours linking him with Celtic late last November, at a World Cup press conference two days after his outstanding performance in Canada’s undeserved defeat to Belgium, all Johnston needed to say was that he was focused on the national team. And he did say that…eventually, but only after a solid 30 seconds of fluttering his eyelashes and blowing kisses at Celtic, extolling the size of the club and the passion of the fans before revealing his iPhone had more or less conked out under the weight of all the messages he’d received since the rumours began.
The deal was announced just eight days later, so it’s probably safe to assume it was fairly advanced – or even done – at that stage, but like an interviewee diving straight onto LinkedIn to ‘like’ all the posts by their prospective new employer, the CF Montreal full-back had no qualms about doing his part to remove any remaining doubts and make it 100% clear just how ‘stoked’ and ‘super excited’ he was to be spending the next phase of his career at Parkhead.
Less than four months later and what do you know, just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be any room left to stuff more cult heroes and loveable scamps into Ange Postecoglou’s squad, we appear to have another absolute mensch on our hands. The new No. 2 is starting nearly every game, defending dutifully, scoring and assisting goals and even, like all the best Celtic full-backs over the years, being a total wido as and when the situation requires. This particular part of his makeup stands in sharp contrast to an incredibly wholesome off-pitch persona, but maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Canada may have produced Celine Dion, but they also gave us Rowdy Roddy Piper.
“As a defender, I can get into a game just by smashing someone,” Johnston enthused back in January, presumably scampering off to two-foot some nearby youth team players as soon as the interview finished.
The excellence of the coaching at Celtic nowadays, complemented by the precision of the scouting department, has ensured that it’s been love at first sight for many – if not all – of the Ange era arrivals. Kyogo scored 16 minutes into his debut and seven in his first seven starts; Jota won man of the match on his debut and was directly involved in nine of Celtic’s next 13 goals; Daizen Maeda and Reo Hatate were both absolutely electric on their joint debut against Hibernian after arriving in the winter window; even Moritz Jenz scored on his debut…
It should have been a bit trickier for Johnston though – in theory. Not only did he have to repel the challenge of the perennially underrated Anthony Ralston, who may just have been thinking that his moment had finally came, he also had to gently shut the door on the Josip Juranovic era at a time when the Croat had just announced his brilliance to the planet by running the show against Brazil in a World Cup quarter-final. It can only have made things extra awkward that Jura – surely one of the best full-backs seen at Celtic Park this century – then lingered around Lennoxtown for the entire first month of AJ’s Celtic career before that move to Union Berlin eventually went through.
But that’s where luck came into play. If not for an injury to Ralston, Juranovic’s lack of freshness post-Qatar and the need to redeploy Hatate in midfield, Johnston may not have been anywhere near Celtic’s starting XI for the January 2nd derby at Ibrox. But in he went. It would be an exaggeration to call his showing in the 2-2 draw that followed a star-making performance, it was more of a steady eddie 6.5 type of a display, with some questions around the role he played in Rangers’ first goal, but 6.5 is more than enough for a debutant parachuted into the most febrile away-day of the season. It also helped, in a perverse way, that Juranovic was summoned from the bench to fill in at left-back and promptly turned in the most honking 69 minutes of his time in Scotland.
The Canadian international continued in that steady eddie vein throughout January and most of February, and in truth I would not have had the urge to write this article about him at any point during that phase. Johnston was defending well, working hard and being neat and tidy in possession, but there was very little marauding attacking of the type we saw from him at the World Cup. Like most Lennoxtown employees, Celtic’s full-backs now have a completely different job description to the one they had pre-Postecoglou. It’s not easy being Trent Alexander-Arnold half the time and Thiago Alcantara the other half. Yet the sense persisted that, after all the high-energy hijinks of the Juranovic days, we had essentially done a reverse Toy Story, and swapped the one that can sing and dance and light up and fly for a much more basic model with a drawstring and single, repetitive catchphrase.
But then things began to click. Johnston’s first goal – scored after absolutely ‘smashing’ through the back of St Mirren’s Mark O’Hara, appropriately enough – and his first assist – a perfectly weighted low cross zipped into Kyogo’s path at Tynecastle – both felt like major landmarks for the 24-year-old. But his true moment of ‘he’ll dae for me’ consecration arrived slightly beforehand, in the no-man’s-land of smoke, noise and chaos that was Hampden during the Viaplay Cup final. Johnston breenged into tackles, won about a million 50/50s, met fire with fire on the shithousery front and treated every Rangers player that came near with the smirking contempt of a bouncer dismissing a bunch of 16-year-olds trying to sneak in with their big brothers’ IDs. It was exactly the ‘hook it into my veins’ material that Celtic fans love to see in these games, stimulating that atavistic, caveman part of our brains that takes over on derby day, but more importantly the Vancouver born youngster was also answering every question asked of him in a defensive context and even managing, in amongst the metaphorical and literal fog of war, to make some telling attacking contributions: creating two first-half chances for Kyogo with a measured first-time cross and a sublime chipped pass from the halfway line.
“He has hit the ground running and got an opportunity earlier than we thought because Tony Ralston went down with an injury, and so his opportunity came,” noted the manager earlier this month. “A bit like the guys last January who have all kicked on since coming in, we are confident this will just be the first steps in his Celtic career. The process for us is checking that we bring in guys who fit in with our football and have the right character, and Alistair certainly fits that bracket.”
Indeed, it is Johnston’s character, as much as his ability, which seems to have carried him through most of his career so far, and to have underpinned his smooth assimilation into life in Glasgow. He might even want to consider acting a bit more dour and moody if he wants a break from the Celtic TV staff any time soon, having already been dragged into more media appearances in four months than Tom Rogic managed in nine years, including a kit launch in Belfast, that moment of comedic awkwardness on stage after the cup final and the torture of appearing in something called ‘Burns Night Banter’ alongside Greg Taylor.
Looking back at that World Cup press conference now, Johnston’s double-speed transition from unknown quantity to cult hero in Glasgow begins to feel less surprising than it sometimes has in real time. Enthusiasm, open-book honesty, a desire to learn and better himself – all the same qualities that have endeared him to Celtic fans were evident in the short answer he gave out in Qatar. Everyone who’s stayed in a hostel somewhere round the world will have encountered the archetypal overloud, overenthusiastic, oversharing North American who you can’t seem to get rid of. But in Johnston’s case, somehow these qualities are exactly what make you root for him.
As the stories of Juranovic, Jenz and Giorgos Giakoumakis demonstrate, a loveable personality and passion for the cause don’t guarantee you a long stay at Celtic Park nowadays. Ultimately, more goals, assists, clean sheets, trophies and a whole load of other intangibles will be required if AJ is to eventually match or eclipse the legacy of some of his predecessors in the right-back role. And besides, if Celtic are to become as ‘agile’ as Ange wants them to be in the transfer market, isn’t the safest approach for us as fans to all adopt the emotional distance of those army veterans who don’t want to befriend the new recruits in case they’re gone tomorrow? Probably. But in the meantime I defy you to watch Johnston talking about his newfound love of Mackie’s ice cream and calling Liel Abada ‘the wee man’ without being super stoked for the guy…
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