Cult Heroes: Allan Johnston

On the most recent episode of the Roker Report Podcast you will have heard me get all misty eyed discussing the Sunderland side that excited the Wearside faithful before the turn of the millennium. I also got a bit carried away with "fit footballers", but hey, I'm not going to apologise for that!

That side had so many eye-catching (in a non-gay way) players that as a youngster I was spoilt for choice when it came to naming a favourite, or deciding who I would be in the kick-about in the park after school.

So for this week's Cult Heroes piece I have opted for a winger, that much like last week's star Chris Makin, was to make the move from France to Wearside, but would ultimately see his Sunderland career cut short in its prime by the ruthless Peter Reid.

Ladies and Gentlemen, its only bloody Allan "Magic" Johnston!

Johnston's footballing career got started with a goalscoring debut for Hearts in May of 1993 where he was to become a first team regular the following season when he only missed three games league games over the entire term and even bagged a hat-trick against Ranger's at Ibrox.

Despite having one of the worst nicknames I have ever heard, "Sticky", Johnston made a move south, south a bit more, over the channel, even further still, a few miles west and ended up in Rennes. Much like Makin, Johnston's time in France really helped to evolve the winger's footballing career. As well as his usual roles on the wing, Allan was employed as a centre-forward and an attacking midfielder, playing just behind the front two during his one season stint with the French outfit.

Q. Whats the difference between Frenchmen and toast?

A. You can make soldiers out of toast.

Moving swiftly along...

In March of 1997, Sunderland paid Rennes £550,000 for the Scotsman's signature and the tricky winger was quickly made a key part of that successful side.

Despite favouring his right foot, Johnston was placed on the left wing by Reid and swiftly developed a brilliant partnership with local lad Michael Gray. The pair were a key cog in the Sunderland machine that played such fantastic football during that time. It was a joy to watch, Gray flying down the wing, some neat interplay with Johnston who could then return the ball to the blonde bombshell on his overlap, or cut inside with the ball himself. With Gray/Johnston on the left and Makin/Summerbee on the right, Sunderland's wing play was a nightmare for teams to defend against.

Thanks to Johnston's quick feet and skillful abilities he was soon able to ditch his awful moniker for the more apt, and catchy, "Magic".

Allan's outstanding form for his club was rewarded with international recognition, earning a cap in a game for Scotland against the Faroe Islands in October of 1998. Johnston was the first Sunderland player to be capped by our Northern brothers since the great Billy Hughes in 1975 and his goal in the game also made him the first SAFC player to score for Scotland since 1934.

Whilst it is nothing out of the ordinary to see wingers cutting inside onto their favoured foot these days, it was something of a rarity in 1998, well for this young lad it was anyway. But when a player has a right foot as deadly as Johnston's was it was a joy to see him jink his way inside a fullback before unleashing a shot on goal, from which he was often successful, YouTube evidence to follow!

Allan Johnston can play either right, left or in a free role and rarely wastes a ball. He has a shot in both feet and crosses the ball quite brilliantly." - Craig Brown

Things were to turn sour in the summer of 1999 however as, what should seemingly have been routine contract negotiations between Allan and the club imploded.

Johnston had a year left to run on his current deal with the club but Rangers showed an interest in the talismatic winger. It turned out Allan quite fancied a return to Scotland.

Peter Reid was understandably miffed that a key player in his Championship winning side would want away on the eve of their return to the top flight.

As such, with the player and the club at loggerheads no deal was made. Johnston was to sit out the entire 1999/00 Premiership season. Not the first player to make the mistake of crossing the fiery scouser, Johnston was reportedly made to train with the kids.

It has always been a disappointment for me to think back that we never got to see the Gray/Johnston partnership in the Premiership, but here are some clips featuring the magician during the good days of his spell on Wearside.

First off a superb example of Sunderland's superb attacking play in the early days at the SOL, a lovely pinpoint ball from Summerbee, a knock down from Quinn, a shimmy from Johnston before curling the ball into the back of the net. Perfect

This second clip, from the same game, showcases the partnership Michael Gray and Johnston built, with a lovely overlapping run from Gray who then whipped in a cross for the little legend Kevin Phillips to nod home.

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