VANCOUVER, BC – It’s been nearly 15 years since Willie Johnston last stepped foot in Vancouver – a city where he “had the time of his life” as a member of the NASL Whitecaps.
Suffice to say, he’s looking forward to renewing acquaintances.
Johnston, a former Whitecaps fan favourite, returns to Vancouver this week as part of the club’s continued 40th anniversary celebrations. The man they called “Wee Willie” helped lead the Whitecaps to the 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl championship, 35 years ago to the day on September 8.
Fans will have an opportunity to meet the club legend this Saturday when the ‘Caps host D.C. United and again on September 10 when San Jose Earthquakes come to town.
“Myself, my family, my kids, we all loved it,” Johnston said of his time in Vancouver. “I suppose the scenery had a lot to do with it, but the people I met were great and the club was fantastic. And I’m just looking forward to coming back.”
Johnston was a beloved figure in Vancouver. He spent three seasons with the ‘Caps in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, playing 59 games in total. In 1979, the 5-foot-7 Scotsman racked up a team-high 12 assists en route to Vancouver’s historic NASL title.
“To win it in the end was great for us and great for the city,” Johnston said. “They hadn’t won anything for a long, long while so it was great for them.”
Johnston’s contributions to Vancouver’s success shouldn’t be overlooked, but what fans remember especially fondly were his amusing on-field antics. In Johnston’s own words: “I’ve done a few stupid things.” There are two moments in particular that most fans would remember.
After scoring in a penalty shootout against Seattle Sounders, Johnston dropped his shorts and mooned Sounders midfielder Bruce Rioch, who captained the Scottish national team when Johnston was a part of it. Put it this way: the two players didn’t see eye to eye.
“I never got on with him,” Johnston said. “During the game, he spat on Ray Hankin’s face. I had taken a turn in the shootout and he was next up, so I was just trying to throw him off.”
Willie Johnston's famous beer swig
The most memorable Johnston moment, however, no doubt came in a meeting with San Jose Earthquakes. With the score 1-1 at the time winding down, Johnston accepted a sip of beer from a fan before taking a corner kick that set up the winning goal.
“He asked me if I would like a drink,” Johnston recalled. “I said, ‘I’m dying for a drink.’ So he gave me the beer, but it was warm so it wasn’t very good.”
To commemorate that moment, the northeast corner at BC Place is now known as Willie’s Corner.
“I’ve heard about that,” Johnston said, “but I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Johnston may have been a flamboyant figure on the pitch, but he’s just a simple, even quiet guy off it.
When asked about the famous beer swig, Johnston initially responded: “I was thirsty.” Similarly, when asked why he would often sit on the ball during games, which some saw as a form of showboating, Johnston said: “I was tired.”
Johnston’s famous stories aren’t limited to his time in Vancouver. As a member of West Brom, Johnston would often chat with one fan in particular when he took corners. The conversations started when the fan offered to sell him a greenhouse.
“Somehow, he found out I was a keen gardener … I was actually looking for a greenhouse,” Johnston said. “When I was putting the ball down, I would take two or three steps back to cross the ball and I would negotiate with him. This went on for a couple of weeks. And I finally got the greenhouse. He wanted 80 pounds for it but I got him down to 40.”
No matter where he played, Johnston always seemed to have a connection with the fans. That was certainly the case in Vancouver, where the Scot still has some close friends.
While Johnston admits that some of his infamous antics were spur of the moment type things, he always made an extra effort to entertain the fans, which says a lot about the way he saw the game.
“It’s the people that make it,” he said. “They come and watch the game and if they’re enjoying it, we’re enjoying it. I just seemed to click with them and I’m looking forward to doing so again.”
Tickets remain available for both the September 6 and 10 matches at whitecapsfc.com/tickets. To take part in a special meet and greet with Johnston at either match, contact Darren Mackay at firstname.lastname@example.org.