Bill McMurdo: 'There's not a day in my life when people don't speak to me about Maurice Johnston'

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
McMurdo in his 'Billy's Bar office' back in 1996
McMurdo in his 'Billy's Bar office' in 1996

Bill McMurdo's story always comes back to Maurice Johnston. It has been that way since the morning of July 10, 1989, when the former Celtic striker signed for Rangers.

The agent can be seen in the television footage of the Ibrox press conference, slipping in behind Johnston and Rangers manager Graeme Souness. This was typical of McMurdo, in the midst of a story, operating in the heart of a media frenzy.

For much of his career, McMurdo worked in a world of private jets, six-figure transfers and deal-making. "I loved it," he says with a chuckle. "I loved it all.

"It's 26 years since it happened and there's not a day in my life when people don't speak to me about the Maurice Johnston situation."

Best days

It didn't all start for McMurdo with George Best, but that was the relationship that altered the former electrical engineer's circumstances.

With a sharp sense of opportunism and robust negotiating instincts, combined with a gruff charm, he immersed himself in the world of sport, celebrity and representation.

"It started round about 1978 when I met George in Manchester and we became very good friends," McMurdo recalls.

George Best played for Hibs in the 1979-80 season
Best played for Hibs in the 1979-80 season

"Two years later I was his personal manager and spent 15 years with him all over he world.

"He was a complex character, very articulate, highly intelligent. For every bad time I had with him, I had 100 good times.

"As a daft wee laddie from Niddrie, I was awestruck. We used to meet people like Rod Stewart, Liza Minnelli, Omar Sharif, Tony Curtis, Michael Parkinson, Joan Collins.

"We were having lunch once and Joan Collins said, 'I don't believe in relationships, but if ever I was to have an affair it would be with George Best', and he said, 'it's manners to wait until you're asked."

McMurdo brought Best to Hibernian. The faded Manchester United star could not save them from relegation but he added thousands to the attendance figures at Easter Road, so there was an economic logic. And, if it ended in a less celebrated manner, then there was always the next deal to make.

With McMurdo revealing Rangers director Jack Gillespie had once opposed a potential move to Ibrox, Best's Scottish adventure was limited to 22 games for Hibs.

"George was a Rangers man, from east Belfast, so if he had one regret it was that he didn't play for Rangers," is how McMurdo tells it.

'Maurice was a very courageous wee man'

The details have been pored over so many times. Johnston announced that he was joining Celtic from Nantes, then watched the team play against St Mirren the following day. Two months later, he signed for Rangers.

The period in between has been filled with conspiracy theories and arguments.

McMurdo is clear on his perspective, that his company owned Johnston at the end of his Nantes contract, that the player did not sign anything with Celtic and did not want to follow through.

Maurice Johnston in action for Rangers
Johnston was "world class", according to McMurdo

Souness wanted him and discussions took place in Paris and Edinburgh before the announcement at Ibrox.

McMurdo is unperturbed by alternative versions of the story and revels in the notoriety, telling his tales with an obvious relish.

"We were in Ibrox at five o'clock in the morning for security reasons," McMurdo says of the day the signing was announced. "Souness didn't want anybody to see Maurice until the press conference.

"We were in the directors toilet and heard footsteps coming up the marble staircase, it was the wee kit man, Doddie Soutar, and his pal.

"Maurice and I got in a cubicle and the pal says to Doddie, 'who are we going to sign today?' [Soutar said] 'I don't care who we sign as long as it's not that Maurice Johnstone'. So I said to the wee man, 'welcome to Ibrox'."

Listen to the Bill McMurdo interview via the Sportsound podcast

Resilience was important, too, since the player and his agent were provided with security for a spell after the transfer.

"He's not a daft wee laddie, he understood the problems it was going to cause, but if there was anyone with a strong enough character to do it, it was him," explains McMurdo.

'I'm no bigot'

McMurdo is unabashed about being a Rangers fan. That, coupled with his role in the Johnston transfer, did not endear him to the Celtic support, while he was banned by the Celtic board on three occasions.

McMurdo was christened Agent Orange by then Hearts manager Jim Jefferies - a reference to the Ibrox club's unionist roots - and will often make light of the caricaturing. But he bluntly refutes any suggestion that he was biased or bigoted.

"I sold Celtic [Johnston's] replacement, Frank McAvennie, and you're not going to tell me Frank didn't do a good job for them," he says.

Maurice Johnston in action for Celtic
Johnston spent three seasons with Celtic before a move to France in 1987

"I looked after many Celtic players down the years, Joe Miller, Chris Morris, John Hughes, Anton Rogan.

"Ask people like Frank McAvennie or Maurice Johnston if they thought I was a bigot. I've never discussed religion or whatever with them.

"At times it suited the media to say that I was a bigot. If I was a bigot, I'd be bitterly opposed to Rangers signing a Catholic. I think it was the best thing they ever did."

There were halcyon days for McMurdo, the Best years, the Johnston transfer. He still revels in those times but there is no hint of feeling empty now.

"I'm probably busier than I've ever been," he adds. "I sold Ally McCoist the first player when he was Rangers manager, Juanma Ortiz, and I sold him his last player, Lee Robinson."

There is less glamour and profile now, but McMurdo is still at home in the heart of a deal.