July 10, 1989.
Twenty-four-hours-a-day Sky Sports News was still a figment of Rupert Murdoch’s imagination, Twitter hadn’t been hatched and if you wanted to carry around a mobile phone, you’d better be sure you’d put in the weight training.
So the first the world got to hear of the biggest story to hit Scottish football in years was when one of the aforementioned Australian’s tabloids hit the news stands.
“Mo Joins Gers” screamed the front page. “He ends ban on Catholics”.
Grown men choked on their cornflakes, most women wondered what all the fuss was about and dogs went around in pairs, just in case any irate Bluenoses were looking for something to vent their anger upon.
Meanwhile, over at Ibrox Stadium, supporters gathered in ever-increasing numbers, most to protest, others just to witness the end of more than 100 years of club tradition.
Johnston was to be the first high-profile Catholic to sign for the club, and Graeme Souness had finally carried through the promise he had made shortly after becoming player-manager in April, 1986.
Meanwhile, in the Blue Room at the top of the stadium’s famous marble staircase, the media had gathered, some still doubting the story was true.
But Johnston duly entered stage left, the door into the unknown held open for him by the Rangers chief executive, Alan Montgomery.
He had only been at the club for a little over four months, having been the subject of a transfer himself, this one from his position as finance director of Scottish Television.
But a lifetime Light Blues fan, he was well aware of the implications of what was unfolding before his eyes.
Thirty years on, and speaking for the first time about his role in the most-famous transfer in the history of Scottish football, Montgomery remains bullish about the background to the move.
Johnston had been paraded at Celtic Park some two months earlier, and his return to the club from his time with Nantes had been trumpeted as the catalyst that would deny the Hoops’ greatest rivals the domestic dominance they craved.
But the transfer became entwined in red tape, pen was never put to paper, Rangers saw their opportunity – and pounced.
“Due to the circumstances, some people tried to make a case for us deliberately putting one over on Celtic just to humiliate them. But it was never about that,” Montgomery is very clear on.
“It was the right deal for the right reasons.
“I have a strong memory, and I can remember exactly when I first heard about us possibly signing Johnston.
“It was Saturday, May 13, 1989 at 2.25pm before the last league game of the season against Aberdeen. I was in the manager’s office with Walter Smith – Graeme was elsewhere – and he asked me: ‘If Maurice Johnston was available, would you sign him for Rangers’.
“Walter is a Glasgow boy like me, so we both knew the significance of contemplating this. But, equally, we both knew Mo’s quality as a player – and that it was the right thing to do – so it was a no-brainer.
“Graeme had the profile to attract Mo to Ibrox, and Walter had enough football knowledge to rubber-stamp the idea as being a very positive one.
“Things moved pretty quickly from there.
“Over the next six to seven weeks, there were a lot of meetings, some in Edinburgh, to progress everything outside of Glasgow.
“Clandestine would maybe be too strong a word for those get-togethers.
“But everyone involved was only too aware of the sensitivity of the signing, and the importance of keeping it under wraps.
“There was a lot of back and forth, involving Mo, his agent, Bill McMurdo, Graeme and yours truly.
“I actually got a couple of late-night phone calls from Mo from the Albany Hotel in Glasgow, where he was staying while over from France to play for Scotland.
“At no stage did he have second thoughts. He was just basically looking for someone to have a quiet chat with.
“But it wasn’t until a week before the deal became public that everything was agreed.
“It’s 30 years ago, but I remember it vividly. Graeme and me travelled over to Paris to meet up with Mo and Bill McMurdo, who had come across from Nantes.
“We got together in a bar-restaurant called Ouazene, on the rue Auguste-Blanqui near Paris Orly Airport, and the deal was done over a coffee.
“I kept the business card for the place as a souvenir.”
So all that remained was to get Johnston to Ibrox the following week for his unveiling. That involved arriving at the ground under cover in the back of security chief, Alistair Hood’s car – then the man of the hour hiding in a toilet.
“We knew there would be a backlash when the story came out – and there was,” Montgomery continued.
“As I recall, however, that amounted to two cancelled season tickets and one burned Rangers scarf!
“A small price to pay for what we had actually achieved.
“All the paperwork wasn’t finally signed and sealed until a couple of days after Mo was wheeled out inside the Blue Room.
“That was July 12. Anyone who knows anything about the Old Firm divide will see the irony in that!
“Not long after, I recall my dad visiting us. He was a lifelong Bluenose, born and raised in Govan.
“He met me at the garden gate, looked me in the eye, and said: ‘I’m proud of what you have achieved with Maurice Johnston.’
“That was enough for me.
“He had brought me up a Rangers fan, but having Celtic pals and many close friends in childhood who were Catholics meant this was never going to be the slightest issue for me, or him.
“One of my closest childhood friends in East Kilbride was the nephew of Neilly Mochan, the former Celtic player and the club trainer during the Lisbon Lions era, so I don’t have to tell you who he supported.
“Rangers could have changed their signing policy in a more discreet fashion, and maybe brought over a little-known Catholic player from Italy or France, and there would not have been such a song and dance about it.
“We were well aware we were taking a risk. But it was the right move for the right reasons, and I’m glad I played a part in it.
“It hasn’t removed the sectarian backdrop to meetings between Rangers and Celtic. Sadly, that was never a remote possibility.
“But it was a huge leap forward for Rangers.”
Once the furore had died down, the Glasgow club – with their new £1.5-million flame-haired striker to the fore – headed for Il Ciocco in Tuscany to prepare for the new campaign, and Montgomery joined them for a few days.
“You could see Mo’s quality in training and we all knew it had been money well spent,” he recalled.
“That would be underlined over the following two seasons, when titles two and three were secured en route to nine-in-a-row.
“The other day I was reminded of a quote I had given the day Mo signed for Rangers.
“I said, ‘ We are only too aware of the historical feelings in Glasgow but we want the best football side in Europe. Other issues people may wish to consider are not important to us.’.
“Less than four years after that, Rangers travelled to Marseille and came within 90 minutes of reaching the first-ever Champions League Final. By then, both Mo and me had left Ibrox.
“Would he have made a difference in that 1992-93 season? We’ll never know . . .”
Montgomery’s final memory of the Mo Johnston signing?
“His debut at Ibrox was a pre-season friendly against Spurs,” the former chief executive recalls. “My son, Ross, who was nearly seven, was Rangers’ mascot for the day.
“I think his name must have been drawn out of the ballot!”