Remembering local soccer legend Johnny Grant

The death last weekend of Johnny Grant in East London at the age of 80 will have saddened older soccer fans on the Border.

Those fans will no doubt recall memories of the diminutive Grant weaving his magic up the right hand flank for East London United in the halcyon days of the National Football League, when not a seat could be had on a Friday evening at the old Border Rugby Union Ground.

The ambidextrous Grant, at home on either wing, was part of a pair of flyers playing for United in those years, the other being the Irish star Bobby Braithwaithe.

Who can forget those pin-point crosses by these two to Jackie McDowell in the centre, arguably the best header of a football in the country at the time. These lads certainly gave the fans great entertainment.

Grant, one of a number of top-notch British players who graced the SA soccer scene in its hey-day of the ’60s and early ’70s, was contracted by Durban United in 1967, the year he emigrated from his home country Scotland with wife Mary and son John, then four.

Two years later, he was bought by East London United and arrived in the city, where he was to live the rest of his life.

Retired from his agency business for several years, Grant kept fit with regular visits to his local gym but his health deteriorated steadily as he got older.

In Scotland, he played for Hibernian FC and Ayr United as a professional. As a small lad of 10 or so, he was a member of a school team which included the young Alec Ferguson, the future manager of Manchester United.

Members of that team said Grant, in later years, remained friends and met them nearly every year for a reunion.

Once asked if his life-long friend Alec Ferguson, later knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to soccer was any good as a player, Grant said: “As a centre-forward, he was transferred from Dunfermline to Glasgow Rangers for £65,000.

“In those days, if that didn’t make him a special player, I don’t know what did.”

Ferguson has conveyed condolences to the family but because of ill health is not able to attend the funeral.

A few years ago, a club of former professional soccer players known as “Ex-Pro,” paid tribute to Grant at a dinner in his honour in Johannesburg at which 850 people were present including the great man Sir Alec himself. It was to recognise Grant’s contribution to soccer in SA as a player and coach.

Ferguson brought with him a framed Manchester United jersey worn by Ronaldo, which was auctioned for charity to the tune of R60,000.

In later years, Grant could be found rolling a bowl on the Hamilton Bowling Club greens where he and his old soccer mates met from time to time.

He leaves his wife of 58 years, Mary, son John and daughter, Lee-Anne.

The funeral takes place on Friday at 1 pm in the Presbyterian Church in Stirling.

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