Few people in Australian football polarise the fans like Craig Johnston. Loved by some for his exploits at Liverpool in the 80s – loathed by others for his refusal to play for the Socceroos, and forever haunted by his comment that: “Playing football for Australia was like surfing for England”.
I always wondered how he felt after Englishman Martin Potter won the World Surfing Championship.
Craig Johnston is in the news again as one of the faces of potential new A-League club, Southern Expansion. Reading through social media it becomes quickly apparent that those who identify as Sydney FC fans are dead against the Southern franchise – perceiving it as cannibalising a key part of the Sydney catchment. But they are also very negative in the comments regarding Johnston himself.
I won’t bother repeating or even paraphrasing some of what I’ve seen but that’s the tribalism of football – no matter how much a hero in one context, you’ll quickly be hated if you nail your colours to the wrong tribe’s mast back in the A-League. Am I right Harry? Am I right Timmy?
But for those too young to remember – let’s just have a quick history lesson.
Craig Johnston grew up on the outskirts of Newcastle in the 60s and 70s and (despite some severe health problems) devoted himself to a career in football. His English (I think) father always wanted him to go back to the Old Country and encouraged him to trial for English clubs – back in the day when Joe Marston had played in the UK, and that was about it.
At 15 he was granted a trial at Middlesbrough when Jack Charlton was coach. The trial ended without a contract but the following year he went back (both times at his parents’ very considerable expense) to try again.
The second time, he felt he was making some progress, until one afternoon while cleaning boots in the boot room he overheard Charlton say: “By the way…if you see that Roo, tell him to pack his bags. He’s wasting his time here.” (Roo was Johnston’s nickname.)
This is where my estimation of Craig Johnston goes through the roof. If I had heard someone say that about me at the age of 16 it would have destroyed me. Not Johnston.
He actually hid from all club officials so no-one could deliver the bad news while simultaneously lifting his game and training like a maniac. His performances improved and all of a sudden he was valued and was offered a contract.
The rest of his career reads like a Boys' Own novella. He overcame (by his own admission) average technique through sheer hard work, dedication and innovation (not least in his personal training methods) to become one of the first picked for Middlesbrough before making a big money move to Liverpool.
Johnston is an Anfield legend for his exploits during their heyday during the 80s, winning several league titles, the European Cup and scoring the winner against Everton in one of the most memorable FA Cup finals of all time. His leap of ecstasy after scoring that goal has to be one THE iconic images in Australian sporting history.
He did make the fateful comment re surfing for England, and I have always lamented the fact he didn’t play for Australia at a time when we really needed him. I suspect he laments it also.
He gave the game away at his peak for family reasons, then became an entrepreneur – going through the usual cycles of success and bankruptcy – and continuing to polarise, as he did throughout his football career.
And still does, apparently.For those who are upset about his alignment with Southern Expansion – give him a break. He really was a genius footballer with incredible guts, an original thinker about the game, and a person prepared to risk everything for his ambition from Day One.
I hate the fact that he never played for Australia but I love the fact he did help put us on the map as a footballing nursery. The journey for the likes of Kewell, Viduka, Cahill, Bosnich, Schwarzer, Okon, Slater, Aloisi, Wilkshire, Muscat, Moore, Neill, Lazaridis and the hundreds ever since was made easier because of the credibility won for Australian football by Craig Johnston.
He still has the capacity to make a contribution to Australian football so I, for one, am happy to see him back in the game - putting the politics of Southern Expansion to one side.
Let the brickbats commence.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.