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Craig Johnston – Always a Winner by Roger Sleeman

7 Jun

When you think of Newcastle football heroes, several names come to mind, including the immortal Reg Date who was pursued by Glasgow Rangers and Cardiff City after World War II but declined the opportunity because he could earn more in Australia.

There are also Ron Giles, Dennis Wright, Col Curran, David Lowe, Graham Jennings, Marshall Soper, John Doyle, Ray Baartz and the most successful of all, Craig Johnston.

When Ray Baartz returned home from Manchester United in 1966, despite the protestations of Matt Busby, it was the end of an unfulfilled sojourn in English football and as fate should have it, his career imploded when he suffered that career ending injury at the SCG in June, 1974 against Uruguay.

John Doyle was also on the crest of making the big time at Arsenal in 1969 but was hindered by the Adamstown club who refused to allow him to transfer to the Gunners, in spite of the $1,600 price tag and his status as a free agent.

Ironically, Marshall Soper was offered a contract by Don Howe after his magnificent performance for the Socceroos in their 3-2 loss to the Gunners in the 1983 tour but surprisingly declined.

In the early 1970’s, Joe Senkalski, the talented midfielder, emerged as a new star in Newcastle but never fulfilled his potential, although performing well in the NSW State League for Pan Hellenic.

Enter Craig Johnston, the Booragul High School starlet, who was only fourteen years old when the word got around about his amazing talent.

I had the pleasure to watch Johnston perform brilliantly for Hakoah Eastern Suburbs in second grade during the 1975 season as a fifteen year old.

He was clearly ready for promotion to the first team but coach, Dave McClaren, took a conservative view and believed Johnston should wait for his chance.

Few people are aware that this was the catalyst for Johnston to try his luck in England and he arrived in Middlesborough at the start of the 1975/76 season.

The harsh treatment he received at the hands of Jackie Charlton, the dour England stopper and Middlesborough manager, is well chronicled but despite nagging injuries he outstayed Charlton and thrived under the management of John Neal who recognised Johnston’s tremendous ambition to succeed.

When Johnston finally established his position in the first team under the watchful eye of his great mentor, Graeme Souness, one of the greatest combative midfielders the game has seen, he became a star and one of the most exciting goal scoring midfielders in the English First Division.

I well remember his superb close control, dominance of midfield and powerful shooting which naturally attracted the attention of Liverpool FC.
At Liverpool he was used more as a wide player in a squad so strong that it was regarded as a star team, rather than a team of stars.
His close skills, amazing ability to receive the ball at pace and to beat defenders at close quarters on both sides with relative ease were a feature of his repertoire.

Johnston’s winning honors are well recorded but the following words from John Doyle, former Socceroo and coach of Tim Cahill for eleven years, tell all.

‘’Craig had lightning pace and immaculate technique but where he really created problems for opponents was in his off the ball ability to check and rotate to allow players to find him in space and this all done at that tremendous speed”.

Despite his success at Liverpool, there was always a question mark about Johnston because he never played for his country and his famous statement,” it was easier to compete for Australia in surf board riding than play football”, was truly controversial.

Clearly, if Johnston had been available for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup qualifiers and Marshall Soper had not committed the ultimate sin in withdrawing from the 1986 matches, the Socceroo’s chances would have been significantly boosted.

It was exciting to see Johnston in the ABC studios as an expert commentator during both competitions but somehow it just didn’t seem right that our most successful player hadn’t been out on the park in the green and gold during the qualifiers.

However, Johnston claimed at the time that Liverpool wouldn’t release him for these matches but more recently he reiterated that when he was injured at Middlesborough, and wanted to return to Australia to rehabiliatate, the Australian Soccer Federation refused him financial assistance.

Johnston is a proud Aussie and his return to Australia in 1989 to raise funds for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy was indicative of his unselfish views on life.

Apart from introducing Rooball into the Australian football landscape in the early 1990’s and acting as ambassador for the 1993 World Youth C hampionship, he has been barely mentioned in local football circles.

In fact his representations to the FFA over a year ago to implement his Super Skills Program have been largely ignored, although the program has gained wide acceptance in Europe.

As Johnson states,” ten years ago we had a number of Australian players in the EPL but now only Mile Jedinak remains at Crystal Palace and even his place is uncertain as it’s been rumoured, manager, Alan Pardew, wants to release him”.

Craig Johnston wants to make a contribution to Australian football and with the demise of Nathan Tinkler at Newcastle Jets it would serve the best interests of the game if he was consulted by the FFA and Northern NSW to rebuild the club.

Coincidentally, Johnston arrived in Australia two weeks ago to attend the Sydney FC – Spurs clash on May 30th and also launched the Craig Johnston Cup last Tuesday in Newcastle.

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