PLAYER STORIES

CRAIG JOHNSTON: FROM AYRESOME PARK TO EUROPEAN CUP WINNER

What began as a routine day trip to the city centre, a jaunt that included skateboarding, window-shopping and a visit to a red light cinema, changed Craig Johnston’s life forever.

 

After going to see “The Giants of Brazil” by mistake, a film about the famous 1970s World Cup team, the 12-year-old Johnston decided he wanted to become a footballer “like Pele.”

 

Born in Johannesburg on June 25, 1960, Johnston moved to Australia as a child and grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales, near Sydney.

 

After contracting osteomyelitis at age six, Johnston almost lost a leg, his mother even signed an amputation order. Fortunately, an American specialist named Dr. Glass was touring and lecturing in Australia at the time and stepped in with a procedure to help save the child’s limb.

FROM OZ TO AYRESOME...

While watching TV,  Johnston saw Jack Charlton’s Middlesbrough during a 1975 pre-season Australian tour. He decided to write to the club and ask for a trial. Within weeks, the 14-year-old surfer received a reply from Boro’s World Cup-winning coach, Harold Shepherdson, inviting him to England.

 

After Johnston excelled at school as requested, his parents sold the family home to fund his overseas trip. Upon arriving in Middlesbrough, Johnston, then 16, was thrust straight into a trialist game against Leeds United. At halftime, with his team trailing 3-0, Boro boss Jack Charlton burst into the dressing room to tell Johnston he was “the worst player he had ever seen” and to “fuck off back to Australia.”

 

A tearful and devastated Johnston told his parents that Charlton loved him and everything was going great. There was no way the strong-willed Johnston was heading home just yet. After hearing of Johnston’s treatment by Charlton, first-teamers Graeme Souness and Terry Cooper told the youngster to stick around and arranged for him to clean boots and wash players’ cars.

 

Johnston spent the next 18 months cleaning cars and dodging Jack Charlton in the car park next to Ayresome Park. His practice of training by himself also became a familiar local sight. With chalk-drawn goals and targets on walls, he would train for six to eight hours per day to hone his skills and technique, and not stop until he had completed his brutal training regime.

By May 1977, Charlton had left Boro, and new manager John Neal was soon asking who the kid in the car park was.

“That’s the kangaroo,” he was told.

 

After being unable to fulfill a reserve team fixture because of an injury, Johnston was asked to sit on the bench to make up the numbers. When he was sent onto the field in the second half, he scored a hat trick and was signed up straight away. He earned a princely £8 per week.

 

Within eight months of Charlton’s departure, and after two years of training in the car park and playing with local kids on Middlesbrough’s cobbled streets, the 17-year-old Johnston finally made his debut for Middlesbrough in February 1978.

 

Johnston appeared 64 times between 1977-78 and 1980-81 for first-division Boro. He became a crowd favourite and cult hero for the home supporters, scoring 16 goals.

Playing with Graeme Souness, David Hodgson, David Armstrong and Bosco Jankovic, Johnston was a tireless midfield runner who snatched possession and broke up play. Johnston also had the heart of a lion and a keen eye for goal scoring some spectacular goals during his career.

EUROPEAN CUP WINNER...

After coming highly recommended from midfielder Souness – who himself had made the switch to Liverpool two seasons earlier – Liverpool manager Joe Paisley paid a record £650,000 to bring the Aussie to Anfield in the summer of 1981.

 

Johnston, then a 20-year-old midfielder, became the clubs most expensive player – that is, until his new team paid £900,000 for Mark Lawrenson soon after.

 

Johnston himself revealed that he had almost joined Brian Clough’s two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest, who along with 12 other top-flight teams were chasing the Aussie’s signature before he opted for Liverpool. Johnston went on to make 270 appearances for Liverpool between 1981 and 1988, scoring 40 goals and winning ten major trophies.

 

 

Describing himself as “the worst player in the world’s best team,” the ever-modest Johnston was an integral part of five title-winning sides as a midfielder and striker. He was also a member of Liverpool’s famous double-winning team, scoring in the 1986 FA Cup Final in a 3-1 win against rivals Everton at Wembley.

 

Another career high point for Johnston was his appearance in front of 69,693 fans in Rome in the 1984 European Cup final in a 4-2 penalty shootout win against Roma. The final is now best remembered for goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly-legs routine, which was meant to put off the opposing penalty-takers during the shootout.

 

Johnston also wrote the infamous Anfield Rap, which in 1988 reached Number 3 on the UK charts to celebrate his team’s spot in the FA Cup final against Wimbledon. The game would be Johnston’s last appearance in a Liverpool shirt, coming as a sub for striker John Aldridge.

Looking back on his Liverpool career, Johnston remains characteristically low-key. “I was surrounded by hugely gifted footballers – Ian Rush, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen,” he says. “My job was essentially to win the ball, lay it off to them and make myself available.”

In 1988, Craig Johnston, aged 27, gave up professional football to return home. His sister had suffered a horrific accident in Morocco and now required 24-hour care. The next year, the compassionate Aussie was back in Liverpool to attend memorial services and comfort victims’ families after the Hillsborough disaster. He also helped to raise money for the disaster fund.

LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL...

After football, Craig Johnston is best-known as the inventor of the Predator boot manufactured by Adidas and worn by football and rugby players around the world. He has also worked on follow-up designs, most notably the “Pig,” which was shortlisted for a British design award in 2004.

 

The resilient entrepreneur is also the inventor of “Butler,” a room-service software device for hotels that records drink purchases, and a successful TV game show concept called The Main Event.

Johnston is a keen photographer who has recorded images of his life since he his arrival in England. He even took family shots for Liverpool players. He now regularly travels the world on photography assignments and has had a number of successful exhibitions around the world.

 

Maybe Craig Johnston never became as good as Pele, but he was certainly a terrific footballer and far better than he gives himself credit for. The untypical footballer and entrepreneur is loved and remembered fondly in both Middlesbrough and Liverpool, as well as been known around the world for his distinctive talents.

 

One thing for certain is you havent heard the last from Craig Johnston, that’s for sure.

Craig Johnston

Middlesbrough FC: 1977-1981

Apps: 64  

Goals: 16

Liverpool FC: 1981-1988

Apps: 190

Goals: 30