Craig Johnston was synonymous in the Liverpool team which won the double in 1986. He played in every game other than the opening one. Yet his journey to double winner was a hard one, harder than most. Battling his and other people’s view of his abilities.
For many players, their route to professional football can be one of luck and circumstance. Whereas for ‘Skippy’ it was sheer hard work and bloody-mindedness which saw him reach the top. There was also a huge amount of luck as at various times things could easily have turned out so, so differently.
During his Anfield career (1981-1988) he won five league titles, an FA Cup and a European Cup. But it wasn’t until Kenny Dalglish took over as manager that he felt most appreciated. Dalglish reportedly wanted someone who could “run around a lot” and Johnston’s impetuous enthusiasm certainly gave the team that.
He was born to Australian parents in Johannesburg in 1960. His parents met on a boat when they were both travelling independently around the world. His father was going to Scotland to try and make it as a footballer. His mother was going to London to be a teacher. When Johnston was six they moved back to Australia, to Boolaroo on the outskirts of Newcastle, New South Wales. His father’s own football career was going nowhere in Aberdeen’s reserves and they decided to cut their losses. Newcastle was mining country and the place was mad on soccer as opposed to the other sports which dominate the country.
As a kid he got into a fight and as a result developed a form of polio, osteomyelitis, a disease which rots the bone. At that time it was incurable and the doctors decided he would have to have his leg amputated. His Mum even signed the consent form agreeing to it. Fortunately for Johnston, there was a specialist visiting from America and he saved it. Things could easily have turned out differently.
When he was 15 he saw Middlesbrough beat his local team and he decided he’d try and get to play for them. He wrote asking for a trial and got a reply saying he’d have to pay for his own travel and accommodation. For a family of simple means, this was a huge sacrifice. His parents sold up and moved to a smaller house.
His Dad understood what it was like to have dreams and have them taken away from you as had been the case with his career, so the Johnstons supported their boy as much as they possibly could.
Young Craig Johnston experienced quite a culture shock when he landed in Middlesbrough in the mid-seventies. This was an area where employment was tight during a depressive period. But Johnston was unbowed as he looked forward to his trial.
Jack Charlton announces himself
Unusually the first team manager, Jack Charlton attended the game. The team was 0-3 down at half-time. Charlton marched into the dressing room and started laying into the players. When he came to Johnston he asked him where he was from. Johnston told him, adding the traditional ‘mate’ on the end which angered Charlton even more.
England’s World Cup-winning central defender then proceeded to tell the 15-year old Aussie kid,
“You are worst footballer I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Now fuck off.”
Poor Johnston was so upset he burst into tears and couldn’t play the second half. He picked up his bag and made his way back to his digs. Obviously, he had to tell his parents. This was 1975 so phoning Australia was problematic. It took an hour for him to get through, and by the time his mum answered she was so excited to hear his news.
“How was your big trial? We’re so proud of you. Have you met Jack Charlton yet?”
Johnston responded in the only way he knew how;
“Yes, and he thinks I’m one of the finest footballers he’s ever seen”, then promptly put the phone down.
His parents had made such a sacrifice for him he just didn’t have the heart to tell them how it had really gone. But now he was under pressure to prove the manager wrong.
Johnston admits these days that Charlton had a point. He was bad. So he made it his business to get better. For six months he trained alone in the club’s car park, hiding from the manager.
Senior professionals such as Graeme Souness and Terry Cooper were at Middlesbrough at the time and they thought Charlton’s treatment had been harsh. They said if Johnston cleaned their cars they’d give him enough money to pay for his digs.
He developed a routine of dribbling in and out of rubbish cans. Ten with his right foot, ten with his left. If he ever hit one of the cans he’d have to start again. He did this for hours on end, on his own. People thought he was crazy, but Johnston was an intelligent young man and knew only hard work would make him a better player.
By his own admission, he had no natural ability, just raw enthusiasm. Eventually, Charlton moved onto Sheffield Wednesday and John Neal came in from Wrexham. He wanted to know who the scruffy kid in the car park was. He was promptly told, “oh that’s the Australian kid, he’s crap”.
But Neal had him train with the youth team and things began to get better, and so did he. At the age of 17, he made his debut in an FA Cup tie against Everton at the end of January 1978. He received his big moment thanks to a bout of flu going around the team. The game was on tv and Johnston became the youngest player to play for the club. His league debut came at Birmingham City a week later. His first goal for the club came later in the season at home to West Ham.
Interest from several clubs
By 1981 he had attracted the attention of several clubs, including the big two at the time, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Brian Clough got in touch and said he wanted to sign him. Then he got a call from Bob Paisley who was similarly interested. By now Graeme Souness was at Anfield and he had put a good word in for Johnston.
Unsure which way to go, Johnston phoned his Dad who told him to plump for Liverpool. Jimmy Case was about to move and so there’d be a place for the young Australian on the right side of midfield. Interestingly enough, Bill Shankly had recommended him to Everton but they signed Gary Megson instead.
League Champions Liverpool paid £650,000 for the 20-year old in April 1981. The 1980-81 league campaign had been disappointing for Liverpool but had brought about a third European Cup triumph.
Johnston made his first appearance as a second-half sub for Ray Kennedy in the opening day defeat at Wolves at the beginning of the following season.
Anfield was a place of change around this time. Bob Paisley had won the League and European Cup in 1977 with a team largely built by Shankly. He added Dalglish, Souness and Hansen to retain the European Cup a year later and that side became record breakers a year on. Now he was dismantling the team and bringing in a new breed, of which Johnston fitted that bill. Clemence left in the summer, Case moved on, and soon Ray Kennedy did too. In came Grobbelaar, Whelan, Lawrenson and Rush. In that Wolves match, Lawrenson also made his debut.
He made 23 appearances in his first season, many of them from the bench. He doubled that the following year and when Liverpool won their third successive league title in 1984 Johnston also played in the club’s fourth European Cup win. Under Joe Fagan, he began to be sidelined. He appeared just 11 times in the 1984-85 season when Everton wrestled the title from their neighbours.
Johnston was a hard worker in training but cut a frustrated figure when his hard work wasn’t rewarded with a place in the starting line-up.
Dalglish recognised hard work
Eventually when Kenny Dalglish took over Johnston had his big chance. Dalglish recognised the work he put in during training and rewarded him with a place in the team. Initially, he came on as a sub for two matches before making the starting line-up in the 5-0 home win against Ipswich Town. From then on he started all but one match to the end of the season. To begin with, Johnston played in place of his boss, wearing the iconic number seven shirt. By mid-September, he wore number eight as Steve Nicol was moved to right-back in place of Phil Neal, another of the old guard being moved on. Johnston scored in the Ipswich win and proceeded to find the net four times in his first five starts.
The 1985-86 season saw Liverpool become just the third team that century to win the league and FA Cup double. Johnston scored at Wembley in the famous 3-1 win over Everton. The two Merseyside clubs had gone toe-to-toe from January onwards and right up to the last couple of matches it looked as though Everton might retain their league title.
Dalglish now had Jan Mølby pulling the strings in midfield, and with Kevin MacDonald also orchestrating things he wanted someone to link up attack and midfield by just running around and making a nuisance of themselves. Johnston was that pest. Watch some of the matches from that season and you’ll see he just runs and runs and runs.
But Johnston was still a poor player struggling to prove himself at a big club. Dalglish had spoken since of many times he had to pick Craig up during that season. Dalglish describes the player being visited by a black dog many times and it was his manager who knew when to snap him out of his despair. This empathy Dalglish had would be in full evidence three years later after the Hillsborough tragedy.
“Craig was his own worst enemy”, Dalglish said. “He just didn’t believe in his footballing abilities, and I could see that, when his form deserted him, Craig became depressed and the dark cycle continued. Several times during that season I had to beat away the black dog of depression chasing Craig.”
Rarely has there been a happier scorer of a cup final goal at Wembley than when Johnston netted against Everton.
It made all the hard work worth it. The disease which nearly cost him his leg, the sacrifice of his parents, the doubts running around his own head and the tireless work day after day in the Ayresome Park car park. All culminated in that one moment.
In Simon Hughes’ book, “Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the ’80s. The Players Stories”, Johnston describes his goal;
“Everywhere I went, Van den Hauwe was with me. Box to box. Then one time, I remember going back to our box and he followed me. I saw a space down the wing and I started to sprint into it. The ball was on our left wing, but Van den Hauwe followed me all the way for 70 yards. By then, Jan Mølby had the ball. I knew he’d try to find Kenny first, but something prompted me to make that last ten-yard dash Instinctively I went, and it was only because I had a bigger heart that I connected with the cross. Psycho Pat didn’t have the legs left in him, and it was the easiest goal I’ve ever scored.”
He then goes onto explain his sheer joy at what he’d achieved
“I shouted ‘I did it, I did it…’. Ronnie Whelan and Rushie were the first over and they heard me. They still rib me about it today. But what I was talking about was my journey. It was my dream to play in an FA Cup Final and to score the decisive goal was unbelievable. If somebody would have shot me then, I’d have died a happy man”
The arrival of Barnes, Aldridge and Beardsley meant another league title in 1988 but they narrowly missed out on a unique second double. Johnston wrote the cup final song, the ‘Anfield Rap’. He made 30 appearances in what was possibly the best Liverpool side of the lot. But what people didn’t know was what a different personal trauma Johnston was going through off the pitch.
His younger sister, Faye, suffered an accident when on holiday in Morocco. She nearly died in a gassing accident caused by a faulty heater in her hotel room. He was at the club’s Christmas party when he heard of the news. He immediately flew to Morocco. He brought her back to England and then arranged for his parents to come over from Australia.
Apparently, only Dalglish knew about it. He was juggling brilliant performances on the pitch with travelling up and down the motorway to London. By the end of the season, he had decided to return to Australia to look after his sister. His final start for Liverpool was at Anfield on 9th May 1988 when they drew 1-1 with Luton Town. They had clinched the title the week before against Southampton.
His last appearance in a Liverpool shirt was as a substitute for John Aldridge in the FA Cup Final. By then he’d told Dalglish of his intention to leave and with that, he was off, ‘home’. His sister was still in a coma but had been flown back to Australia. She remains there to this day, in a vegetative state.
Twelve months on from his departure he was surfing when he was called back to the beach to learn of the news coming from Hillsborough. He was working for Channel 9 and dropped everything to fly over to the UK.
He raised £40,000 in his own country for the families of the 96 but was back at Anfield to attend the memorial service seven days after the disaster. He helped counsel the bereaved using his understanding of brain damage from his own sister as an important means of compassion.
Before returning down under he had a meeting with Dalglish in his office. The manager had not been pleased with the timing of Johnston’s sudden decision to leave the club. But now the two were able to iron out their differences and Johnston was promised a contract whenever he wanted to come back. Then Dalglish presented him with his league championship winners’ medal which had been sitting in his drawer for the past year.
Life after football
Ever the entrepreneur many relate Johnston to the football boot ‘Predator’ he designed during this time in England. The likes of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Steven Gerrard have worn them. Since returning to Oz he has made a living from clever inventions. He invented a sensor which goes into mini-bars to allow hotels to keep a proper track on how much a guest has consumed. He pioneered a television programme in Australia, developed a football-coaching system for children called Soccer Skills.
FIFA dragged their heels on whether to license the system which eventually cost Johnston his marriage. He went bankrupt too. Literally lost everything.
Then he took up photography. He now lives in Florida with his new partner, Viv, spending his time between the US, London and Australia.
He is still very much the beach-bum-surf-kid you’d expect his parents to have produced. He doesn’t feel he did himself justice as a player believing it was only as he was older he truly understood the game. But then circumstances meant a change of direction and there he went.
Johnston remains a dedicated Liverpool fan. He declared he would never play for anyone other than Liverpool. If it was to be a different team then it would only be Liverpool reserves. His autobiography “Walk Alone” was dedicated to the victims of Heysel and Hillsborough disasters.
To this day he is still humble of his achievements.
“You have no idea how crap I was. Even when I was playing for Liverpool, I was the worst player in the best team in the world.”
Simon Hughes “Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the 80’s. The Players Stories”