Australian footballers have enjoyed a strong presence across Europe and, more recently, Asia over the past two decades. At last count there were some 150 Aussie footballers plying their trade on foreign shores.
But it wasn’t always this way. Joe Marston was a rare success story in the 1950s, and it took several more decades before a lone, and indeed brave individual paved the way. Craig Johnston didn’t just overcome a barrier; he smashed his way through it. A professional career in itself was a rarity for an Australian footballer in the 1980s, but Johnston went all the way to the top playing for Liverpool at their peak of the powers, winning ten major trophies, including the European Cup.
No obstacle too tall
Many teenage boys fantasize about becoming a professional footballer. Few realise their dream, let alone achieve it through sheer resolve and strength of character. Johnston told one school teacher he would play professional football when he grew up and, perhaps as a result of having to put up with jibes from that same teacher, the 15-year-old boy from the outskirts of Newcastle, some two hours north of Sydney, set about methodically achieving his aim.
Middlesbrough made an unlikely visit to Newcastle in 1975, and the teenage Johnston was inspired enough to write to them, plus a host of other English clubs, seeking a trial. That he was forced to miss watching the tour match due to a spell in hospital – where he was told he would never play football again – just adds another layer to Johnston’s against-the-odds journey.
His parents gambled with proceeds from the sale of their house to fund a trip to England. With sun-bleached hair, the naïve teenager was out of place in more ways than one in the cold of England’s north-east. Middlesbrough manager, and 1966 FIFA World Cup™-winner, Jack Charlton told the youngster he was wasting his time. Yet still, Johnston - with the assistance of a second trip to the club - eventually prevailed in winning an apprenticeship.
He eventually forced his way into the first-team at Middlesbrough, three tough years on from that pivotal night back in his hometown, and went on to enjoy a spirited three-year spell in the first team. But it was nevertheless a surprise when recently crowned European champions Liverpool came calling in 1981.
Playing generally in a wide midfield role, Johnston often came off the bench in his first few seasons at Anfield, before nailing down a regular first-team spot. He was a consistent contributor as Liverpool claimed a treble of league, League Cup and European Cup in 1984.
He became the first Australian to reach such heights, but playing internationally for the Socceroos was, Johnston considered, not an option given the associated long-haul travel and demands of Liverpool.
“Playing soccer for Australia would be like surfing for England,” declared Johnston at the time, displaying more than a hint of his trademark sense of humour. With Scottish and Irish forebears, and English residency, Johnston had options and he decided to throw in his allegiances with England, but B internationals and a spot on the bench for the senior team was as close as he got to international football.
Liverpool went a rare season without silverware in 1984/85, but returned to form the following year crowned by the greatest single moment of Johnston’s career. Like many corners of the globe in that era, live football on television was a rarity. In Australia, the annual focal point for football fans was the only annual live televised match of the year. When Johnston netted for the Reds in an epic final against Everton, it was a momentous moment for the game Down Under. Though after midnight back in his homeland, Johnston’s epic leap of celebration at Wembley – and one in keeping with his English nickname, 'Skippy' - was mirrored in the living rooms of thousands of Australian homes that night.
Some things are more important than football
Three years later, the FA Cup provided a contrasting experience for Johnston as the Reds suffered one of the great upset final defeats, with Wimbledon surprising the recently crowned league champions. It was to prove a sad occasion for the Aussie in more ways than one. His 271st and final appearance in a Liverpool shirt was at Wembley that afternoon.
At the age of just 27, Johnston did the unthinkable and retired. His sister had suffered a life-threatening accident and required around-the-clock care. No amount of cajoling from manager Kenny Dalglish or others in the Anfield hierarchy could change his mind. Johnston had carved out a career on his own terms and, having taken the unconventional route to success, concluded it in equally idiosyncratic fashion.
Never sitting still
Even in his retirement from football, Johnston retains a youthful zest, energy and creativity. He famously helped design an innovative football boot design for the adidas Predator in the 1990s, and has devoted much energy to his love of photography. He now spends his time between living in Florida and in Australia.
He was inducted into the Football Federation Australia Hall of Fame in 2005. Three years later he was awarded the top honour offered by Professional Footballers Australia, a level of recognition only previously granted to Marston and Socceroo icon Johnny Warren.
Johnston said that he hoped his career “might inspire others with seemingly unattainable dreams to reach their own goals”. Many current Socceroos list him as their childhood inspiration, with Tim Cahill a notable example. Johnston’s legacy is indeed undeniable.