The OzSoccer Articles

Anthony Ferguson seems to be the only one who reads this section. We're glad he does. Here he offers a review of one of the books which finds its way into most Soccerfans libraries.

Making waves

The fifteenth anniversary of the publication of former soccer superstar Craig Johnston's autobiography, Walk Alone (Collins Publishers, Sydney, 1989), seems a pretty good time to re-visit the text and assess the career of a man who was arguably - with sincere apologies to Joe Marston and Adrian Alston - the first Australian to break the glass ceiling of super stardom in the old English First Division.

Johnston's story, written in conjunction with journalist Neil Jameson, remains one of the best of all the footballing biographies I have read, hence my tendency to re-read it every now and again. If ever an individual personified sheer single-minded determination to succeed, dogged persistence, unwavering self-belief and the oft-spoken Aussie determination to stick it up the doubters, it would be Craig Johnston.

The stories of the teenage Johnston's self-disciplined, lonely car park training regimes at unfashionable Middlesbrough's old Ayersome Park ground are the stuff of legend, and would serve to inspire any young person with dreams of achieving their goal against the odds. The road from ridicule and persecution to eventual triumph is a common literary motif, and Johnston's life seems to have been written to script, it is a story tellers dream.

In recalling Johnston's all action style of play at Middlesbrough and particularly at the far more often televised matches of the all-conquering 1980s Liverpool side, one is reminded of another footballer of similar physical capacity and hairstyle, Kevin Keegan. Johnston too is aware of the comparisons, being reminded of them by his peers often enough. It is perhaps no coincidence that both men literally embodied the theory of hard work bringing its own reward. That Keegan actually achieved so much more than Johnston is not necessarily an indication of a greater skill, but perhaps of a more focused attitude toward his career.

Undoubtedly the epiphany of Johnston's football career occurred in May of 1986, when he scored the winning goal for Liverpool against great local rivals Everton in the first ever all Merseyside FA Cup Final, thereby ensuring the Reds would become only the third team of the modern era to achieve the then legendary double of League and FA Cup titles in the same season.

It matters little that this achievement has since been eclipsed by the Premier League moneybags in the form of Manchester United and Arsenal, back then, the double was difficult to achieve and it really meant something. Hence the scene in the opening chapter of the book, where Kenny Dalglish tells the author, 'Enjoy it son. This is as good as it gets' (p.10), becomes the catalyst for his eventual premature retirement from the game.

In reading the text, one is left in no doubt of Johnston's incredible self-belief and desire to go his own way. He acknowledges himself that it sometimes made his life more difficult than it needed to be, especially so in the case of his uneasy relationship with one time Liverpool manager Joe Fagan.

However, it is Johnston's relationship with Australian soccer and the national team which most concerns Australian fans, and the truth of the matter is slowly becoming buried in the mists of time. To the casual observer, Johnston's attitude to the Socceroos is surmised in his ill-chosen remark on national television while still at Middlesbrough that playing soccer for Australia would be like surfing for England.

Unfortunately, Johnston is unfairly tainted by this casual putdown, when a proper reading of the text would indicate that he did in fact make himself available to Australian soccer in the mid-eighties. Only to be erroneously advised by our own soccer authorities that he was ineligible, having represented England twice at Under 21 level. So angered was Johnston by the lack of consultation on behalf of the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF), that when he discovered that he was in fact eligible for the Socceroos after all, he drew his own conclusions:

So disheartened was I by the Australian body's attitude, that I made a
resolution.  There was no way Craig Johnston would be involved with any
side under that particular ASF administration's jurisdiction.  It meant I
would never play for Australia. (p.149)

This is only one side of the story of course, but it does sound like yet another example of Australian soccer unwittingly shooting itself in the foot.

As it was, Johnston's international promise, at one time looking to blossom in the colours of several international sides ' England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia or South Africa, petered out disappointingly, much like his football career. Yet we must also keep in mind Johnston's desire, in those early, difficult times, to keep himself in the picture at club level, at Boro, and especially at Liverpool, where competition for places must have been enormous. As he recalls in no uncertain terms, the name Johnston was never a fixture on the team sheet anyway, no matter how well he played, 'I wanted to play for Australia, but not at the risk of what I had achieved.' (p.145)

This is the problem for Socceroos fans who retrospectively assess Craig Johnston's soccer career, the sense of premature retirement and unfulfilled potential. Ideally, for those of us who would like to have controlled Johnston's career for him, he would not have uttered that cruel putdown of Aussie soccer in 1980. Rather, he would have led the Socceroos in at least four World Cup qualifying campaigns, in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994. This would have spanned his age from 21 to 33.

Would he have made a difference? Would Johnston have been the catalyst to lead us to the promised land? It's debatable. The 1982 campaign under Rudi Gutendorf was a disaster from day one. It is most likely that Johnston would have been excused from the early round of fixtures in Oceania anyway, and as we never made it past that level, the point is moot.

On then to 1986, and the Frank Arok led Socceroos brave tilt at reaching the Finals in Mexico. Could Johnston have inspired the team over the line in the home and away series against Scotland? Who knows, but he certainly would have made a difference. In 1990, with the player then at the peak of his career, he may well have been able to get us past New Zealand and Israel and into that play-off against Colombia.

In 1994, a veteran fired up Johnston would still have had enough gas in the tank to give a resurgent Argentina and Diego Maradona a run for their money. What a shame that Johnston's career did not coincide with the next batch of expatriate Aussie superstars. To see him working industriously in support of the likes of Kewell and Viduka would have made the Socceroos an even more impressive side.

At club level, if he had not fallen prey to his own impossibly high standards, Johnston could have played at least until his mid thirties, and arguably returned to Australia to lend his playing expertise to the NSL, helping to guide those who perhaps lacked the ability to follow in his footsteps at the elite level.

However, that he chose not to do so is Johnston's own decision. One can appreciate his desire to go out on top, at the very pinnacle of his football career. The player took Dalglish's words to heart, and perhaps he could sense that the double was indeed his apex, and the rest of his career a slow downward spiral toward oblivion. Perhaps we should respect his decision, and learn from it.

For indeed, our nationalistic disappointments aside, there is still much to admire in Craig Johnston. In one particularly poignant passage, Johnston laments the downside of the professional footballer's total dedication to the craft, to the detriment of all outside knowledge. Johnston recounts how his interest in the outside world, and hobbies like travel, music and photography, led to his occasional estrangement from teammates, who considered him an outsider.

The dysfunctional aspect of the typical footballer's obsession with minutiae like cards, snooker, horseracing, alcohol and women has particular resonance in today's Premiership, with sundry tales of players on drink, drugs and sexual assault related charges. One cannot help but admire Johnston for his championing of the wider education of footballers from an early age. Just as one admires his numerous efforts for charity over the years.

I'm probably not alone in wondering what Craig Johnston has been doing these past fifteen years since his well-publicised early retirement from Liverpool at the age of 28. In fact I saw him on television at some charity gig not too long ago. He looked happy - older, tubbier, balder, but happy. I sometimes think he could be doing more for the game in this country, god knows we need all the help we can get.

But then I think maybe Craig doesn't owe Aussie soccer a thing, maybe he did more than enough by doing what he did as a young Aussie in a strange world, alone, all those years ago. Perhaps it's the legacy of Craig Johnston that indirectly led to the establishment of schools of sporting excellence like the AIS, and the increasingly good reputation of Australian players in the overseas market.

Maybe it's not my place, or anyone's place, to sum up Craig Johnston's football career. He is best qualified to do it himself, as he does toward the end of the book:

Yes, I have loads of regrets.  I've no doubt that I never realised my full
potential as a footballer.  And that's possibly the biggest.  I've made a
ton of mistakes and I've learned from them too.  But, by the same token,
I've had more than my share of blessings.  If Liverpool had sued me and
I'd lost all my financial gains, I'd still be a millionaire by virtue of
the wealth of memories and experiences harvested from a fortunate career. 
I walked away comfortable in the knowledge that I don't owe anybody a
thing. �Ķ As I finish writing this chapter of my life I think that maybe
some other kid might extract some value from what I've learned.  Whether
the book sells or not is not important to me.  What does matter is that a
boy from Lake Macquarie scored at Wembley.  That, in itself, might inspire
others with seemingly unattainable dreams to reach their own goals.

From the pre-teen battles with osteomyelitis, the struggle to establish himself at Boro and on another level at Liverpool, the heights of trophy winning glory to the depths of Heysel, Craig Johnston went out of the game the same way he came in, single-minded, determined, a man standing alone with his decisions. So he chose not to take that gradual descent toward retirement and oblivion. He preferred to go out on top and that is his choice. We have to live with it. Craig Johnston has earned his privacy, and his place in the Australian soccer pantheon.