While most football fans will be familiar with the iconic Adidas predator boot, which we all sported at one stage, the inventor of it may not be so recognised. Craig Johnston is the brain behind the boot that inspired a generation, but his idea was so much more than just a football boot. It kickstarted the Adidas brand, breathing new life into the wounded beast. Some say Johnston is the reason Adidas are what they are today, and that his boot brought them back from the brink of extinction, but we’ll come to that later.
Johnston was originally born in South Africa but was raised in Australia. The former pro spent over ten years in England playing for both Middlesbrough and Liverpool, with the latter becoming his most successful destination. He would become a crowd favourite at Anfield where he sported the nickname ‘skippy’ during his spell there.
He was an influential player for the Reds, making 271 appearances from midfield and scoring 40 goals. He won five league titles, a European Cup and an FA Cup between 1981-1988, sketching his name in the history books and joining an elite list of players to reach such achievements.
One of his most famous moments for the Reds was scoring the second goal in a 3-1 win against derby rivals Everton in the 1986 FA Cup Final. He made 61 appearances that season, scoring double figures, in which Liverpool won the domestic double. This was his ultimate season in his prime and one that he would sadly never repeat. Johnston retired in a Liverpool shirt at just 27 in 1988, following an illness to his sister back home, whom he went to care for.
Although he had many offers to come back to play football, Johnston said, “I’d never play for anyone else than Liverpool. The only other team I’d play for would be Liverpool reserves”. He gave 100% every time he played, and he carried this attitude into his retirement. This was not to be the end of his success, as his jump into the business world was about to take off. Johnston once labelled himself “an inventor that became a footballer,” well, now it was time for the inventor to shine with the boots hung up.
The idea first came to him as a teenager when he was trying to make himself a better footballer whilst practising in a car park. It wasn’t until he was coaching kids in Sydney after he’d retired that he actually put his idea into effect, in the most unorthodox of ways. He would tell the kids to “think of your feet and your boots as a table tennis bat,” this was to apply the curve to a shot.
He then took it literally with an actual table tennis bat, when he stripped the rubber off and wrapped it around his leather boot with elastic bands and began kicking with it. This was his ‘hallelujah moment’. He began working on a prototype of the boot to pitch to major sporting brands, with his figures exceeding 1,000. The prototype was turned down by all of the major sporting brands like Nike and Reebok, even Adidas at first, so what changed?
This was the early 1990s, Adidas was a far cry from where they are now and were on the brink of bankruptcy. They rejected his idea the first time and even the second time, but he was so sure that this was the boot of the future, so he persisted. He went to Munich to show some of the biggest European players at the time, like Franz Beckenbauer. He was going to make this work, no matter what.
He brought some prototype boots with him and recorded a session in the snow with some other big footballers like Hansi Müller and Paul Breitner. With this footage, he stormed into a board meeting at Adidas after previous rejections. He played them the video and they stood up and clapped. He signed an exclusive deal for them there and then.
He was given the role of lead designer and head of football innovation at Adidas. He moved to Nuremberg to start production on the boot in a lab that he built for them himself. Ahead of the 1994 World Cup in America, the boot was launched in Las Vegas, instantly becoming a phenomenon. Adidas was making hundreds of millions of dollars off the boot, but this wasn’t a shared success as first thought.
Once Adidas realised the money they were making off this boot, they pressured Johnston into selling his patent over to them in 1998. He was originally receiving royalties from the sales, but he agreed to sell it to them for an undisclosed price. The price has since been recognised as far lower than what it should have been. It was the added grip that the rubber brought to the boot that made it the success that it was, the first of its kind.
The boot took off across the globe with the biggest players in the world like David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Zinedine Zidane sporting the predators. Every child who adored football wanted this boot, so they could bend it like Beckham, have the shot power of Gerrard and the delicate touch of Zidane. I was one of these kids, it was the only boot I wore for years because I genuinely believed the hype that it made you better by giving you extra shot power.
Due to the high calibre of players wearing these boots, some of the best goals we have seen have been scored while wearing them. Two goals that come to mind instantly are Zidane’s famous volley against Bayer Leverkusen and Beckham’s halfway line goal against Wimbledon. Now that is one way to promote your boots with two of the best goals we have ever seen that are still being shown to this day. This publicity from the top footballers was definitely a major reason for the spike in sales and what helped the boots to make their way to the top.
From the sales of the boot, Adidas had a major financial turnaround and Johnston no doubt played a major part in reshaping the future of Adidas. The predator boot was the main factor for their financial success, along with Madonna sporting a rare Adidas skirt in a photoshoot, so he is not in bad company there.
The boot didn’t just stay in football as it broke through in other sports with two of the best kickers in rugby, Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Wilkinson, wearing them. Adidas was now one of the largest sporting brands in the world and on their way to becoming the multi-billion-dollar company that we know them to be today.
The boot has been out for over 25 years now and has since been re-released in shops to mark the anniversary. This gave this generation of young footballers the chance to experience one of the greatest boots to grace the game that we used as kids. It has always been one of the most expensive pairs of football boots, but they are the elite of football boots.
‘The Predator’ was released in 1994, which was the first version of the boot to be released. A year later saw the release of the ‘Predator Rapier’, the second version of the boot where a tongue was added to the front. In 1996, the ‘Predator Touch’ was released that changed the shape of the original. The ‘Predator Accelerator’ was an iconic look after it was released in 1998 that featured the outer sole with a rubber attachment. Many more versions of the boot followed in the 2000s, such as the ‘Pulse’, the ‘Absolute’, and my personal favourite: ‘PowerSwerve’.
It was hard to ignore these boots as the biggest stars in the world were sporting them on the biggest stages. Everyone wanted to copy their idols, no matter the price tag. They promised extra grip, more shot power and extra curve, everything you needed to be a quality footballer, and our young minds believed it. While the boot has taken many forms, it has maintained its original features in one form or another. The latest versions have now adopted a fashionable external heel cap, almost like a sock, to give extra ankle support.
Johnston left Adidas to move to competitors Reebok where he ran their global soccer, rugby and cricket business in Boston. He continued to come up with more innovative ideas over the years as well as taking up photography, a hard-working man to say the least. He will go down as one of the biggest influencers in the modern game and the brain behind Adidas’ global success.
Next time you’re sporting a pair of Adidas predator boots, lining up a free-kick with intentions of hitting it top bins, think of the long-haired Aussie until the ball sails over the bar. Who knows where football would be now if this boot never came out, or Adidas for that matter. Remember the name Craig Johnston: the man who created the iconic and undefeated Adidas predator boot.