“The worst player in the best team in the world”
Anybody reading this description of a player in the 1980s would be forgiven for thinking it was the ultimate example of damning by faint praise. However, they would be wrong, for these words were used in self-depreciation by the player himself.
Although Craig Johnston was being unduly harsh on himself when he summed up his playing career at Liverpool, one could see where he was coming from in terms of comparisons with some of his more illustrious and glamorous teammates. He may not have been quite the household name of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness or Ian Rush; he may not have had the same skill and assurance as Mark Lawrenson or Alan Hansen, or the steady influence even of Steve McMahon or Ronnie Whelan, but none of those team-mates or the hoards of Liverpool faithful were ever in doubt of the contributions Johnston made to Liverpool’s successes in the 1980s.
Johnston was born in South Africa to Australian parents in June 1960 and moved with his family back to Australia as a young child. He had a troubled childhood in as much as he fell seriously ill at the age of six with a rare bone disease called Osteomyelitis. It was so severe and dangerous that at one point he came within 24 hours of having his leg amputated. Fortunately, this proved unnecessary and although it would take several years, Johnston made a full recovery.
Encouraged by his father who was a decent player himself, Johnson threw himself into football and when Australian television started showing highlights of English matches in the 1970s, Johnston determined he would seek out a career in England at the earliest possible opportunity. In around 1975, Middlesbrough embarked on a pre-season tour of Australia and partly due to the publicity this garnered at the time, Johnston decided to write to the Ayresome Park side, amongst others, asking for a trial.
The response was not discouraging. The club would, they said, accept him for an unspecified trial period on the condition he paid his own travel costs and for food and lodgings at a club house. The Johnston family held a meeting in which it was decided to sell the family house in order to fund Craig’s trip to England and so at the ripe old age of 15 he bid farewell to his family and country and headed for Middlesborough.
It’s fair to say that the culture shock experienced upon the arrival of the young Aussie hopeful was two ways. Johnston arrived in England in the middle of a freezing cold winter having just left the warmth of an Australian summer, while his new colleagues in the Middlesbrough youth set up had never seen anything quite like the apparition standing in front of them. Reportedly dressed for the beach, Johnston turned up at his new digs with a skateboard under his arm, hair down to his shoulders and a cheery “G’day mates. I’m Craig Johnston and I’m here to play in the First Division for yous all.”
Wellâ€¦..he did. But it took time. In fact, when he stepped out onto the training pitch for the first time it soon became apparent that he was totally out of his depth and the raw talent and enthusiasm that had helped him stand out on the youth soccer pitches of Australia were in no way sufficient preparation for the sleek young professionals of Middlesborough’s youth team. By Johnston’s own admission, he was so far and so embarrassingly off the pace that by the halfway point of his first training session he had been relegated to the role of ball boy.
The situation looked hopeless and when Johnston overheard manager Jack Charlton discussing his abilities or lack of one day in the bath, it looked like his dream was over before it had even begun. As Johnston was carrying out his chores of cleaning the changing rooms, he could hear Jack Charlton in the bath barking out orders to his assistant, Harold Shepherdson.
“Tell Johnston to sling his hook when you see him next. He’s wasting his time here,” Charlton told Shepherdson.
Johnston could have been forgiven for giving up at this point. Instead, he determined to try even harder than he had been. Every day after training finished he would practice on his own. He would work on his ball control and passing and shooting ability with the use of a wall at the Middlebrough’s ground car park and slowly but surely he started to improve and to force his way into the youth side.
It is worth noting that at this point he was still technically paying Middlesbrough to be there as not only was he not receiving any compensation or salary like the other apprentices, but he was actually having to pay the club for his food and lodgings. This arrangement came to a sudden ending the first time he happened to come across Graeme Souness, then a lynchpin of the ‘boro first team.
One afternoon, Johnston was cleaning the changing rooms when Souness wandered in for a sauna. “How much are they paying you to do this?” Souness enquired. When Johnston told him the arrangement, Souness exploded and turned on his heel. “We’ll see about this!” he told the bemused Australian.
The next day a sheepish Shepherdson approached Johnston and told him that from now on he would not be paying anything and would be getting the same money as the other apprentices. It wouldn’t be the last time Johnston would cross paths with Souness.
By early 1978, Johnston had improved significantly and with Charlton gone and John Neal installed as manager, there was no more talk of Johnston’s services being dispensed with. At the age of just 17, Johnston made his first-team debut in an FA Cup success over Everton with his league debut coming a few days later. Johnston then settled down and became a regular in the side over the next three seasons, and in doing so soon gained a reputation for being a fast high-energy player who played with fearlessness.
By the time the 1980-81 season rolled around, Johnston was a mainstay in the ‘Boro team despite only just being twenty years of age and was beginning to draw attention from a myriad of so-called ‘bigger clubs’. At one point, seemingly every First Division side seemed to be on the verge of making an offer for Johnston’s services, but by the time the March 1981 transfer deadline day approached, the serious bidding was reduced to just two sides: Bob Paisley’s defending League Champions, Liverpool, and Brian Clough’s European Champions, Nottingham Forest.
Cloughie tried to sway Johnston with logic: “Two years with Liverpool and you’ll still be in their reserves,” he told Johnston. ” Or two years with me and you’ll be in the England team. It’s your choice.”
Johnston was unsure. His heart said Liverpool but his head was being turned by the magic of Cloughie. Seeking advice, he called his father in Australia. His dad said just one word. ‘Liverpool.’
Having missed the transfer deadline day, it was agreed that Johnston would join Liverpool at the end of the season. However, when news of Johnston’s impending move became public, the local reaction to the news was not favourable and it was decided that it would be better for Johnston to move to Liverpool immediately. He was thus eligible to play a few reserve team games for the Anfield side before the close of the 1980-81 season.
The reserve team games did not go very well as, unbeknown to Liverpool, Johnston was actually carrying an injury that he had managed to disguise and get through his medical with. The extra training he had been doing from a young age in the Middlesbrough car park had caused significant wear and tear and a fearful Johnston was forced to report this to a furious Paisley.
For a while it looked like Johnston’s time at Liverpool was going to prove to be painfully short as during his time out injured, Johnston managed to get himself a reputation for enjoying the nightlife a little too often. Matters came to a head when he was called into Paisley’s office and told that the club didn’t think the move was working out and so they were looking to sell him on, possibly to West Bromwich Albion who would soon be looking for a replacement for Bryan Robson.
Johnston was horrified. In joining Liverpool, he had been, of course, reunited with his old clubmate, Graeme Souness. It was Souness who had tipped Johnston the nod that Liverpool were in for him and it was the Scotsman who now gave Johnston some advice. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it were just a scare tactic,” he told Johnston. “The club wants you to either knuckle down on the job or else do one.”
Johnston decided to knuckle down.
Making his debut as a substitute in an opening-day defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Johnston joined a Liverpool side undergoing a transitional period. For years a settled midfield of Souness, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case and Ray Kennedy had helped Liverpool reign supreme, but now the writing was on the wall and changes were afoot. Case had been sold to Brighton and Hove Albion in the summer having lost his place to Sammy Lee, while McDermott and Kennedy were coming under pressure from the signings of Johnston and Mark Lawrenson from Brighton and the emergence of Ronnie Whelan. Also pushing for contention was Kevin Sheedy who was making good progress alongside Whelan in the reserves.
While Lawrenson and Whelan established themselves in the Liverpool team in that 1981-82 season, Johnston found himself in and out of the side. McDermott managed to hang onto his place for most of the season despite coming under pressure from Johnston and so the young Australian’s appearances were often from the bench. After a rocky start, Johnston had become popular with the Anfield crowd who could appreciate a trier when they saw one.
It was a season of mixed fortunes for Liverpool as the club steadily hauled themselves back into contention after a poor first half of the season. By the time of the campaign’s climax, Liverpool once again sat atop of the pile as the club’s thirteenth league title was claimed. Johnston made enough appearances to qualify for a medal but he suffered the pain of being left out of the squad for Liverpool’s League Cup Final success over Tottenham in March 1982. As he looked at his title medal and contemplated the 18 league appearances he’d made during the campaign, perhaps he replayed Brian Clough’s words over in his head.
The next season was more successful for Johnston as he featured in 33 league games with McDermott now moving onto Newcastle. The league title and League Cup were both retained and this time Johnston played in the final at Wembley. His early wobbles at the club seemed to be behind him and Paisley was beginning to put his trust in the somewhat maverick nature of his play. It was at this time, though, that Johnston once more took an apparent step backwards as Paisley stepped down from management and was replaced by Joe Fagan.
Whereas Paisley had come round to the rather unconventional style of Johnston’s play, Fagan was yet to be convinced and Johnston once again found it necessary to prove himself to a manager. The next two seasons under Fagan’s reign were difficult ones for Johnston although the title was retained in 1983-84 thus giving him his third successive title medal.
In March of 1984, Fagan signed John Wark from Ipswich Town and immediately installed him in the side at Johnston’s expense. This put the Aussie’s nose out of place and the two men clashed repeatedly. Despite this, Fagan would respect Johnston’s ability by picking him for important matches in Europe while Wark was ineligible, including the final of the European Cup against Roma which Liverpool won on penalties.
Considering Liverpool also retained the League Cup, 1983-84 could be seen to be a fantastic season for the club yet by its end Johnston was unsettled. He had fallen down the pecking order and now, in the season’s close, he found himself back in Australia with his heavily pregnant wife who was just about to deliver their first child. Not wishing to leave his family and return to Liverpool, he decided that he would stay down under until the baby’s birth and if that meant missing the start of the season, then Liverpool would just have to deal with it.
Fagan was not amused. It looked like Johnston’s time at Anfield was truly up this time yet still he persevered. In October 1984, he returned to England and to the side and although his appearances in the side over the 1984-85 season were sporadic to say the least, he was still a member of the club when it was announced that Fagan was stepping down as Liverpool manager after the ill-fated 1985 European Cup Final against Juventus at Heysel.
The younger mind of Kenny Dalglish appreciated the ways and methods of Johnston to a greater degree than the more conservative Fagan and Paisley could do, and so it was that Johnston found himself back in favour in the 1985-86 season. This one campaign was the highlight of Johnston’s time at Liverpool as he played the best football of his career. An unused substitute for the opening-day victory over Arsenal, Johnston then featured in all the remaining 41 league games as well as every League Cup and FA Cup match. Using his never-ending energy to good effect on the right side of midfield, Johnston brought an extra dimension to Dalglish’s side as the season culminated in the League and FA Cup double being secured.
Johnston was by now being tipped for international honours. With his varied background, he qualified to play for any number of countries including all four home nations, South Africa and Australia. After coming under considerable pressure to play for Australia, he famously stated that “Playing football for Australia would be like surfing for England”.
Unsurprisingly, this comment did not go down well in certain quarters back home but Johnston’s point had been made.
The 1986-87 season was not as successful for either Johnston or Liverpool, as the club struggled to defend either of its trophies so laboriously won last time out and Johnston suffered from injuries. He was, however, still Dalglish’s first-choice right midfielder when fit and although no trophies were won that campaign when 1987-88 kicked off, Johnston was still in the side.
With the sale of Ian Rush focussing Dalglish’s mind, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge were all signed. The season started and Liverpool began like a train and were unbeaten and top of the league in October when Oxford United’s Ray Houghton became available.
This was bad news for Johnston who had just forced his way into Bobby Robson’s England squad on the back of his fine start to the season. With Houghton slotting into Johnston’s right-midfield berth, Johnston once again found himself on the periphery of events at Anfield.
By now Johnston was 27 years of age and was beginning to reevaluate some of life’s decisions and the path ahead. He and his family had always planned to return to Australia once his time in football in England was over, but now for the first time in his career, he was finding that football was not the most important thing in his life. He had always had other interests, such as music and photography, but they had always fallen behind football in the pecking order in previous years. Now, however, a growing dissatisfaction was beginning to emerge.
In early 1987, Johnston’s sister, Faye, had suffered a terrible accident back in Australia and would need help and attention for the rest of her life. Johnston’s attention was understandably with his family during this time and so it was that he decided to retire from the game at the end of the 1987-88 season a few days short of his 28th birthday.
To say his announcement came as a shock was an understatement, but Kenny Dalglish and the rest of the Liverpool hierarchy knew Johnston only too well by now to realise that once his mind was made up, there would be no shifting it. So Liverpool’s surprise 1-0 defeat to Wimbledon in the 1988 FA Cup Final was Craig Johnston’s 271st and final appearance in the red shirt of Liverpool.
A veritable ball of energy, Johnston would put as much effort into his ventures after retirement as he did on the pitch. He famously invented the Predator football boot as well as a mini-bar identification service used by hotels, and in addition, he developed his photography hobby into a new career.
A career that resulted in five league titles, one European Cup and a League Cup is a glorious success in anybody’s book and yet it could perhaps have been even more.
Perhaps the last word should go to Kenny Dalglish.
“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 the season I had to beat away this black dog of depression chasing Craig.”