“You — kangaroo — you are the worst footballer I have ever seen in my life. You can hop it back home to Australia immediately.”
How’s that for an initiation as a footballer? A man who was part of the World Cup winning team in 1966 as well as a prolific Leeds United squads under Don Revie in the 60s and 70s coming up had this to say about Craig Johnston during a trial at Middlesbrough in 1975. Jack Charlton was the first recipient, from outside the old First Division, of the Manager of the Year award and would’ve known a thing or two about spotting a good player from a bad one. During the next 13 years, Craig Johnston went from being the ‘worst footballer ever’ to a cult hero at Liverpool worthy of meriting a place at No. 57 in the 2013 poll 100 Players Who Shook the Kop. He is one among the rare breed of Australian players who made a mark in the English game during Liverpool’s period of dominance in the 80s.
Craig Johnston, or Skippy as he was known, is remembered by long-time Liverpool supporters as a unique player with a multi-cultural background. Born in Johannesburg, he was an Aussie in a league where the foreign influence is nowhere near as strong as it is today. A self-proclaimed “worst player in the world’s best team”, he was known for his ability to play in one position on the pitch. While this would warrant a priority spot on the team sheet in the modern game, he was often benched in favour of specialists. Yet, his short career is regarded as a success due to his sheer force of will, as well as the fact that he gave it a 100% for the shirt every game he played.
The midfielder got his first big break in football when John Neal took over from Jack Charlton as manager at Middlesbrough in 1977. Following the snub from Big Jack, Skippy spent time in the car park at Riverside practising his skills with the ball. He later recounted his experience of honing his skills at Middlesbrough for two and a half years, saying, “The wonderful thing about football is, a football is a perfectly round object, and it doesn’t make mistakes. The player using it makes mistakes. And the more you use it, the less mistakes you make.”
John Neal was soon impressed by Johnston’s persistence and acquired skill with the ball, so much that he put him straight into the first team. At the age of 17, he was the youngest player to ever play for the club. He would spend 4 years at the Riverside Stadium, scoring 16 goals in 64 appearances.
Arrival and stay at Anfield
On the recommendation of Graeme Souness, Liverpool manager Bob Paisley brought Craig Johnston to the club in April 1981, for £650,000. Johnston made his Liverpool debut in August 1981, and later started in the 3-0 Intercontinental Cup defeat to Zico’s Flamengo. Given his background, he was considered to be “a bit of an exotic and a bit of a weirdo” by his more illustrious mates at the club, but was loved by teammates and supporters alike due to his work-rate and versatility.
During the next three years, the Aussie was part of a squad that captured three league titles and three League Cups, including the double in 1984. Arguably his greatest moment was the goal he scored in the 1986 FA Cup final at Wembley, making him the first Aussie to do so. To sweeten it for Liverpool supporters, it came against fellow Merseysiders Everton after an impressive season in which Johnston made 61 appearances for the club.
Unfortunate circumstances surrounding his family prompted Craig Johnston to suddenly reveal, just days before the 1988 FA Cup Final against Wimbledon, that he wished to retire from the game to return to Australia. Johnston was just 27 years old at the time, but decided that he wished to provide around-the-clock care to his sister who was in coma after a terrible accident in Morocco. Sadly, she never recovered consciousness and remained in a vegetative state. Johnston was later linked to clubs all over the world, but declared that he would never play for anyone other than Liverpool.
Johnston was coaching a group of schoolchildren in Australia when he tried to explain to a group of them how to bend the ball. He encouraged them to “feel” the ball and brush past it, in the same way table tennis players hit the ball. One of the kids, however, said, “I can’t feel the ball. My boots are made of leather not table tennis bats.” Johnston, known to be a man who never did things the straightforward way, went back home, ripped the front of a table tennis racquet and attached it to his leather boot with a rubber band. It worked.
The Aussie spent a lot of time and money developing prototypes and experimenting with designs. Those designs were rejected by Nike, Reebok, Puma and even Adidas. He hit upon the idea of using the goodwill of German legends like Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Paul Breitner, and filmed them using his prototype in snowy conditions. Adidas officials were first enthusiastic in wanting to sign a contract with Johnston, but on the advice of their accountants, offered to buy him out instead.
“Since then,” Johnston recounted, “they’ve sold millions of boots, at over a hundred quid a pair. And I was on two per cent of the action, so you can do the math.” The boot was ultimately named the Predator, and has been worn by footballers and rugby players, including Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson. Maybe Bend it like Beckham may never have been made were it not for Johnston’s Adidas Predator.
Other businesses, innovation and hard times
Craig Johnston used his Adidas payoff to develop other inventions. He created a television game show titled The Main Event. He also invented a software program called The Butler, which records what items have been removed by guests from hotel mini-bars. The idea was sparked by Johnston’s road trips while with Liverpool, during which he and roommate Bruce Grobbelaar suspected that teammates Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan were raiding their fridge!
He then invested heavily in a football coaching system for inner city schoolchildren called SupaSkills. He gained official FIFA approval but failed to obtain business backing from the Football Association for the idea and lost his money. Johnston believes that he was “stitched up” by the governing bodies of the game in England. “What I did was to create a program that was ahead of its time,” he said. “It brought science and accountability to youth development in English football. I cared too much, tried too hard and trusted the guys running the game to their word.” In 1999, he had a net worth of £3 million; by 2004, he was penniless and homeless.
In an interview with the Telegraph in 2010, Johnston recounted, “I didn’t do anything wrong to go bust. Yet I lost all my money; I let my mum and dad down, I let the investors down But, in a way, while I’ve had a number of successes, the failures have made me evenly balanced, I’ve a chip on both shoulders as it were.”
As of today, Craig Johnston has been carving out a career in photography. It was nothing new. He bought his first camera in 1977 while at Middlesbrough. He was started out as a way to explain his environment to his parents back home, and then built a fully-equipped studio in his house by the time he moved to Liverpool. His camera recorded a dominant Liverpool squad at its pomp in the 80s; and it was more unusual to see him without a camera than with one. His new passion/career brought him back from the depression he was going through due to his financial and personal troubles that arose from the demise of SupaSkills. An endorsement of his skills came from none other than Todd Woodbridge, who said, “Even if he wasn’t Craig Johnston, I’d still use him as a photographer. He’s really good.”
Craig Johnston’s Legacy
Most footballers dive head-first into punditry or coaching after retirement. Craig Johnston has nursed his sister, written a rap record (the Anfield Rap), invented a football boot, created software to monitor minibar thefts and come up with a revolutionary system for coaching children in the game. He describes himself as “an inventor who became a footballer”, rather than the other way round. At times in the past, he said, he didn’t realize what sort of debt footballers owe to the people who pay their wages. “I don’t think enough footballers appreciate it now.”
The Aussie has never been forgotten thanks to his hard work, curiosity and sheer willpower at Anfield and beyond. According to the man himself, he would like to be remembered as “that bloke from Newcastle, Australia who tried really hard”. Work hard he did, hard enough for Jack Charlton to later say, “I always knew the kangaroo would make it.”