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Football and Lake Mac still Craig Johnston’s ‘passions’

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Australia’s most decorated footballer Craig “Skippy” Johnston is zealous about many things.

But, at the top of the list are his adopted hometown Lake Macquarie and the sport, which made him a household name – here and overseas.

Fittingly, those two passions merged late last year when Northern NSW Football (NNSWF) officially unveiled the Craig Johnston Building at Speers Point.

The unveiling of the Craig Johnston Building at Speers Point late last year. Photo: Rod Thompson

“That was a pretty overwhelming moment, especially having my mother (Dorothy) and a lot of my former team-mates in attendance,” he said.

“It meant an awful lot to me.

“I know it’s just a building in a small part of a small town.

“However, it meant so much because it’s where I come from.

“I think anyone would feel the same way, be it David Beckham or David from Packham.

“No matter where you hail from, it’s what defines you, shapes you and makes you the human you are.

“Looking back, I honestly can’t believe my journey… from Boolaroo to Liverpool.

“That’s why it’s still emotional for me.

“It was a dream come true and more.

“To be honoured with the Craig Johnston Building, I’m truly touched.

“If you look at any sportsperson who’s worked his or her life to achieve something, then once that’s over, most have a need and desire to leave a legacy.

“To me, that means giving back to the community that gave me so much.

“That’s what legacy is in my eyes.

“So, it’s a big deal [the Craig Johnston Building] and very hard to contain that emotion.”

Lake Macquarie lad Craig Johnston with his mother Dorothy. Photo: Rod Thompson

Although born to Australian parents in South Africa, the 63-year-old grew up in Lake Macquarie, attending both Boolaroo public and high schools.

It’s something he’s extremely proud of.

“I have plenty of good memories [here],” Johnston said.

“Five decades ago, there were seven islands, which were all pulled together by small bridges and a big one.

“We used to jump off that.

“We’d also ride the horses, or our motorbikes, into Lake Macquarie.

“We would venture to the top of Hawkins Hill and look down over the city and the gravel quarry like we were billionaires.

“We didn’t have a penny in our pockets, no mobile phones… nothing.

“But, we thought we were billionaires or mini-Donald Trumps,” he added with a laugh.

“We felt we could do anything in our lives, that we wanted to do, because it was such a beautiful place to grow up.

“The very field (near the Craig Johnston Building) is where we played under-12s, under-13s and under-14s for the Lake Macquarie Juniors.

“Nearby was a brick toilet where my dad (Colin) taught me to ‘left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot’ for hours and hours and hours.

“He’d drop me off, go to Pippi’s pub and then pick me up to go home.

“Dad was wonderful because he would spend 20-30 minutes with me going through what I needed to do… ‘left foot, right foot’.

“He stole the idea from Sir Donald Bradman, who practiced with the stump and golf ball to sharpen his senses.

“And, that’s what dad was doing for me, preparing me.

“When I went to England at the age of 15, my parents sold their house and financed my trip.

“They helped me realise my dream.”

Craig Johnston in his heyday for Liverpool.

Johnston originally got his chance at Middlesbrough – and grabbed it with both hands.

As a 17-year-old, he made his debut in the FA Cup, as well as 64 appearances for the club.

Then, against all odds, and overcoming much adversity, he was signed by Liverpool FC in 1981.

The midfielder scored the winning goal in the 1986 FA Cup Final against Everton, one of 40 he netted for the Reds in 271 matches over eight years.

During his time with Liverpool, he secured the European Cup and five league titles.

He also co-wrote the team’s 1988 cup final song, Anfield Rap.

“Yes, that’s true, I did do that,” Johnston told the Newcastle Weekly.

“I took a version of the Reds’ anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and created the Anfield Rap, which talked about the scousers and the native Liverpudlians.

“It ended up being very successful, reaching No. 3 on the UK singles chart.

“These days I’m considered an icon of Liverpool football and I take that responsibility seriously.

“There’s no better feeling in the world than scoring a winning goal in an FA Cup final, especially against the Toffees.

“It’s a ‘dream come true’ for every and any Liverpudlian to not only do that but win the glorious double.

“So, that’s the highlight for me.

“I’ve said it before, I could have died a happy man when that ball went into the back of the net.

“It wasn’t a fabulous goal, however it didn’t need to be.

“We knocked over the Blue Noses, who finished second in the league that year, that’s all that mattered.

“I loved the culture overseas, as much as the one in Lake Macquarie.

“Myself, Tredinnick, Boogaard, Cowburn and McClelland… all those names roll off the tongue because we all played around here, this is where we grew up.

“Those guys went on to play for the Newcastle Jets and became terrific players.

“Sadly, we’ve seen basically nothing since in this great part of the world.

“So, I’m keen to pass on my knowledge to the local youngsters and say ‘hard work, discipline, team spirit and behaviour’ are the keys to success.

“These values need to be recovered and then instilled into the kids.

“Plus, a sense of fun, joy, laughter and loving each other.

“It not only makes good sportspeople, it makes good kids, even if you don’t end up overseas.”

After retiring, Johnston designed and created the prototype for Adidas’ Predator football boot, too.

In 2005, he was inducted into the Football Australia Hall of Fame.

Currently, he’s being trailed by a film crew who’s working on a “Beckham-style documentary” about his life.

Craig Johnston in celebration mode. Photo: LFCHistory.net

But, the lovable larrikin still keeps a close eye on the local and national scene.

“There is a massive talent pool in the region… we just need to harness it and draw it out more,” he said.

“Actually, Newcastle is a hotspot for great athletes and people with discipline and character.

“It goes way back to who founded us in the first place.

“Why it’s called Newcastle.

“We were founded off the Novocastrians in England, the Newcastle people who were coal miners and steel makers.

“Look at what we did here a long time ago.

“We mined coal and we made steel… they brought their hard work and ethics to us here.

“And, that’s what our children, and their children before them, had.

“Unfortunately, along the way, we’ve lost a bit of that.

“So, we need to bring it back for the sake of the kids themselves.

“To me, they don’t seem as happy as they used to be.

“They’re on their mobile phones, riding electric scooters – technology has taken over their lives.

“Give them a football and plonk them into Mother Nature.

“The ball is the answer to everything.

Much-loved Lake Macquarie football icon Craig Johnston. Photo: Rod Thompson

“For example, why did the Spanish beat England in the World Cup?

“Because they’ve grown up kicking a football from the time they can walk; they haven’t been distracted by modern equipment.

“Matildas star Mary Fowler is a product of that, she’s better than the next person due to the fact it’s so natural for her.

“You can see it [her technique] when she plays.

“Once the kids have that natural ability, you get better coaches in and people on the ground to improve the pathways.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed watching the Socceroos and Matildas in recent years.

“However, I say ‘thank goodness’ for the national women’s team raising the profile of the game.

“Hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup was sensational for a couple of reasons.

“One, it showcased the world’s game to our sometime narrow-minded country.

“And, two, it lifted everyone’s spirits.

“The Matildas brought all of Australia together.

“They united the nation politically, technically, morally… everything.

“That’s why it was such a good thing.

“But, again, I fear our level and standard of play – when we faced really strong teams – was caught out.

“Why?

“Our technique, and all that, just isn’t good enough to match those sides at this stage.

“We’re close, which is why we need to look at players’ development more closely.

“Give boys and girls a football earlier, send our Aussie stars into schools… there’s so much we can do in the meantime.”

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