LET’S face it, the ‘80s spoilt us. We all know this.
Trophies by the bucket-load, legendary managers, players of character and consummate ability. We’ve all heard the stories; we’ve all sung the songs. We watched King Kenny play and we counted along as Ian Rush broke Evertonian hearts; one, two, three, four, a million times.
It was a team stuffed to the gills with world-beaters, spilling over with the kind of talent that doesn’t come along too often. But that wasn’t the whole story. Even the finest orchestra needs someone to carry the cellos.
Craig Johnston wasn’t one of the best players in the world. Like an antipodean Ringo Starr, he wasn’t even one of the best players in the Liverpool squad. He didn’t have the kind of god-given skill that took your breath away, like a Dalglish, or the passing range that can make grown men swoon, like a Souness. He didn’t have an eye for goal that turned defenders to quivering wrecks, like a Rush, or the technique to evade tackle after tackle before delivering a pinpoint cross, à la Barnes. In his own words: “I was the worst player in the best team in the world.”
Even if that were true, and there’s plenty that would dispute it, it doesn’t really matter. Because what Johnston had was heart. Conviction. Drive. Endless energy. And sometimes that’s just about enough.
Johnston joined from Middlesbrough in April 1981. He wasn’t a typical Liverpool signing, by any standards. Unpredictable, individual, raw; it was quickly apparent that he would need time to become tuned in to the expectations and demands that being a Liverpool player entailed and which had served the club well for the best part of 20 years.
Unsurprisingly, he struggled to make an impact in his first few months, appearing to operate on a different wavelength to his teammates, and seemingly incapable of performing with the required discipline or organisational awareness.
It wasn’t till the run-in to an historic championship triumph that Johnston began to show his potential. In the spring of 1982, as Liverpool clawed back a deficit few thought possible, his attacking contribution proved invaluable. Crucial goals at Goodison and Maine Road, two at home to Forest and the winner at Old Trafford helped to propel Bob Paisley’s reconstructed team to the title. They also confirmed Craig Johnston’s arrival as a Liverpool player.
As Terry McDermott’s time at the club drew to a close, Johnston came to the fore as his logical heir. He may not have possessed the craft or the deftness of the moustachioed lager-fancier, nor the ability to arrive unnoticed in the box that defined McDermott’s career, but Johnston had a similar engine. His work-rate was prodigious, whether stationed in the heart of the midfield or patrolling either flank, offering both protection to those behind him and dynamism in advanced positions. Crucially, he also sported a perm that Terry Mac himself would approve of.
In the following seasons, Johnston established himself as an integral part of a squad that won three consecutive league titles. He may not have been the first name on the teamsheet, but his presence was a guarantee of industry and a signal to the opposition that, for 90 minutes, there would be no time to rest.
Not that his time at Anfield was without its challenges. Throughout his Liverpool career, Johnston’s versatility was as much of a curse as it was an asset. He was the go-to guy whenever a gap needed to be filled; be it wide, through the middle, as a support striker or on the bench. He was never seen as a specialist in any one position, and, unlike some of his more illustrious colleagues, never came to be regarded as indispensable. As a result, he was invariably the prime candidate to make way whenever new players or new systems were introduced.
And so, when David Hodgson, Steve Nicol, John Wark, Kevin McDonald, Ray Houghton were brought to the club, Johnston’s chances of holding down a regular starting place diminished. And when he clashed publicly with Paisley’s successor, Joe Fagan, and was effectively cast into the wilderness for a year, not many saw a way back for the mop-topped extrovert.
But Craig Johnston was never one to shirk a battle. From the childhood illness that almost cost him a leg, to the decision to fly to the other side of the world at the age of 15 to pursue his dream of a career in football, to his struggle to convince a sceptical public that he belonged in the all-conquering Liverpool team, he remained single-minded enough to overcome the obstacles standing in his way.
Under Kenny Dalglish he was reborn, revelling in the faith and unswerving support that the newly-installed player-manager offered him. In 1985-6, Johnston produced his finest season in a Liverpool shirt, appearing in more than 60 games as the double was captured for the first time in the club’s history. And in scoring the vital second goal at Wembley, the high point of a trophy-laden career, his rehabilitation was complete.
Craig Johnston. Eccentric. Scatterbrain. Loose cannon. Workhorse.
It’s in the record books now. No-one can change that.
In the summer of 1988, just before his 28th birthday, Johnston announced he was retiring from football to care for his desperately ill sister, left incapacitated after a tragic accident. It was a gesture typical of the man. A substitute appearance in the FA Cup final with Wimbledon was to be his final appearance in a red shirt.
A year later, he flew back from Australia to comfort bereaved families in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. His sensitivity and concern at such a traumatic time cemented the bond he had established with the Liverpool community.
Craig Johnston will always be thought of fondly at Anfield. He may not have been the best player The Kop has seen but he was someone who strived to make the most of the opportunities he had, someone who never accepted that he couldn’t achieve his dreams.
Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us all.