Craig Johnston – Is he the forgotten hero of Australian football?

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By Andrew Paschalidis – Heartbeat of Football Founder

Andrew Paschalidis, founder of the ‘Heartbeat of Football’ charity, hosted a charity luncheon on Thursday at the Hellenic restaurant in Mosman with Socceroo legend Craig Johnston. With his charity, Andrew aims to minimise health risks in sports and install defibrillators on all sporting fields around the country.

When Craig Johnston was at the peak of his footballing powers I was just a 21yo cadet journalist at Australian Soccer Weekly in 1983. My opportunity came after an interview with famed Greek journalist Michael Mystakidis.

For those of us of that generation and with football in the bloodstream, Johnston was a pivotal figure who inspired thousands of Australians to chase their football dreams. Some of us were fortunate enough to forge a career in the football media.

It was certainly not an easy ride to the dizzy heights of Liverpool FC and with that English and European glory.

Photo taken from the charity luncheon on Thursday at the Hellenic restaurant in Mosman. Photo: Andy Paschalidis Twitter

Last Friday Craig Johnston once again stepped up to support of Heartbeat of Football – the Charity I founded in 2016 to deal with heart attacks in our great game. The Fundraising lunch for just 12 people at the marvellous Hellenic Restaurant in Mosman sold out within 24hrs. Incredible considering it cost $1,000pp! It was an intimate and compelling gathering – a lunch which ended up finishing at 5.00pm.

“You know in my first trial game in England I was told by Middlesbrough manager Jack Charlton I was the worst player he had ever seen,” Johnston said.

“At halftime I was singled out and told to leave the club. I rang my parents and told them Jack said I was the best player and that Boro wanted to sign me.

Photo taken from the charity luncheon on Thursday at the Hellenic restaurant in Mosman. Photo: Andy Paschalidis Twitter

“My parents were in debt just getting me to England. I was just 15yo but thankfully some of the senior pros gave me money to stay on by washing their cars and cleaning their boots.

“I was allowed to sleep in a small room at the training ground. I would spend 5 to 6 hours a day training in the car park kicking footballs against a wall to improve my touch,” Johnston added.

Improvement is a understatement. Such was Johnston’s rise that at 17yo he became the youngest player to make his debut at Middlesbrough. Charlton was long gone by then.

By far his biggest move was joining Liverpool four years later in 1981. It was a golden seven year run which brought countless moments of joy while playing with arguably the best club team in the world.

Photo taken from the charity luncheon on Thursday at the Hellenic restaurant in Mosman. Photo: Andy Paschalidis Twitter

Johnston was mixing and playing with football royalty. His name appeared on the Liverpool team-sheet 271 times alongside the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Ronnie Whelan, Phil Neal and many more big names. He also scored 40 goals.

Johnston, who was born in South Africa, won five English Division One titles; 1 FA Cup in which he scored in a 3-1 win against bitter rivals Everton in 1986; 2 League Cups and a 1984 European Cup triumph against AS Roma.

“I was blessed to play with many great players,” Johnston said.

“I was a 15yo kid who wrote to over 20 English clubs looking for a trial. One responded – Middlesbrough.

“Incredible to think that not long before going to England I’d be playing football in the streets of Newcastle with my Greek and Italian friends. They had such a passion for the game which I thoroughly enjoyed,” Johnston added.

Photo taken from the charity luncheon on Thursday at the Hellenic restaurant in Mosman. Photo: Andy Paschalidis Twitter

Johnston has worn many hats from footballer, musician, photographer, entrepreneur but perhaps his other big legacy is being the creator of the famous Adidas Predator boot. The first prototype was won by David Beckham but only after Sir Alex Ferguson approved.

I will never forget Friday’s Luncheon. Johnston wore his heart on his sleeve. No topic was taboo. Tears were were shed. When he heard Angelo Petratos was visiting he ran straight across introducing himself and telling Angelo that his son Dimi – a Socceroos star – is one of his favourite players. It was a priceless moment to witness.

One of the other highlights for me was watching him engage with young Val Travlos – Theo’s son who plays in the SAP programme at Sydney Olympic FC but has also been identified by Greek heavyweights Olympiacos FC after spending several months with their Academy in 2019.

But that’s Craig Johnston to a tee. He could see an early version of himself in young Val. In effect he was winding back the clock and trying help and advise Val on the right steps to take.

I am forever blessed to call Craig Johnston my friend. I would also like to thank the attendees – particularly prominent Greek-Australians like Harry Michaels OAM, Andrew Lazaris OAM, Jack Zervos, Marcus Pavlakis, Con Micos, Nick Plataniotis and the Travlos family. They always support the Charity.

(Our next exclusive HOF LUNCHEON will feature special guest Socceroos coach Graham Arnold. If your interested feel free to call me on 0412-184048)

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