ALMOST half of the Newcastle Jets players were not even born when Craig Johnston played his 190th and last game for Liverpool, in 1988.
But even if they had never seen him kick a ball, Johnston’s reputation as a legend of Newcastle and Australian soccer preceded him on Saturday night.
When the 52-year-old was ushered into Newcastle’s dressing-room by Jets chairman Ray Baartz before the Hunter Stadium showdown with Sydney FC, he scarcely needed an introduction.
His feats as a trail-blazing pioneer – arguably Australia’s greatest-ever footballer – are the stuff of folklore and speak for themselves.
‘‘You could have heard a pin drop in there,’’ Baartz said afterwards. ‘‘The players were in awe of him.
‘‘We could have gone on for hours, they were so enthused about what Craig was telling them.’’
Jets coach Gary van Egmond echoed Baartz’s sentiments.
‘‘He probably talked for about 15minutes and no one moved,’’ he said. ‘‘It was very inspiring.’’
It is hard to imagine Johnston spouting fire and brimstone, but in his own humble, understated manner he delivered a powerful message.
He may have lived most of his adult life abroad, in England and most recently the United States, but at heart he will always be a proud Novocastrian, whose fondest memories include two brief guest stints playing for his home-town club, KB United.
‘‘More than anything, I’m a Newcastle boy, and I’m really proud to come back,’’ Johnston said.
‘‘I can’t play these days, I’m only a supporter, but if I could play one more game and do what they were able to do, I’d be happiest man in the world.
‘‘But I can’t, so I wished them well.’’
Johnston’s uplifting words could hardly have been more timely for the Jets, who had been down on confidence after three successive defeats.
The same players who had been wondering where their next win would come from were suddenly filled with belief and motivation.
Johnston may have watched proceedings from the chairman’s lounge in the western stand, but the Jets took his talismanic presence with them onto the pitch, and nothing short of victory would suffice.
Their subsequent 2-1 win, which lifted Newcastle back into the top six, was a result van Egmond hoped would prove a turning point in the season.
While Johnston refused to take even a smidgen of credit for the win – ‘‘I’m not like that’’ – Baartz and van Egmond had no such reservations. ‘‘I’m sure it was a contributing factor in the way they played today,’’ Baartz said.
Van Egmond described Johnston’s appearance as a ‘‘catalyst’’ and he would always be welcome in the Newcastle dressing room.
‘‘We’re going to work on that with Baartzy and see if we can fly him in every time,’’ he said.
As for Johnston, he, too, was left with fond memories to last a lifetime.
‘‘Talking to the players was a little bit intense and intimidating,’’ Johnston said. ‘‘But they seemed to listen, which was good.
‘‘They seemed like a very nice and receptive bunch of blokes, and we got a win, so that was great.’’