SPORTING DECLARATION: Time to take a stand

IT struck Sporting Declaration as I made my way out of Hunter Stadium last week after the Newcastle Jets’ 2-1 win against Sydney FC.

It is about time that western grandstand, which has been open for 18 months, was given a name.

What jogged my usually sieve-like memory was the talismanic appearance of Craig Johnston in Newcastle’s dressing room before kick-off.

Johnston spoke to the Jets for about 15 minutes and in the words of club chairman Ray Baartz: ‘‘You could have heard a pin drop in there. 

‘‘The players were in awe of him.’’

That is hardly surprising, given the magnitude of Johnston’s achievements.

Johnston never played for the Socceroos but nonetheless rates as Australia’s finest footballer of the modern era, if not of all time.

During eight seasons with Liverpool, he played in 190 first-team games and won five first-division championships, two League Cups, the European Cup and scored a famous goal in the 3-1 FA Cup final triumph against Everton in 1986.

No Australian player has been more decorated.

Nobody was a more inspiring role model for young Aussie kids who dreamed of one day playing at the highest level.

Remember that during Johnston’s halcyon days, he was the only Australian playing in England’s top league.

He was the trailblazing pioneer who proved it could be done. 

The hero who gave the likes of Mark Bosnich, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill a pathway they could follow.

And of course, he is one of our own. 

A proud, parochial Novocastrian who grew up in Lake Macquarie before flying to England as a teenager to try his luck with the Middlesbrough youth team.

Johnston could easily have come home after a couple of weeks, such was the culture shock.

At one point Middlesbrough manager Jack Charlton told him: ‘‘As for you, you kangaroo, you can f - - - off right now. You’re the worst player I’ve seen in my life.’’

But through sheer hard work and determination Johnston became a first-team regular at Boro, before transferring to Liverpool, who at the time were the most dominant and glamorous club in England.

Johnston often joked that he was ‘‘the worst player in the world’s best team’’ but in 2006 a poll of 110,000 Liverpool fans voted him No.59 on a list of the club’s all-time top 100.

And the midfield workhorse  never forgot where he came from.

As he told this columnist in an interview two years ago, being able to play for Newcastle KB United in his younger days was as big a thrill as any of his achievements at Anfield. 

‘‘To me, that was as important as winning championships or the FA Cup or the European Cup,’’ Johnston said of his spell with his home town club.

‘‘I played for Liverpool but I am not from Liverpool – there is a big difference.

‘‘To be able to come back from England and represent Newcastle, my home town, and play alongside people like Joe Senkalski and [Col] ‘‘Bunny’’ Curran, who I idolised, in front of 15,000 or 20,000 at the old International Sports Centre, as it was known back then, was a very humbling and personal experience ...

‘‘Of all the things I was lucky enough to achieve, in my lifetime, playing for KB was definitely up there in the top five.’’

There could be no more fitting accolade than for this home-grown sporting legend to have the Craig Johnston Stand named in his honour.

The state government wasted no time in christening the Andrew Johns Stand after the rugby league immortal was forced to retire in 2007.

The process was fast-tracked in a matter of days.

Johnston lives in the United States these days but has been back in town for more than a month now, since his father, Colin, passed away.

I understand he has not yet returned to the US, so if the powers-that-be are quick, they might be able to catch him and bestow upon him an honour that is long overdue.

Newcastle’s home game against Adelaide on January 5 would be the ideal opportunity.

The Craig Johnston Stand. It’s the least we can do.

Craig Johnston paved the way for other Australian players in the top English league.

Craig Johnston paved the way for other Australian players in the top English league.


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