Craig Johnston has told the story hundreds of times.
It’s the story of a 15-year-old boy from Speers Point who travelled to England and beat incredible odds.
He not only became a professional footballer, but part of the Liverpool team of the 1980s – one of the greatest sides in soccer history. He became and still is Australia’s most decorated footballer.
He won more silverware than the combined efforts of all other Aussies who’ve made it in top-flight English football.
Nowadays, when he coaches and gives talks to kids – instead of telling the story – he shows them an animated video that captures his remarkable soccer career.
“I got sick of the sound of my own voice and my own story. It’s too emotional for me to tell it, so I don’t,” Johnston says.
He’s happy, though, to reflect on the time before he left for England.
“It was the most perfect upbringing a person could ever want,” he says.
He recalled trips in his tinny across Lake Macquarie from where his family lived at Fishing Point, near Rathmines. He’d go out through Swansea Heads to Blacksmiths to surf for a couple of hours, before heading back across the lake.
On other occasions, he’d take the tinny to Nords Wharf and walk to Catherine Hill Bay through the bush and across the highway. He’d surf all day.
He was naturally fit, but this conditioning helped him become even fitter. His teammates at Liverpool still call him the fittest player in English football in his day.
“It was part of my growing up. From morning to night, I was swimming, running and surfing,” he says.
While he has no regrets about the sun-drenched lifestyle of his youth, it caused him life-threatening problems in more recent years.
He’s been diagnosed with three types of skin cancer – melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
“I must have had 30 or 40 bits of skin removed. One on my left cheek kept coming back,” he says.
He kept switching dermatologists because they told him “it’ll be all right now, we got it all”.
But it kept returning over a 10-year period. He ended up seeing the top dermatologist in Florida.
“Without knowing anything about me, she examined me and said ‘I bet you’re Australian, I bet you come from somewhere in between Sydney and Brisbane and I bet you’re about 50’.”
Yes was his reply to all three.
“How do you know that?’ Johnston asked.
“Research has told us it’s the melanoma capital of the world,’’ she replied.
About two years ago, he had four major operations and six weeks of gruelling radiation.
He’s feeling better nowadays, but still lives with skin cancer.
“I deal with it as it comes along, like a lot of people of my generation,” he says.
Johnston has spent years as a photographer, shooting golf stars like Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Jason Day. Many of these golfers didn’t know his past as a football superstar.
Picture this: Johnston is playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Ireland. He’s been asked to participate because of his footballing history.
All the top golfers are there, including Tiger Woods.
“I’d been taking photographs of these guys for eight or nine years – the top golfers in the world,” Johnston says.
“They always knew me as the photographer guy.”
They ask what he’s doing there, playing as a celebrity.
“It’s a bit of a long story, but I used to play soccer,” he tells them.
Tiger Woods stops.
“Really? We didn’t know that,” the golfing great says.
Johnston relishes his anonymity in the US.
He spends a lot of time in Florida and London and returns to Australia two or three times a year.
He watches quite a few Tottenham Hotspur games, given his partner of 14 years is Vivienne Lewis. Her dad, Joe Lewis, owns Tottenham. Johnston travelled with the team on their recent trip Down Under.
As well as photography, his great passion is coaching kids. He’s spent a lot of time doing so in Australia, England and America.
“When I was really sick with the radiation, I thought about the struggle in Middlesbrough to be a player – the struggle for acceptance, the bullying I had to endure, the hardships,” he says.
He thought about the point of his struggle and the point of his life. He concluded that he had to leave a legacy to benefit others.
Many of those who follow Johnston’s story know he invented the Predator boot. In 1998, after a decade of success with sales, he sold the patent for the boot to adidas.
He can’t disclose the sale price, but it’s safe to say – given the boot’s enormous success – it was less than what he should have received.
He used the Predator money to invest in teaching soccer skills to youngsters.
His “SUPAskills” system is based on the famous methods he taught himself to become a better player as a teenager at Middlesbrough and, later, at Liverpool.
His sale of the Predator boot and subsequent struggle to take his soccer skills program to the masses led him to experience the highs and lows of being a millionaire and bankrupt.
People in high places let him down.
He describes the rejection he’s experienced with his soccer skills program as “far worse” than his struggles at Middlesbrough.
He’s 56 now. He could retire, sit under the palm trees and sip pina coladas. But he doesn’t have it in him.
“I’ve never been able to sit still and thankfully my brain is still incredibly active and creative,” he says.
He still aims to take his soccer skills program to youngsters across the world.
“It’s like a giant Playstation, where you use your feet,” he says, of the program.
It involves the use of technology to turn skills into scores and statistics, with a benchmarking system to encourage daily improvement.
The system focuses on four key skills – control, pass, dribble and shoot. The aim is to be disciplined, faster and more accurate. The system teaches problem solving and “long- and short-term achievable goals”.
He describes it as a training system that incorporates “fun and facts” and teaches kids to hone their skills and reduce mistakes on the field.
The system is used in the annual Craig Johnston Cup, which involves high schools in Lake Macquarie.
“This is why I’m back home. What better place than Newcastle and the Hunter to work on kids being happier, healthier and cleverer,” he says.
He says the system is “getting traction”, but he needs more help to ensure its success.
Despite his past struggles, he’s not one to give in. He confesses he’s obsessed with leaving a legacy, just like he was obsessed with being a footballer.
He see kids as sophisticated digital consumers and he worries they’re missing something vital and fundamental to being happy.
He recalls his youth as a simple time with simple messages.
“Back then, we knew what was right and wrong, black and white and who the good guys and bad guys were. Now there’s all these grey areas and I really feel for our kids.”
He lamented the multitude of messages through advertisers, broadcasters and the internet “all coming at you at 100 miles an hour”.
“It’s YouTube, it’s social media, it’s gamers. Everyone’s a reality TV star. Social media is selling you a dream that you’ll never be able to get.
“How do these poor kids decipher all this shit?”
He sees good things in the world, but is concerned about what he perceives as a rise in sadness.
He encourages the virtues of team sport, believing it makes for better people and better communities.
“We’re all drifting away from this. Maybe it’s to do with social media and the reality TV generation,” he says.
His message is that reward and self esteem come from achievement.
As such, he’s passionate about finding ways for kids to live more fun, enjoyable and rewarding lives.
His mum Dorothy was a teacher and his dad Colin a soccer player.
“I’m a soccer-playing teacher,” he says.
Johnston’s story was famously told in the 1989 book, Walk Alone, which he co-authored with renowned Newcastle raconteur Neil Jameson.
Now it’s being retold in animation. Johnston himself hopes his legacy extends to kids being taught the skills and methods that helped him achieve an unlikely success.
The story of his soccer career will undoubtedly live on. It’ll be remembered as a defining lesson in how to fulfill ambition in any walk of life.