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Feb 27, 2008

Jonno's joy at Jets

The A-League Grand Final was broadcast to more than 100 countries around the world. And among those savouring Newcastle's success from afar was the city's best-known footballing export, Craig Johnston.

The former Liverpool midfielder who now lives near Orlando, Florida, watched the game 'live' on American cable television in the early hours - 1am to 3am - of Sunday.

Even from 24,000 kilometres away, 47-year-old Johnston got caught up in the euphoria in the Jets' 1-0 Grand Final victory over the Central Coast Mariners. He's excited about what the city's first major football trophy will mean for the Hunter Valley region and the Australian game in general.

'It's just wonderful to see,' Johnston told ESPNsoccernet. 'Even when I was home a couple of weeks ago, I was taken aback by the support and interest.'

Johnston grew up in the Newcastle suburb of Speers Point, on the shores of Lake Macquarie, went to Booragul High School and played his junior football for local clubs, New Lambton and Lake Macquarie. And during his English playing days at Liverpool and Middlesbrough, Johnston would occasionally fly back for guest appearances with former National Soccer League club, Newcastle KB United during the close season. A grainy YouTube clip from 1980 shows a 20-year-old Johnston scoring a penalty for KB United against Adelaide City.

'I'm very proud to be a Novcastrian,' he says. 'The sport was always strong in the Hunter Valley because of the Welsh and Geordie coalminers who settled there but now football fever is gripping the region.'

After only three seasons, the A-League has helped change the sporting appetite of the half a million residents in the Hunter Valley, along with Australians in many other parts of the country.

The A-League's average crowd of around 15,000 for the 2007-2008 season was only a few hundred short of the National Rugby League's attendance per game in 2007. The Grand Final, played at the Sydney Football Stadium - a neutral venue one hour from the Central Coast and two hours from Newcastle - attracted 36,354 fans, despite the fact that a one-day cricket international was played next door at the Sydney Cricket Ground (drawing around 30,000).

The first meeting of the Jets and the Mariners in the A-League less than three years ago saw a crowd of just over 5000, providing stark evidence of how far football has come since the 2006 World Cup in Germany where Australia advanced to the second round.

Johnston, one of Australia's early footballing pioneers abroad, admits that he never dreamt that he would see such an explosion of popularity during his lifetime.

'Australian soccer is out of the closet, so to speak,' he said. 'The lock has been broken and the other codes are open-mouthed, in awe.

'To be honest, I didn't think I'd ever see it... we were so used to seeing soccer shooting itself in the foot... there had been so many fits and starts, false dawns and political shenanigans.'

Johnston says Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy deserves much of the credit for turning the game around.

'I thought Frank Lowy should have been given more of a cheer when they announced his name at the Grand Final', he said. '(Football's transformation) is his vision, his money and it's been on his shoulders.'

Before setting off for Europe in 1977, Johnston played for Lowy's NSL team, Hakoah, making the then three hour train trip south to Sydney several times a week. During that era, Australia's national competition was mostly drawn upon ethnic or even religious lines. Hakoah was known as the Jewish club in Sydney's affluent eastern suburbs.

For Anglo-Saxon teenagers like Johnston, Rugby League or Rugby Union were usually the sports of choice. 'Playing soccer was considered un-Australian,' he recalls.

During one of his off-season trips back home, I met Johnston in mid-1981 shortly after his transfer from Middlesbrough to Liverpool. I was assigned by a major newspaper to cover him playing in a social touch rugby game in Newcastle to see how his soccer skills might adapt to a more 'mainstream' code - which gives a revealing insight into the sporting climate of the times.

Now the Newcastle Jets have almost the same clout as Rugby League's beloved Newcastle Knights.

One hour south, the Central Coast Mariners have filled the void left by the NRL's failed attempt to settle in the area.

Johnston's trophy-laden seven years at Liverpool undoubtedly helped pave the way for the many Australians who now strut their stuff in the English Premier League. As the first Aussie to have a sustained period of success at a so-called big club, he was in the limelight during the 1980s as many of today's senior Socceroos were growing up.

Any sports-loving kid in Australia will remember staying up overnight to watch the curly, mop-headed midfielder score a memorable goal in the 1986 FA Cup final against Everton. Around the same time, Johnston broke new ground for soccer by appearing in a big-budget beer commercial - normally the domain of cricket, rugby or Aussie Rules stars - where he was shown kicking a ball around the snowy streets of Merseyside.

Had he been playing today instead of more than 20 years ago, Johnston - who retired before his 28th birthday - would almost certainly have looked at finishing his career in the A-League - and pledging his allegiance to the Socceroos.

Born in South Africa to Australian parents and raised in Newcastle, Johnston had the choice of three countries but ended up representing England at under-21 and 'B' level, famously saying that playing soccer for Australia was 'like surfing for England.'

A generation later, football is riding a wave of success that not even the most wildly optimistic of visionaries could have imagined.

Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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