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The other side of the lens

The smile is the same but his once trademark black mop has turned to grey and his eyes betray a certain sadness through suffering.

Life has dealt Craig Johnston some difficult cards in recent years: bankruptcy, divorce and even homelessness among them. He turns 48 in June and barely resembles the wide-eyed, Australian teenager who burst onto the English football scene three decades ago.

And yet, as I visit Johnston in Florida renewing a dormant friendship after two decades - on the 20th anniversary of his premature retirement - the former Liverpool star is still as hyper as ever: full of ideas, energy and creativity. As always, he's dreaming big.

Just like the midfield terrier who sometimes found himself face-down in the Anfield mud, 'Johnno' picks himself up and tries again, and again.

In the wake of several business deals turned sour - including a junior football programme, SupaSkills, in which he lost £2 million of his own money - taking photographs remains his enduring passion.

Johnston bought his first camera as a 17-year-old on the way to training with his first English club, Middlesbrough, in 1977. He's now trying to make a living out of photography. And golf is one of his favourite subjects, not the sport that made and lost him a lost fortune.

The day I visited Johnston at a friend's house near Orlando, he proudly shows me some of his photos in a glossy brochure for a nearby Golf and Country Club, an exclusive playground for the rich and famous.

Then, he rushes off to take some family pictures for ex-Wimbledon doubles tennis champion, Todd Woodbridge, a fellow Aussie and friend who was making a quick visit.

Later, Johnston shows me a huge stack of photos - many black and white - from his personal collection, taken during his decade in English football with Liverpool and Middlesbrough.

He still keeps in touch with many of his old teammates from the dominant Liverpool side of the 1980s.

'Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen came to visit recently and played some golf at one of the many courses in the Orlando area,' he said. 'They loved it and we all had a great time together, talking about the good, old days.'

On the coffee table is a pile of medals - Johnston played a part in 10 titles including five English League crowns, the 1986 FA Cup and the 1984 European Cup - which sit alongside his Australian passport.

It means that the Boy from Boolaroo, a suburb of Newcastle, north of Sydney, won more major football medals than all the other Australian players in European football put together.

I was with an ESPN TV crew as we visited Johnston to do a feature story on Australia's first, big football export. At sunrise, we film him strumming his guitar and singing the Peter Allen song, 'I Still Call Australia Home'.

'I may still live all around the world... but I'll always be an Aussie,' he declares.

Both of Johnston's parents are Australian, but Johnston has connections to at least four other countries. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his father Colin was playing semi-professional football. They returned to Australia when Craig was six years old. Johnston represented England at under-21 and 'B' level and, post-football, he also lived in Ireland.

These days, he's spending more time in the United States as he tries to get his photography career off the ground, combining sports and art through the lens of his camera. And as he takes pictures around a Florida golf course, no-one has a clue - not even one of his occasional subjects, Tiger Woods - that the chirpy, silver-haired man with a pony-tail was once part of football's greatest side.

'Even if he wasn't Craig Johnston, I'd still use him as a photographer,' Todd Woodbridge tells us after posing for family snaps with his two children near one of the club's greens. 'He's really good.'

If Johnston's business acumen could be matched by his creativity, he would probably be on one of those lists of the richest Australian sportsmen, alongside Greg Norman, Adam Scott and Harry Kewell.

'I feel I am richer than them, anyway, through my experiences, even though I have next to nothing financially,' says Johnston. 'I think to have been on your knees - and know how bad it feels - is just as important as the highs that sport and success can bring.'

Apart from his well-known involvement as designer and creator of the adidas Predator football boot, Johnston created a TV game show, 'The Main Event' and came up with a software programme and refrigerator system called 'The Butler' which records what items have been removed by guests from hotel mini-bars.

The idea was sparked by Johnston's road trips with Liverpool during which he and roommate Bruce Grobbelaar suspected that teammates Steve McMahon and Ronnie Whelan were raiding their fridge.

The low point of Johnston's business career was in 2004 when he was temporarily homeless after being declared bankrupt. He had to sleep for several months in a friend's spare room. Five years earlier, he was worth at least £3 million.

As we sit down for our interview, I remark that Johnston has 'rebounded well' with the help of his photographic skill and talent.

He stops me: 'No I haven't rebounded in financial terms at all... but I have a new focus to pull me out of the depression that I found myself in.

'If I produce a photo that is meaningful to someone else, someone's kids, or someone's house, that means a lot to me as well as to them. I still haven't fully recovered from the business side of things and the feeling that I was let down by the governing bodies of the game.'

Through his words and his pictures, ESPNSoccernet gets a glimpse into the life of the man who was voted by fans on the official Liverpool website as number 59 on the all-time top 100 list of the 'Players Who Shook the Kop'.

Q: It may seem strange to some old football fans that a player from one of the most photographed sports teams from the 1980s is now on the other side of the lens. How did that come about?

A: It might seem strange to some people, but the lads at Liverpool always knew me that way. Some of them would come around to the house and I would photograph their children. The wives thought it was great. I was good at it back then. It was my creative release when I was stressed from football.

Q: How did you get started with photography?

A: I am naturally a creative person. I always have been. When I was in Middleborough as an apprentice I made under £15 a week. I saved up four to five weeks wages because every day on the way to Ayresome Park there was a second hand shop and they had a Zenit EM Russian Camera in the window. All I wanted is to take photos. So instead of writing home to Mum and Dad to explain my environment, it was easier to take a picture.

You know, how do you describe cobbled stones streets, mist, gas lamps and all of that stuff? By the time I moved to Liverpool, I had actually created a fully-equipped studio in my house and a dark room. If I was earning any money in football, I immediately spent it on photography and equipment. It kept me sane.

Q: Photography is helping you rebuild your life after some painful business and personal setbacks: including a marriage break-up, bankruptcy and you've been homeless. How could that happen to a millionaire ex-footballer?

A: They are all interlinked to be honest with you. I was on top of the world. I invented the world's best selling soccer shoe. I was living off royalties in Ireland. I had three or four great projects I was working on. I decided to invest it all into a grassroots coaching program called SupaSkills. I spent maybe £2 million of my own testing and demonstrating it all over the world. It took five years to get FIFA and UEFA onboard. But it all went wrong.

I believe I was stitched up by the governing bodies of the game in England. What I did was to create a programme that was way ahead of its time. It brought science and accountability to youth development in English football. I cared too much, tried too hard and trusted the guys running the game to their word. For five years I was living on the brink. I eventually got chucked out of my house, lost my car and the huge strain of it all contributed to my marriage break-up.

Q: We're counting down to the 2008 Champions League final. For you, the European Cup gave you some of your sweetest and most bitter experiences.

A: I played in two European Cup finals, both against Italian opposition. The first was 1984 when we beat AC Roma in Rome and the other was the disaster in Belgium the following year when 39 fans were killed before kick-off. It was horrendous. Bruce Grobbelaar and I actually saw a bit of the fighting and a bit of bloodshed before the police pushed us downstairs.

It might be hard to understand how we could play a game after seeing people crushed on the terraces. But had we not played, there would have been a lot more bloodshed. It was very sad. You never get over something like that.

Q: After the game, how was it in the dressing room?

A: It was very, very surreal, because you didn't know what to believe because people who were watching it on TV had a better chance to see it. We were sheltered downstairs, but upstairs, outside the steel tunnel, Italian fans wanted to get at us simply because we had red shirts on. That was pretty weird.

Q: How did the Hillsborough disaster - in which 96 Liverpool fans died at a 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield - affect you, the year after you retired?

A: Again, you talk about the best and worst moments of my life. Hillsborough was just, so horrific, that words can't explain it. Everyone saw the picture of the two girls who were crushed against the two barriers and their necks were all contorted. I knew them because they were the first two girls at training every day and they would get autographs... they were maybe 16 or 17 years old. We all knew them.

I was in Australia and when I saw this on television. I hopped on a plane immediately and went back to England to see what I could do. I'd just had a year with my sister who was in a coma because the lack of oxygen to her brain, which is what a lot of the Hillsborough casualties were in the hospital for.

We stayed there for a week or two and the club was set up as a morgue. One night the priest came to me, and said: 'On your way home, can you pop in the players lounge, because someone wants to see you.' I had no idea who wanted to see me. I couldn't believe it but the two girls from the photograph were still alive.

Q: What did the girls want to tell you?

A: They said: 'We are so glad that you came back to see us'. I asked them what they were thinking being crushed like that at a football match... and they told me they were just worried about the players. I said: 'Hang on a second, you are losing your life, you can't breathe and you're worried about the players?'

People around the world will find this incredible, but they said: 'But that is what we live for.' And their one wish in life was: 'To go on and win the FA Cup, of course!' I never understood the importance of football in Liverpool like I did right after talking to those two Liverpool lasses.

Q: At the end of the day with all the good and bad times behind you, how would you like history to remember Craig Johnston?

A: Just that bloke from Newcastle, Australia, who tried really hard. I know that is the way I am remembered by the hardcore Liverpool supporters who paid the money they couldn't afford. Forget the inventions, forget the photography, forget everything else. If you play football in England there is a surreal bond between you and the fans, and if you try your hardest, you are respected forever more.

I guess that might be on the tombstone: 'He didn't have that much natural skill, but, boy, did he try.'

• Check out Part 1 of our Craig Johnston interview: 'It was 20 years ago today...'

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

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