THEY say the journey can sometimes be more rewarding than the destination, that the climb to the top is often better than the view once you get there. In Craig Johnston’s case, an exception can be made.
A proud Australian, born in South Africa, who would eventually make his name in England, there are few footballers who have taken such an arduous route to the top. The phrase “hard work” barely does justice.
His arrival, a goal for Liverpool against Everton in the 1986 FA Cup final, one which helped clinch the club’s first ‘double’, was the culmination of an extraordinary 15-year journey, one of character, resilience and a self-belief that resonates.
The modern era sees football pander to its biggest stars. Indulgence and excess are the orders of the day throughout the Premier League. The idea of another Johnston, scurrying his way to the top through sheer will, appears increasingly unlikely in this day and age.
Now 51, Johnston can look back on that 1986 final with the pride of a man who achieved things the world seemed determined to deny him. His goal, Liverpool’s second in a 3-1 win, was not just a career high, it was life-defining.
“For me that final was the greatest moment,” he says. “I was 26 years old, I had fought so hard to get to where I was, and it felt like the culmination of my journey in many ways.
“The lads all teased me, because when I scored I was shouting 'I've done it! I've done it!'. It sounds selfish, but that was my moment. I had been written off so many times, and I had proven a lot of people wrong.
“It was the height of my career, but in some ways it was also the end of my career, because how was it ever going to get better than that? The truth was, it wasn't.
Now earning a healthy living as a photographer back in Australia, where he has also developed a coaching tool which he insists will be “used by every single big club in five years’ time”, Johnston admits his footballing career was inspired by the knowledge that he was lucky to be alive.
Having contracted osteomyelitis, an aggressive form of polio which infects the bones and bone marrow, aged six, Johnston’s leg, and life, was saved only by the knowledge of an American specialist who happened to be touring Australia at the time, as well as a lengthy operation in the States.
Such let-offs can have a profound effect, even at a young age. Johnston’s vow, he says, was to make the most of his life, whatever his chosen field.
That field, of course, would be football. Encouraged by his father, Colin, who had tried unsuccessfully to build a career of his own in England, Johnston wrote to a number of Football League clubs asking for a trial. When one, Middlesbrough, took him up on his offer, his parents sold the family home to pay for his plane ticket.
It was an inauspicious start. At half time in his first youth team game Jack Charlton, Boro’s autocratic manager, stormed into the dressing room to inform the 15-year-old he was the worst player he had ever seen.
Even by the hard-nosed standards of the 1970s, it was woeful man-management. Johnston admits he packed his bags that night, but could not face telling his parents he had failed. He toughed it out at Boro, training for six hours a day to hone his at-times ragged technique, and by January 1978 he was on the cusp of the first team.
Fittingly, given what was to follow, it would be Everton, and the FA Cup, who provided his first test as a professional; a fourth round tie at Ayresome Park in January 1978. He was 17.
“I wasn't prepared,” he admits. “How could I be? The truth is that I was given a chance because there was a virus going round the team, and four or five players struck down by it. They were scraping the barrel somewhat by the time they came to me!”
Johnston was wide-eyed.
“I remember running out onto the field, seeing all the faces and hearing all the noise,” he says. “It was like when you watch a street carnival, and all the floats go past you. Suddenly, I felt like I was on one of those floats, performing. It was an out of body experience, and one I will never, ever forget.
“It was the day I felt like a proper footballer. I had sacrificed a lot to come over to England and pursue my career. So to just be on the teamsheet was something else.”
He would go on to make 64 appearances for Boro, scoring 16 times, before being signed by Bob Paisley in April 1981, for a fee of £650,000.
Technically, his style was at odds with the Reds’ free-flowing, passing philosophy – “I was the worst player in a great team,” he says, without a hint of false modesty – but his diligence, hard-running and selflessness made him a perfect fit.
A goal at Goodison in his first derby encounter endeared him to the Kop, while he was affectionately – and predictably – nicknamed ‘Skippy’ by his Anfield team-mates.
By 1985, of course, Merseyside was the centre of the footballing world, with Everton threatening to end Liverpool’s decade-long dominance of the English game.
“That whole 85-86 was like being in the trenches,” says Johnston. “Everything was geared around the two clubs.
“Liverpool and Everton were the top two teams in the country, if not Europe, at the time.
“We were fighting for the league title all the way, and then we had the Cup final to end the season. It was in your face, wherever you went, night and day. Liverpool and Everton was the rivalry to end all rivalries.
“It was one thing to beat Arsenal or Manchester United. They were big games, but it was not the same as beating Everton. That was THE game.
“They were a tremendous team, and there was a phenomenal amount of respect between the two sets of players.
“That Cup final was like the final battle, to win the war. When we did, it took about two weeks to come down off the high. It was a hell of a feeling.”
Johnston eventually spent seven years at Anfield, and admits the city of Liverpool got “under his skin”.
"The whole city has a unique way of thinking,” he says. “And it is one which I share. Scousers are similar to Australians because they tell it straight.
"There is not a day that goes by where I don't reference my wonderful, educational time in Liverpool.
“ I genuinely believe it has made me a more rounded and stable person. It is a great city with unique people.”
He still visits occasionally, and will do so again this summer.
Before that, though, he will be a fascinated, if partisan, observer as the Reds once again do battle with their neighbours at Wembley.
“I keep up with the team, and their trials and tribulations,” he says.
“You can't live in the city as long as I did and not feel the football passion running through your veins for the rest of your life.”
Kenny Dalglish will hope his side can conjure just some of ‘Skippy’s’ spirit and work ethic this weekend.