When addressing the thousands of people gathered at St George’s Hall on the 12th September this year, just a few hours after the Prime Minister had offered his apologies, the Hillsborough families thanked people from all corners of the Earth for their exceptional support over the past 23 years.
Of course, fans of other clubs, and their clubs themselves, have made concerted efforts of goodwill, none more so than our blue friends from across the park, but the fight for justice has shown the family spirit of Liverpool fans everywhere.
It would be nice to think of any club as one big family, with players, fans and all those in between, offering equal amounts of support to each other. This was certainly the case during the mournful period after the events of 15th April 1989. Players and staff pulled together to help the bereaved, attending funerals and offering counsel. Credit has been given, and rightly so, to the playing and coaching staff at the time, who did their best to provide a crumb of comfort to those who had had their lives turned upside down.
The acts of humanity, ranging from the quick-thinking fans ripping up advertising hoardings to use as stretchers, to the actions of the players and staff described above, to the pitch at Anfield being covered in floral tributes, were each exceptional in their own right and brings me on to an individual who assisted in his own way, and should always be considered as part of the Liverpool ‘family’.
Craig Johnston, a South African born Australian, signed for The Reds from Middlesborough in 1981. The midfielder will go down in Anfield folklore for many reasons, including his distinctive perm, his production of the Anfield Rap and most importantly for his goal against Everton in the FA Cup Final of 1986.
Despite winning five League Championships, the 1984 European Cup, one FA Cup and two League Cups, one of the most decorated players in the history of the club will often be remembered for perhaps not reaching his full potential as a player. By his own admission, Johnston was never the greatest player Liverpool ever had, and due to my age and knowledge of more illustrious players, it would be difficult to argue with him. However, it strikes me that his modesty does him a disservice and perhaps interfered with his progression as a footballer. Clearly lacking the arrogance and extreme self confidence that many of his peers had/have, Johnston claimed in a highly emotional interview with LFC TV that he never truly felt worthy of his place at the club until his Cup Final goal against Everton.
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The biggest argument for Johnston perhaps not reaching his full potential as a player was his hugely selfless act, announced just before the 1988 Cup Final with Wimbledon. Unfortunately, his sister had suffered an accident meaning she would require constant care, something that Craig took upon himself to help with. In the build up to the Final against Wimbledon, he informed manager Kenny Dalglish that he would be retiring from the club, and from the professional game for this purpose, at the age of just 28. Dalglish was of course disappointed to lose such an important player and Johnston’s last appearance for the club came as a substitute in the miserable, surprising Wembley defeat.
Thereafter, Johnston returned to Australia were he provided care for his sister, with the disappointment of an early retirement insignificant in comparison to his brotherly feelings.
On the other side of the world, far away from events in England, in the days when communication across the continents was as common as Luis Suarez being awarded a penalty, it would have been conceivable for Johnston to lose all touch with his Liverpool family.
However, Johnston showed his class and heart even further in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Leaving his sister’s side for a few weeks, he travelled all the way back to Merseyside to act as a shoulder to cry on for anyone that wished to use it. Some relief was gleaned from the trip, when Johnston was reacquainted with two fans who he had believed had perished. Kenny Dalglish was so pleased to see Johnston back around the club that he took time out from his counselling to offer him the chance to re-sign. The offer was proudly received, but declined due to his sister’s continued poor health.
In the years after his retirement, Johnston has become renowned for developing the ‘Predator’ football boots for Adidas. Despite his success in the field of football boot technology, by his own admission, Johnston’s life has remained far from plain sailing and he has fallen on hard times. One thing is for certain though and that is Johnston’s passion for the club. In the emotionally charged interview on LFC TV, Johnston recalls his re-visits to Merseyside where he is still overjoyed when fans let on to him in the street.
It shows him that he is still considered very favourably in this part of the world and that his honesty, humility and down to Earth attitude is something that will always be recognised by Kopites everywhere.
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