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Steve Johnson, the midfielder who pushes boundaries

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Cats clash with the Swans at the SCG

Rohan Connolly previews the weekend's AFL games, including Geelong's clash with Sydney at the SCG on Thursday night.

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Steve Johnson is matter-of-fact when he explains the evolution of his bag of football kicks, starting with his patent side-on set shot.

"Before I played league footy, when I went down to the local footy ground, I wouldn't go and stand 30 metres out from goal, directly in front," he said. "I'd be betting my mates for a can of Coke from the boundary."

Where did he go: Steve Johnson gets away from the chasing pack.

Where did he go: Steve Johnson gets away from the chasing pack. Photo: Getty Images

To this day, Johnson says what others sometimes see as outrageous flair, he feels is merely what is innate to him.

It is one thing to do it for slabs of coke after school, another for a living in a ferocious competition. Johnson's secret is that he has learnt the necessary rigours without ever forgetting the innocent joys.

On YouTube is a clip of Johnson and Gary Ablett competing to dribble "goals" in the back recesses of Kardinia Park by taming and harnessing the ball's random bounce so it lobs into a wheelie bin, and through a half-open doorway, even on to a balcony. It is football as still projected by Johnson but few others on match days; footy for the sheer wicked fun of it.

Johnson misses Ablett, as a friend and as a teammate who made him look better.

"When Gary was around the ball, he would draw two or three players to him," he said. "You just had to get close enough and he'd send you off into a bit of space. There's no doubt it would have been nice to play with him for another four or five years."

Johnson marvels even more at Ablett from afar.   "It's unbelievable the player he's turned into and the captain he's been able to become as well. I never would have thought, from the player I saw in his first four or five years at Geelong, that he would be someone that could direct a team and carry them on his shoulders and be the great example that he is." 

Perversely enough, Ablett's departure from Geelong assisted Johnson in what is his cleverest trick - his late career transformation from guileful half-forward to high-possession, high impact, Brownlow-rated (but still guileful) midfielder.

With Johnson in Ablett's boots, Geelong has changed beat but not missed one. "It does become a little bit boring, playing the same position for 10 years," he said. "I always wanted to play in the midfield. I was always in 'Bomber's' [then coach Mark Thompson's] office trying to get a run through there."

But the Cats had an elite body of midfielders, and Johnson then did not have an elite midfielder's body. "Early in my career I had a lot of operations in the off-seasons," he said. "My ankles always were an issue, my knees were an issue."

Gradually, he and the club found ways to insulate and harden him so he could take his turns in the onball detail. Soon, that presented a new challenge. At half-forward, he would get a half-back. In midfield, he would sometimes get a tagger, by definition as mean a footballer as Johnson is expansive. Most recently and infamously, it was Fremantle's Ryan Crowley on what became a torrid night in Perth.

Johnson is phlegmatic. He still thinks he wins more jousts than he loses. "It's not too problematic, to be honest," he said. Besides, he says, taggers have their place, even at Geelong, and usually are loved inside their clubs for their selflessness.

Johnson objects only when the tag becomes a mugging. "I must admit, it can be hard when there's a real team focus from the opposition to stop you as well. At times you might find yourself in a position where you've worked really hard  to get away from someone, and then someone else picks you up."

And, perhaps, knocks you down.

What matters, says Johnson, is that even on the dirty days, he makes at least a subliminal contribution to the cause, by setting a teammate free, for instance. "It's all part of being a good side," he said.

This, rather than personal acclaim, is what drives him now, to hand down to the next generation of Cats the winning culture and all its precepts as it was handed down to him by Tom Harley and Cameron Ling.

"Possibly early in my career I was judged as a player that liked to be seen to be doing  the fancy things," he said, "I think they were just the natural things that came to me on the footy field. But every player would say that as you get older it doesn't matter who kicks the nice goals or who gets the accolades, you're more driven by team success. That's what makes a footy club a happy place to be around."

Johnson's sagacity is sharpened by an abiding awareness of how he nearly missed the era of Geelong immortality. Injury and disciplinary lapses drove the Cats to the verge of a deal with Collingwood, ironically scuppered because of the Magpies' suspicion about his injuries.

Johnson said he rarely looked back at those sliding doors. "Ive always loved playing footy at Geelong. It was never my ambition to move clubs. It was unfortunate that I was faced with that situation, but fortunate that it worked out for the best. It made me a better player and a better person. I'm sure when I've finished my career I'll be pretty proud to be able to say that I played with some of the greatest players of our time.

"I'm a bit of a footy tragic. I'm getting to do something that I love. I cherish it, thinking back to early in my career when there was a chance I might not still be playing at 27 or 28."

The tragic in him asserts itself out of hours. "I love watching footy. A lot of guys, when they leave the footy club, like to get away from footy, clear their heads. I love footy so much I'm happy to sit down and watch whoever's playing. I don't mind if it's 15th versus 16th on the ladder. There's always something you can learn."

One player Johnson especially appreciates is Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury. "I love the way he goes about it. I love watching the decisions he makes with the ball, his workrate, the way he knows where the ball is going, the way he wills himself to get to the next contest, and will himself into that contest, and do the right thing at the right time."

The Pendlebury effect and the Johnson effect are similar: both appear to move as if within a force field, ever within arm's length, always out of reach. When Pendlebury has the ball, everyone can see it but no one can get it. Johnson sometimes seem to produce it as if from under his jumper.

Don't bet even a can of Coke that he won't one day.

 

 

 

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Round 2
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RIC 98 vs CAR 86 Report Stats
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ESS 86 vs HAW 90 Report Stats
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STK 95 vs GWS 88 Stats
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BRI 68 vs GEE 93 Stats
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Round 3
Fri, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
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GCF 114 vs BRI 61 Stats
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Round 4
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Round 6
Fri, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
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Round 7
Fri, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
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Fri, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
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Round 10
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Round 11
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Round 13
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Round 14
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Fri, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
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GWS 72 vs ADE 140 Report Stats
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Round 21
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Geelong Cats 22 17 5 0 113.77 68
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