JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

How Stevie J changed the off-field game

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Just as his boyhood idol Peter Daicos popularised the art of the dribbled goal from acute angles, the artist known as Stevie J has changed the way many players take set shots from the boundary.

But Steve Johnson's more telling contribution to the game has been in the impact of his career story - of a gifted rogue who received tough love from his peers and club, and became a champion.

More than seven years have passed since Stevie got pissed with a mate in Wangaratta, fell asleep in the wrong house, was locked up and then forced into exile - from both his team and alcohol - as part of his five-week suspension. No one suspected it then, but the way Geelong handled the wayward Stevie and his immediate redemption have been even more influential on the competition than the ''J-Hook'' - the Johnson-patented kick across the body from a set shot.

Johnson's transformation was dramatic. Months earlier, the Cats had been willing to ship their errant genius to Collingwood, which famously baulked on a trade because of an adverse medical report on Stevie's dodgy ankle - which, fittingly, had been hurt once when an intoxicated Stevie fell badly climbing over a fence at a Torquay pub.

No sooner had Tom Harley and his leadership group peers handed down the sentence to Johnson, than Stevie swore off the grog for the season, knuckled down and won the Norm Smith Medal. He morphed into the Geelong era's answer to Daicos, and - in another twist - shifted to the midfield, where his high footy IQ and skill made him even more productive and provided a larger canvas to express his impressionistic art.

The potency of Johnson's story is such that Geelong's handling of Stevie quickly turned into a template for all other clubs to follow. It remains so. On Friday, when the infant Giants were suspending Toby Greene for his part in what was a much more serious incident, involving a raft of assault charges at a Caulfield bar, the Johnson precedent was cited.

The Greene sentence - five weeks - was the same as Stevie's. But whereas Johnson accepted his punishment, Greene and his management - with the player union in their corner - are fighting the severity of it. This is a rarity. The Greene camp believes the suspension is excessive if the club really is suspending him for drinking while injured and failing to report a serious incident, arguing that ''breaching protocols'' is a two-weeker at worst.

Ever since Stevie's U-turn early in 2007, almost every club has had to deal with a drunken rampage, punch-up or worse, and as a result of the outlandish success enjoyed by both Johnson and Geelong, the five-week sentence is the major reference point.

Geelong was mindful of Stevie when it suspended Mathew Stokes when the midfielder/forward was charged with a drug offence back in the summer of 2009-2010. Stokes, who had his drug charge downgraded from trafficking to possession, received seven weeks suspension from the club. The Cats acted before he faced the court.

Jesse Stringer was suspended for the remaining half of Geelong's 2012 season following an arrest for a domestic violence incident. To some with a civil liberties bent, the Cats had entered troubled waters, because Stringer hadn't even been charged at the time. Unlike Johnson and Stokes, Stringer hasn't really flourished after his crime and punishment. Perhaps that's a measure of talent, not the efficacy of the approach.

As the years and incidents rolled on, clubs were forced to make snap judgments on whether to suspend a player following an indiscretion that could or would land them in court. The shadow of Stevie J hung over many of these situations. More often than not, the Johnson game plan of tough love has been followed.

Geelong's long-serving president Frank Costa, who said he was ''privileged'' to be in the room when Harley announced Stevie's fateful suspension, reckoned Johnson's was the moment, more than any other, that shaped the change in Geelong's player culture. ''It was the big one.''

Costa agreed that Stevie J's situation had been heavily influential simply ''because Geelong has been successful''. He said the decision, while made by the newly empowered players, was very much a joint production with the administration.

Who should make these calls when a player finds the divvy van or the court room? And when should the club verdict be delivered?

The Stephen Milne case of last year exposed the limitations of a player-based policing system. When Milne was belatedly charged with rape, the club was caught. St Kilda had been afflicted with issues surrounding treatment of women, having seen Andrew Lovett's rape accusation (he was charged after the club sacked him, then later cleared) in early 2010 and the messy affair involving a schoolgirl. But whereas the Saints players had taken a negative view of Lovett's behaviour, their investment in Milne was such that they did not want him suspended.

The players and the club administration were at odds over Milne. The Saints were commercially vulnerable, due to the string of unsavoury incidents, and at the mercy of headquarters. Their internal ambivalence was reflected in the stance taken - Milne was stood down for a brief period following his charge, but allowed to return within a few weeks. The club straddled the players and everyone else.

Marley Williams' conviction for causing grievous bodily harm provided an alternative model. The difference was that Collingwood did not stand the miscreant down until he was convicted. As some who've administered clubs observed, Collingwood's financial might and power affords it the luxury of making decisions without worrying about sponsor revolts.

The Stevie J template, followed for several years, works better when the charge isn't serious, but the behaviour clearly needs correction. If a charge is really serious, as with Milne or even Williams, and potentially Greene, the club has to consider the legal minefield. One club chief executive posed the question of what would happen if a player was encouraged to be honest to the leadership group, confessed all to teammates, and they were called as witnesses?

Greene, whose behaviour warrants a suspension, is taking the brave step of challenging his club. We assume Greene and his manager, Paul Connors, think he can find another club if necessary. The Giants reckon Greene and/or his manager are thumbing nostrils at fellow players. That's an exaggeration, because, in reality, we know that a green leadership group and young team really take their cues from the club bosses, and the club is following the AFL script.

It's a script written by Stevie J and Geelong.

Featured advertisers