Total Recall: Stevie J, the hero

Geelong legend Steve Johnson recounts the 2007 AFL Grand Final in Total Recall with Aaron Lord. Picture: geelongcats.com.au.

Is it possible to be astonished but at the same time not surprised?

Because as a former player and AFL commentator, I reckon I’ve got a reasonable handle on the intricacies of our great game, and more importantly the players and personalities who put on the show for millions of people around the country, each and every week.

But when it comes to analysing the career of Geelong triple premiership superstar and former teammate of mine at the Cat,s Steve Johnson, I must admit to being gobsmacked, flabbergasted and pleasantly blown away by how many ridiculously brilliant games this humble and understated champion actually played throughout his 16-year career with Geelong and the GWS Giants.

For the sake of the exercise, allow me to pause right there and digress for just a moment.

After eight years as an AFL player with Geelong and Hawthorn, I was redrafted by the Cats with selection one in the 2002 Pre-Season Draft – and returned to Kardinia Park like an enthusiastic young kid en-route to his favourite candy shop.

Because despite being reunited with an outstanding group of former senior teammates in Brenton Sanderson, Ronnie Burns, Peter Riccardi, Ben Graham, Tim McGrath, and Glen Kilpatrick, it was the recent group of young draftees including James Bartel, James Kelly, Gary Ablett Junior, Charlie Gardner, Matthew McCarthy, David Johnson, Will Slade, Andrew Carazzo and you guessed it, Steve Johnson, who were training the absolute house down in their very first pre-season and creating their own amount of noise with regards to the upcoming season and beyond.

We all know how great Gary Ablett Junior, James Bartel and James Kelly in particular, proved to be throughout their illustrious AFL careers, but it would be Steve Johnson who would capture not only my imagination but that of thousands of other Geelong supporters and AFL fans in general, in forging one of the most brilliant, enviable and charismatic individual midfield/forward careers this game has ever seen.

Yeah, it’s fair to say that Steve Johnson was a favourite of mine right from the very start.

293 AFL games, 516 goals, three Premierships, Norm Smith Medal, three times All-Australian, twice Geelong leading Goal Kicker and Victorian State Representative, there is practically nothing in the game that this man could not do.

I can recall vividly games back in 2002 where Peter Riccardi and myself would manfully and honourably hold down our positions on a wing or half forward flank in a senior side that was only just going as a collective in a Geelong team crying out for success.

Meanwhile in the seconds (VFL), Steve Johnson and Gary Ablett Junior were putting on a clinic as 18-years-olds in similar positions to ‘Ricco’ and myself against far more seasoned and senior opponents, consistently collecting 30 plus possessions and kicking bags of multiple goals week in and week out, ensuring that it was only a matter of time before they made their own mark on the competition as bonafide senior players and inevitable superstars.

From a pure football perspective, Steve Johnson was as good as it gets.

Renowned for his innate, mercurial goal kicking ability, Johnson’s versatility and adaptability were perhaps his most underrated qualities as footballer.

Not only could he kick you a bag of seven goals as a stand alone one-out forward, he could just as comfortably deliver 30 possessions and five goals from a half forward flank, or close to 40 possessions and a truck load of tackles and score involvements as a clever and highly intuitive midfielder.

He possessed a massive yet deceptive aerobic tank, a ridiculous skill level, an astounding knowledge of the game, a near flawless decision making ability and an unprecedented bag of tricks making him an almost impossible match up for opposition coaches each and every week.

Despite his apparent on field confidence and persona (often unfairly misconstrued as arrogance), what people may not know is how humble and grounded a man Steve Johnson actually is.

Reluctant to do even this story with a good friend and trusted former teammate at risk of being misrepresented, it is not until I reassure ‘Johnno’ numerous times that he carefully agrees to be interviewed.

But that is Steve Johnson – a Hollywood performer of the highest quality on the field, but just a grounded, humble, bloody good bloke off it.

So which of Steve Johnson’s A list performances would prove to be his most memorable?

To be blatantly honest and perfectly clear, I myself had made a list of 15 games of Steve Johnson’s career that could comfortably serve as his best ever, even before consulting the ‘Johnno’ himself.

His 15 possessions and six goals in his second year in a losing side against a star studded three-time premiership Brisbane Lions in 2003.

His best ever statistical game against Melbourne in 2011 in which he amassed 34 possessions, 7 goals, 10 goals assists and 28 score involvements.

His night of dominance against Essendon in 2009, booting six goals with 21 disposals and prompting both coaches on the night, Bomber Thompson and Matthew Knights to concede that “Steve Johnson is at the peak of his powers.”

His personal favourite home and away game against the Swans in 2010, booting 5 goals and having 23 touches at Olympic Stadium against a much revered opponent.

Or throw a blanket over perhaps ten games in 2013 – a career best season for Stevie J that would see him at his damaging best and poll a career high 25 Brownlow Medal Votes.

“To be honest it’s really hard to say which game was the best I ever played,” Johnson says reluctantly.

“I always look back more fondly at the games that had the most significance,” he adds.

They are humble words from an undisputed champion of the game who predictably favours collective success over individual accolades.

“The favourite game of my career was the 2011 Grand Final against Collingwood,” Johnson says (a game where he was indeed significant with 14 disposals and 4 goals but not in comparison to other games of his brilliant career).

“The 2013 preliminary final against Hawthorn is also a favourite of mine despite the fact that we lost that particular game.” he adds.

But while avoiding the issue and dancing around the topic the entire time, it is not until I put a gun to my former teammates head that he finally concedes that the 2007 Grand Final was the greatest individual game of his illustrious career.

18 Kicks, 5 Handballs, 23 disposals, 9 Marks, 4 Goals, 2 Tackles, 6 Inside 50’s, a historic Geelong Premiership and a Norm Smith Medal.

“The 2007 Grand Final was as a good as I could ever play, but it was also on the back of what my teammates did and how good we were as a group,” Johnson says humbly.

“We were obviously a super side in that particular year but we still had to perform when it mattered on Grand Final day, and to play a significant part on such a big day and in a historic Premiership for Geelong was obviously a highlight of my career,” he adds.

Steve Johnson was a brilliant AFL footballer – an outstanding football brain with elite physical attributes and an X factor that made him as unique a proposition that has ever played the game.

He was one for the ages, and will be forever remembered.

It was a honour to play alongside such a brilliant yet humble legend of our great game.

A classic tribute to a classic champion;

Thank you “Johnno” for “totally recalling” the greatest game you ever played.

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