Sport AFL An ode to my footy hero, the mercurial ‘Stevie J’

An ode to my footy hero, the mercurial ‘Stevie J’

The forward celebrates a goal for Geelong. Photo: Getty
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I first fell in love with Steven Leigh Johnson on July 13, 2002.

Geelong were playing Collingwood at the MCG and ‘Stevie’ was playing game number five of what would be a decorated career.

The Cats entered the match on the back of five straight wins – but missed the finals that season – while Collingwood, about to make two consecutive grand final appearances, had won 10 of their first 13 matches.

It was a crunch game for finals aspirants Geelong and Stevie, playing against the side he supported as a kid for the very first time, made a mark on me that would last a lifetime.

On that July day, he kicked four goals, but it was a classic Stevie assist that made me dare to dream. And he went on to fulfil all those dreams for me, too.

The game was goalless, and Stevie – as he does – found himself flat on his back, about 50m out, head closer to goal than his feet, ball in hand.

Three Pies players, in my memory, had him cornered. 

But Stevie, always thinking, flicked an overhead handball to Kent Kingsley, who goaled. It was genius.

That moment began a love-hate relationship.

Stevie and I had our moments in 2006-07. The number 20 was unstitched and restitched back onto my jumper as love prevailed.

When Stevie arrived, the Cats were in somewhat of a goal-kicking crisis post the Gary Ablett/Billy Brownless era.

Only three years after Ablett registered 122 majors in the 1994 season, Geelong’s goal-kicking award was tied between Ronnie Burns and Brett Spinks – with 35 apiece. 

That was one of six instances across the next nine seasons where the award was won by a player/s in the 30s. 

And the one guy that surpassed that on three occasions, Kingsley, was the fans’ favourite whipping boy.

Johnson in the 2011 AFL grand final. Photo: Getty

So having a player who created goals when he would think, and try, to do things no-one else would, but also kick the opportunist goals himself, was a much-needed elixir for Geelong’s forward line staleness. 

There was a problem, however. 

Stevie had ankle issues, and the irony was, they were the only reason he didn’t cross over to boyhood club Collingwood in a trade at the end of the 2006 season.

There was discipline, too. 

An incident on Christmas Eve, 2006, in his hometown of Wangaratta  – Johnson was arrested for being drunk in a public place – would prove to be somewhat of a signpost of the start of the triple-flag winning era at Kardinia Park. 

Geelong’s playing group had had enough, suspending Johnson for five matches.

Come Round 6, Stevie was straight back into the team – but it was fork-in-the-road time.

He kicked two majors and had 21 possessions as the Cats thrashed Richmond by 157 points, as Geelong kicked 35 goals in a day. Yep. 35. As many as Burns and Spinks kicked for the whole of 1998.

The match started a 15-match winning streak for Geelong, and Stevie was central in most of the victories.

And even though the streak ended, Geelong banked the drought-ending flag in 2007 – and added another two for good measure.

With Stevie, much of his story relates to Collingwood.

He was inspired as a child by the mercurial Peter Daicos, a Magpies legend, and Stevie mirrored his hero in many outstanding performances against the black-and-white.

Even now, Johnson is haunting the Magpies. Photo: Getty

It started in 2002 and nine years later, on one leg, Stevie kicked four against the Magpies in the 2011 Grand Final.

Even as a GWS Giant, in the final stages of an stunning career, Stevie has kept on piling the pain for Collingwood – the club who almost got him.

So it was fitting that on May 13, 2017, for one final time, Stevie produced some magic against the Pies.

With a collect off the pack that I could watch over and over and over again, he was the difference with a winning goal, delivering one final reminder of what they could have had.

That will be the final time he meets Collingwood. I still remember the first.

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