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.”
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 at Wangaratta’s Norm Minns Oval 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.”
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.
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. I’d be betting my mates for a can of Coke from the boundary.STEVE JOHNSON
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 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.”
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.
“I’ve always loved playing footy at Geelong,” he said.
“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 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.”
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 work rate, the way he knows where the ball is going, the way he wills himself to get to the next contest, and wills himself into that contest.”
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 seems to produce it as if from under his jumper.
Don’t bet even a can of Coke that he won’t one day.