Five minutes of Stevie J: an affirmation of the footy instinct?


Stay with me on this, because we’ll get to Stevie J.

But in the meantime I need to establish my thesis.

I remember chatting with Roger Merrett at the launch of Ross Fitzgerald’s footy book about the Brisbane Bears.  I think that was just before the 1996 season got under way. We mainly talked about Kaniva and Telopea Downs and that great trainer of race horses: D.I. Dodson.

But of course the conversation got around to footy and we worked out that Roger had played about 700 games of footy in his life. I had played about 50.

This is one of many regrets in my time on this earth.

During that conversation the joke became that Roger had played so many games he had very few specific memories, while I could remember a whole stack of individual passages of play. Clearly.

I still treasure them.

One of those passages of play occurred while I was playing for the University of Queensland against Strathpine at Strathpine on a wet Brisbane day.

In Loose Men Everywhere I remember it like this:

“The game starts and after about two and a half minutes and six ball-ups [our ruckman] Mounse is covered in mud. He’s copped one in the knees, one in the noggin and one in the nuts and he’s thinking there’s only another two hours of this to go. The coach is having a shot at him when Mounse gets onto one and thumps the ball out to my wing. I am standing well clear of my opponent who I have realised looks like Henry VIII’s fat cousin. We both run at the ball, only he is running at the ball and at me. Before I know it my body moves without me telling it to. I prop, and my arm stretches out for the Sherrin. Henry’s cousin has committed himself to all-out violence. As he arrives I find myself in the classic Dick Reynolds-Football-The-Australian-Way-Scanlen’s-footy-cards-photograph position – ball about to be dragged in. I snap it away from him and he pummels the space where me and the ball were going to be. He falls over, hits the puddle, and aquaplanes on the apex of his tummy. Water flies everywhere. As I pull the ball in, I spin 360 degrees onto me left (non-preferred, by miles) foot and send a pop-pass thirty metres to the full forward who has led straight out from goal. It hits his chest and he goes back and kicks the goal. I know that I have made precisely the right movements. I also know that I have had no control over what has happened. I will play so little footy that these few fluked dancesteps, as poet Peter Goldsworthy once called them, will stay in my memory forever. They will be evidence for my argument that there is a footy instinct for the simple reason that I have never learnt to do what I have just done.”

We won that game.

That’s 32 years ago.

That book also refers to the time our family spent living in Wangaratta. I was a pre-schooler. But the Wang connection was enough for one of the writers from the Wangaratta Chronicle to ring for a chat. She was writing something about the book.

At the end of the interview we got talking about the prospects of the Cats. “You guys have just picked up a super-star,” she said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Steve Johnson,” she said. “Steve Johnson is the most talented footballer to come out of Wang. Ever. He will be a champion.”

He hadn’t played a game at that stage.

Once he did, I reckon I spotted Johnno early. He was in his second year when we came to live in Melbourne. I recall applauding wildly (and happily) the crazy-talent he had. How a goal from the boundary off the left foot on a 3-degree day at Kardinia when the rain was sideways didn’t rate a mention is beyond me.

I remember not applauding, but nodding knowingly, when he had his summer troubles.

Johnno has given us so much since. What a character. What a player. Like some masterful actor of Continental cinema, who chooses the most challenging roles. Like he wants to play footy as if it’s the opening scene from Betty Blue knowing, full well, the last scenes.

I like lunch. And on Friday last the Almanac lunch at the All Nations, Richmond, was a lot of fun. On a gloomy, rainy day, the fire and the food and the red were wonderful, and the crew who had gathered were in fine spirit.

It was such a good lunch that when I got home and the kids were settled and the telly turned on for the Geelong-Doggies game, I fell asleep on the couch. The Handicapper kept waking me up to tell me I was a asleep and I kept telling her I wasn’t. Eventually she gave up.

I woke up with the Cats a goal up in the last quarter, just seconds before Johnno embarked on what I will simply refer to from now on as That Five Minutes of Stevie J. What I didn’t realise at the time is that it had been going on all night. But Johnno was in some mood. It was as if he’d been bored for a month and decided he’d stride to the crease with the specific intention of hogging the strike.

So as I stirred into consciousness young Duncan had the footy. He sent a short pass in the direction of half forward to Johnno running straight at it, full tilt. Robert Murphy went with him and made the spoil. Johnno hit the ground running and had his eyes on the bouncing ball. All at ridiculous pace, as  he snaffled it he leapt and spun anti-clockwise in mid-air to beat a Bulldog who flashed across the screen. As he came to earth, he kept his feet, clutched the ball to his chest as he took a few steps on the absolute fly. While still flat out he showed the ball to another opponent, weaved, and gave a perfect over-the-shoulder look-away handball to a team-mate. Phenomenal. I was clapping like a performing seal.

But then that team-mate sent the ball high to the pocket where Tom Hawkins climbed on his opponent’s shoulders and nearly brought down Mark of the Year, just spilling it. Not to worry Stephen Motlop crumbed at a million miles an hour, threw the footy onto his boot, and his shot went across the face of goal and hit the behind post.

“Some game,” I thought, feeling like a Franco-bumpkin on a country siding in Provence as the TGV flies past.

Johnno. Johnno. Johnno. What ridiculous skill. Instinctive?

Just seconds later and again Johnno is where the footy is. Again, he’s in an impossible situation. Nothing can come of it except take the tackle and start again with a ball-up. No. No. Not Johnno. He goes the jump to the double-foot-plant and feels his options. When he hears the heart’s call to spin right he turns straight into trouble. Life is like that. He props and pushes off the chest of his opponent and turns on to the left. In getting away from the tackler he has lost a little control of the footy (it seems) and it is now in one hand. He throws it onto his left foot, kicking across his body in an act of balance, strength, coordination and awareness. It is straight to Hawkins who is on a lead and creates a contest in traffic, palming the footy to Bartel who waltzes in and goals.

Johnno. Johnno. Johnno.

Zephi Skinner has his own instincts, as an earlier goal suggests, and hits the post at the other end. From the kick in we see a moment of Calm Johnno, marking and holding things up. He spots Skinner’s boot, and recognising the challenge, hurls it away. He kicks across goal, and then receives a pass back. The spotlight is following him.

The Cats look home, but it’s not over.

A minute later and Johnno is up forward. A pack has formed 40 metres out from goal and Johnno is sniffing about. The ball pops out of that pack and Johnno is facing a spot about 30 metres around from the point post. As the ball falls Johnno chooses not to take possession as he will be swamped. Instead he decides to volley it, even though he is facing at an angle to the goals. I reckon I know Johnno and I am sure this is what he was doing in this moment: he was going to kick a ball from mid-air with the outside of his right boot so that it banana-ed 40 metres through for a goal. In that moment I wanted to chair him off the ground. For the sheer fact that he liked his chances. But, just as Trevino’s worst shot was the one he timed and hit left down the line of his shoulders, so too Johnno is gazumped. Instead of catching that part of the Sherrin which would make it helicopter back towards goals, he absolutely flushes it with his taut instep, as purely as you could imagine, and launches a spiralling dart into the second tier of the stands a good distance away.

I love it.

“That’s not a high percentage play,” says Leigh Matthews earnestly.

My guess is Denis Cometti and Tom Harley are giggling to themselves.

I am cheering for Johnno and the world.


On Saturday morning I watched the second half.

I have slept on the idea that there is a footy instinct. And nothing I see encourages me to change my mind.



About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.


  1. So right, John. Not all footballers are prototype from Neil Craig’s football factory.
    It is the instinctive players who make me marvel – Didak is another, Milne too.
    For some reason though, while I marvel at them, I can’t ‘like’ them. It’s a strange contradiction.
    If Dids wasn’t a Pie, I probably wouldn’t like him either.
    I think it’s the arrogance that floats almost visibly around an instinctive player that disturbs me.
    Every other player has to work hard to achieve a once in a lifetime freakish goal, these blokes do it every week making everyone else look slow witted.

  2. Lord Bogan says


    when Stevie J is in the zone he mesmerizes. He is also one of the few footballers who is quickly forgiven for trying outlandish things that don’t always come off. People will still be marveling at his highlights package generations from now, as we do with Jezza, Daics and Polly Farmer. Footy instinct is alive in Stevie J, as is character.

  3. Stevie, J, Didak, Milne, like Gablett, Daicos, Jezza, Blight, all have some thing SPECIAL about them. How can U not like them ?


  4. Wonderful piece John. Vintage Harms. Sorry to say you have been upstaged. Like the 2008 GF, good but not quite great.
    I read Robert Murphy’s piece on the Age website about Stevie J. It is the best piece of writing I have ever seen from a current footballer. It was about men who compete with each other, and not against each other. It was about the joy of the contest, and the comradeship of honoured opponents.
    I love that they both love footy, and that it can still be a joy at that level.
    You both describe the same passage of play. You got 9.3 from the Chinese judge, but even he had to give 10 to the man on the spot.

  5. Great writing John, but damn that last quarter was frustrating for us dogs.

    Peter B … you’re right on about Bob Murphy today. Jesus he’s improved … he may be a writer yet. All the same, don’t agree that he’ toppled JH.

  6. John,
    Many years ago I read a line which your account of Stevie J. summoned from the recesses of my memory: Talent does what it can, genius does what it must. If I recall correctly it was Geoffrey Green, a gifted soccer writing for the Times, speaking about one of the game’s greats, probably Stanley Matthews

  7. Richard Naco says

    I also have come to this piece after reading Bob Murphy’s account, so it resonates incredibly with me.

    Both are masterful examples of penmanship (even though I doubt that either were actually transcribed by pen), and both give a luminous insight into one of the most joyous sights in our game: Stevie J in full flight.

    The real irony is that this improvisational genius is probably the most dedicated student of the game, out researching even Geelong’s resident academic nerd, the wonderful Harry Taylor. Scotty regularly jokes that the person at the club who spends the most time studying tapes is actually one of the players, and of all the Cats, Stevie J is the one who has always indicated that his long term plan post playing days is to coach.

    Stevie “On” is a very good thing for both the Cats and the AFL/ Stevie “Off” is only a relief for his opponent. Although my Giants are playing my Cats today, I’m hoping that the Stevie J show is on show. There are a couple of latent Stevie J’s in the Giants, and a first hand lesson in exactly how this stuff can be performed will do them no end of good (the pity is that Curtly Hampton was dropped after trying to be Stevie J last week, and spectacularly failing).

    If our resident latent improv geniuses can then one day perform in a similar vein, it will be an amazing selling point for our Giants in this brave new world of western Sydney footy.

    Great article, JTH.

  8. Earl O'Neill says

    Great piece John, thanks for writing it. Characters, are there less of them than there used to be? Does that make us love them all the more?

    Roger Merrett, after his first game as Brisbane coach, cracked a slab in the rooms. Almost certainly the last time that ever happened in the AFL. My cousin played first-grade Rugby League for Canterbury-Bankstown in the mid 1970s, when they walked into the rooms after the match, there were 15 longnecks sitting on the table, caps off and ready to drink.

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Personally as a non cats man , Stevie J note it is always , Stevie J i, is my favourite opposition player I think it is you can marvel at his freakish ability and not get
    annoyed when he stuffs up and what a great write up from , Bob Murphy where you can get a laugh out of the banter which goes on out on the ground .
    Harmsy a brilliant write up of a genius I am glad he is in such a good side as it gives him more chances to show off his party tricks and glad that the cats play with the freedom and are good enough to allow it too happen

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