Five minutes of Stevie J: the argument for a footy instinct

This piece was first published in 2012 after Stevie J’s cracking performance against the Western Bulldogs:


For a while we lived in Wangaratta. I was a pre-schooler. I wrote about that time in Loose Men Everywhere.*

It was only a few years but, when the book came out, 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.”

I thought it was a huge call from the Wang scribe.

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 (against Freo) 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. His type was pleasantly familiar.

Johnno has given us so much since. What a character! What a player! Like some masterful actor of Continental cinema, who only 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. It’s one of my few strengths. I am a natural luncher. 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 of another uber-gifed player, he 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 the mind of 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.


* Loose Men Everywhwere is about to be re-released as part of the three-book collection Play On. If you would like to order a copy please contact us by email.

Read Peter Flynn’s Johnno profile ‘The Performer’.

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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 (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Peter Flynn says

    A most captivating footballer brilliantly captured Harmsy.

    On Saturday night in a Fremantle boozer, I left the table I was at and watched Chappy get carried off in a different jumper. It brought a tear.

    I suspect a similar ending for Johnno in the future. And I don’t like it.

  2. Reading Michael Sexton and Neil Sachse’s book on Sachse at the moment (not sure if it’s biography or autobiography – a bit of both). There’s a great line in it about footballers with instinct, those that just know where the ball is going to land and which way it will bounce, so know where they should be running and when. I’ll share when I find it again.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nice one JTH,
    I hope Johnno sees his mercurial career out with the Cats. The 4 most instinctive players I’ve seen at Collingwood: Carman, Daicos, Didak and Elliott. If the instinct isn’t coached out of young Billy Elliott, he could be anything.

  4. Lovely, lovely piece, JTH. I want Johnno to stay on at the Cats, so that the players and fans continue to be treated to the impossible, illogical, unreasonable and brilliant.

    It’s a Geelong thing and it won’t be the same dressed in other colours.

  5. Now THAT’s the way to live a life.
    The possible, rather than the obstacles.

    Love this writing JTH.
    The clapping like a performing seal.
    The chairing him off the ground.
    The knowing his intent for banana-time,

    P Dimitriadis: I’m with you on J Elliott.
    Did you see M Flanagan’s “barracking for football’s magic moments” last week?

  6. Zephi Skinner – now there is a memory.
    Those old All Nations lunches – another fond memory.

    Surely Johnno could not possibly play anywhere else?

  7. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    I was sitting in the pocket where Billy executed that wonderfully instinctive play and read the article. I wrote a piece centred on him 2 years ago marveling at the possibilities:

    It’s those magic moments that help keep us going back.

  8. Great things have come out of Wang including songs eg Wangaratta Wahine by Captain
    matchbox whoopee band & footballers.
    The latter include Neville Hogan, Steve Norman, John Byrne & Mick Nolan.
    However none beat the great Steve Johnson.
    In many ways from a talent point he reminds me of George Best, a soccer star from Ulster.
    Gee it’s been a privilege to watch Steve, James Kelly, Matthew Stokes & Jarred Rivers.
    How quickly time vanishes. 44 years seemed such a long time.

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