07 April 2018

Stevie J goes behind enemy lines

Steve Johnson gets used to life on the other side of the whistle for his rival club, the Sydney Swans. A feature from the SCG Trust's Around the Grounds magazine.

HE’S been a marked man by the Swans defensive line for the last decade but now Steve Johnson finds himself behind enemy lines as an assistant coach for the club.

Having played 253 games for Geelong, 40 for the GWS Giants and with more than 500 majors to his name, Johnson has every right to waltz into a coaching gig at the top end of town.

His ruthless attitude on the field and reputation for making the extraordinary look ordinary makes him uniquely placed to lead the next generation of talented Swans to premiership glory.

The man nicknamed ‘Stevie J’ has won three himself with the Cats, played in the all-Australian side as many times and won the Norm Smith Medal in 2007. But a coaching career under John Longmire may just be his biggest challenge yet.

“I think it was a bit of a shock to the system the first week or two given I haven’t ever had a full-time job,” Johnson said. “To start with, just getting in there and understanding that you need to have a high work rate. Then it’s about observing the way the coaches communicate with players, prepare for training and review individual and team performance.

“I’ve always respected the Swans from afar. They have a history of being a great club so to get the opportunity to be a part of it is something I feel very privileged about. I’m just looking forward to learning as much as I can and hopefully helping the club to push towards another premiership.”

Johnson’s highlight reel is one of the best you’ll see but there’s one memory that haunts him at the SCG after being on the receiving end of one of the Swans’ greatest comeback in 2005.  

“There’s a standout here and it’s probably not a great one,” he said. “The game where I played in the semi-final when Nick Davis kicked those four goals in the last quarter. There’s no doubt that I’ll find myself thinking about that every now and then while I’m here.

“Playing at the SCG always had a bit of an aura about it, looking into the members stand and understanding how much history it has seen. It’s going to be a little bit different knowing that I’m now working for the home team and that it’s my home ground. I think it’s a great spot to watch footy and it’s certainly a great atmosphere when the stands are full.”

Johnson will take control of the club’s forward line and join fellow premiership player Tadhg Kennelly in the coaches’ box, who played 197 AFL games for the Swans before retiring in 2011.

Unlike Kennelly, Johnson is busy mending bridges with his new teammates. It was just last year that he was exchanging blows with them during the Swans’ derbies against their cross-town rivals. One of the biggest on-field enemies throughout his career has been Lance Franklin.

“Buddy and I are learning more about each other,” he said. “We butted heads a few times on the ground but now we’re working for a common cause so I’m sure our relationship will only continue to get better.

“He’s such a great player and there’s no doubt that I used to stress a bit from an opposition point of view coming up against him, because he could turn the game on its head. I can’t wait to cheer him on when he does it from now on.”

Johnson’s always seen things a little differently on the field, whether it be a read in defence or a chance to kick a goal that no one else would. His tactical nuance had him earmarked by many clubs as a popular choice for an assistant coaching role when he called time.

“As a player I always thought that coaching would be the pathway I’d go down. I love my footy and enjoy picking games apart, even those that I’m not involved in when I’m watching on tv.

“I’ve tried to teach some of the younger players a few things during my playing days and now I get the chance to pass on as much as I can from my own experiences.

“Sometimes I might see specific things around forward play and other areas of the ground that may differ from others but ninety-five per cent of the stuff I believe in is what I think others do as well.

“Most football clubs and people think along the same lines so it’s been good to just have that reinforced and to understand why the Sydney football club has been so successful over a long period of time as well.

“I think when you’re a player it’s absolutely the best job you can have. You get paid to play the game you love and there’s plenty of spare time away from footy to ease your mind. Coaching certainly occupies a bit more time and you need to be switched on.”

The Swans have a blockbuster home season at the SCG with games against the Giants, Crows, North Melbourne, Fremantle, Carlton, West Coast, Geelong, Gold Coast, Collingwood and Hawthorn.

“It’s pretty hard to make predictions at this time of the year and you don’t have to look too much further than what happened last season to back that up,” Johnson said. “You just expect that the teams that have been able to do it for a long period of time are going to be up there – Geelong and Hawthorn could bounce back fast.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most even competitions we’ve seen in a long time.”