For most top footballers, post-retirement existence consists of two options: punditry or management. Not many have done the following since they stopped playing: nursed their sick sister, written a rap record, invented a football boot, created software for hotel businesses to monitor minibar thefts, come up with a revolutionary system for coaching children in the game, developed computer models for analysing football statistics and latterly reincarnated themselves as a photographic artist with an exhibition opening in London this week.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve reincarnated myself as a photographer, mate,” says Craig Johnston, the Australian who was at the heart of Liverpool's most successful squad in the Eighties. “Doesn’t that usually imply you’ve died first?”
The word I am scratching around for when I meet up with the very much alive Johnston is “reinvented”. But then, even that term is not strictly accurate, it seems. Johnston, 49, has been a photographer for 35 years, having taken pictures throughout his playing career.
“It might be better to say I’ve come out of the closet as a photographer,” he says. His affection for the lens started when he was an apprentice at Middlesbrough in the Seventies. His beginnings in football were not auspicious. In his first trial game, the then Boro manager, Jack Charlton, came into the dressing room after the final whistle and asked Johnston where he was from. On hearing him, his reply was succinct.
“He said 'well you might as well ---- off back to Australia on the first plane because you’ll never make a footballer in a million years’,” recalls Johnston.
“I couldn’t afford to go. My mum and dad had sold the house to pay for me to come over. Luckily some of the senior pros, including Graeme Souness, felt sorry for me, told me to stay and I spent months cleaning their cars to get by, hiding in the car park whenever Charlton turned up.”
Stuck in the least propitious of circumstances, one day his eye was taken by a camera he spotted in the window of a local pawnshop.
“All I wanted was that camera,” he says. “I saved and saved and got it. I’d send pictures home to mum and dad. I couldn’t put into words what I was living through. But I could take pictures. It took off from there. All through my football career, it was more unusual to see me without a camera than with one.”
When he was transferred to Liverpool in 1981, his camera recorded a club at its zenith, taking snaps as he won five league titles, a European Cup, two League Cups and an FA Cup.
“Funnily enough, I have got some pictures of my medals,” he says. “I got in really close with a bit of tungsten light and a macro lens and they came up beautifully.”
But it is not pictures of football that make up his exhibition. In fact his unique style is hard to describe. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s shop window mannequins. It sounds very strange, but, in an English winter, there’s not much light and colour on the street, except for shop windows, alive with beautiful models wearing clothes. I do get all sorts of comments when I’m taking them. Cabbies shout out, 'They’re not real’; if they’re scantily-clad I get called a pervert.
“I’ve been threatened by security from some fashion houses who think I’m trying to pinch their styles to go and get made up in Asia. But over the years I reckon I’ve taken half a million pictures of them.”
It started, his mannequin habit, when he was at a low ebb a few years back.“I’d been declared bankrupt and dealing with administrators, lawyers, stuff you don’t want to do, I was extremely depressed,” he says.
“I broke up with my wife, the kids had gone back to Australia, I had no house, no car, nothing. It would have been easy to hit the bottle. But I had my old camera. I went for a walk, it was pouring with rain, and for me photography is like meditation.
“I suddenly saw this mannequin, beautifully dressed in beautiful light in a window. Just then this nasty tramp was coming along the road, swearing at me. And I saw him in the window, and I thought how interesting, the haves and have nots in the same picture. I got his reflection in the window, with this lovely model, it was a great moment. Mate, it really lifted my spirits. It took me to a different place.”
And so his style was born: pictures of shop dummies which, through the reflection in the glass of the street beyond, tell intriguing narrative tales of life in New York, London, Paris and Sydney.
“If you have to deal with a human being, they get tired, they get stroppy,” he says. “But mannequins just stand there, they don’t whinge, they don’t moan and, best of all, you don’t have to pay them. When you’re broke that means a lot.”
The question is: how did he end up broke? After all, he invented the Adidas Predator, the best-selling football footwear of all time. How did he manage not to become a multi-millionaire on that?
“I’d had the idea coaching kids in Oz when I was trying to teach them how to bend the ball by really feeling it. It was pouring with rain and one of the kids said, 'I can’t feel the ball, my boots are made of leather not table tennis bats.’ It was a funny thing to say, but something went ping in my head. I went home, ripped the front off a table tennis bat, attached it by rubber band to my boots and it worked.
“I spent a lot of time and a lot of money patenting and experimenting. I took my prototypes to Nike, Reebok, Puma, they all knocked me back. So I went to see some players I thought Adidas would respect – Beckenbauer, Rummenigge, Breitner – and videoed them trying out my prototypes. They said a whole load of stuff in German I couldn’t understand. I went to Adidas, showed them the film, they went, 'Oh my gosh, don’t leave the room, we have to do a deal’.
“I still don’t know what they said, the players. But the deal they gave me was so good that later, when the company was taken over, the new owners were told by their accountants that the first thing they had to do was get out of their contract with Johnston. They offered to buy me out.
"I took the money. Since then, they’ve sold millions of boots, at over a hundred quid a pair. And I was on two per cent of the action, so you can do the maths.”
A man of constant innovation, he used his Adidas pay-off to develop other inventions, including a football coaching system for children called SoccerSkills. But, despite gaining official Fifa approval, the Football Association was apathetic to the idea and the system never got off the ground. He found himself penniless.
He had faced traumas before. He retired as a player at 27, to go back to Australia to attend to his sick sister, who never recovered after illness plunged her into a persistent vegetative state. But bankruptcy really made him rethink.
“I didn’t do anything wrong to go bust. Yet I lost all my money, I let my mum and dad down, I let the investors down,” he says. “But in a way, while I’ve had a number of successes, the failures have made me evenly balanced, I’ve a chip on both shoulders as it were.
“I think when you’re down, you realise what sort of debt footballers have to the public who pay their wages. Unfortunately I only understood that after I’d finished playing. And I don’t think enough footballers appreciate it now.”
Does that suggest, then, that football does not prepare you for the real world? “No, I think being a footballer sets you up for everything, anything you want to do,” he says. “A dressing room is a microcosm of the real world, full of politics, jealousies, there’s so much there. And remember I was at Anfield. I used to lecture to businessmen about Liverpool FC plc, about the business and management structures of such a successful company.
“What a place that was for anyone eager to learn, like me. There were 15 very bright guys in there: Souness, Hansen, Lawrenson, Beglin, Dalglish, maybe myself, lots of captains, leaders, checking, challenging each other. There was some really clever philosophy in the boot room, too. The sad thing was that was never scientifically analysed, so it was allowed to dissipate.”
But of the many things he has done since, does anything match up to that time?
“Scoring a goal is definitely an unbelievable high,” he says. “But moving on, you use your brain a bit more, and when things come off where you’ve used your brains, it’s rewarding in a different way. And my art is rewarding. I wasn’t going to go public with it, but when I was broke I met a printer called Graham Clark, of Mckenzie Clark, who printed up some pictures for me for nothing and said, 'Look, you’ve got to show these’.
“So I suppose what this exhibition is saying is, 'Hey I’ve had a bit of a rough time, but I’m definitely still here. No, I haven’t died.’ ”
Craig Johnston’s photographs are on display at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London N1, from Tuesday until Friday.
Copyright - Daily Telegraph. Written by Jim White