STEVE Johnson was desperate to be part of a Geelong resurgence in what would be his 15th season with the Cats in 2016. But with younger players getting games even if they didn’t deserve them, he could see the writing on the wall. In an exclusive extract from his book Stevie J: The Cat with the Giant Story, Johnson reveals what really happened the day he was “given the arse”.
AS A player who was in the twilight of his career and who wanted to go out on a high, I became frustrated at the way Geelong seemed to be looking towards the future rather than doing everything possible to win games.
When the coaches were picking the team, you could see they had an eye on the future and they weren’t always playing the guys who deserved a game.
Nakia Cockatoo, who is going to be a great player, was given a few games when he didn’t deserve it.
Jordan Murdoch should have been dropped but kept holding his place in the side. Darcy Lang and Cory Gregson were kept in the team when they were battling. I’m sure that in the final few rounds (of 2015), after it became clear that we were going to miss the finals for the first time since 2006, they were playing Josh Walker to try to increase his trade value. That was hard for me to come to terms with.
I was playing for my career, but there were people around me in the team who were getting games for reasons other than making us the strongest team we could be.
As I struggled through the first half of the season, my relationship with Chris Scott suffered as well.
While he had been really supportive of me on so many occasions and helped my career a lot by playing me in the midfield, he found it difficult to have tough conversations with me because I wasn’t afraid to challenge him.
I think Scotty was worried about how I would react to being delivered some home truths about my future. So he basically stopped talking to me. I had to watch his press conferences to know what he was thinking.
Coming into our last game of the season, against Adelaide at Simonds Stadium, I knew that the club had made a decision that James Kelly and Mathew Stokes were not going to be offered new contracts.
But I still hadn’t been given a decision on my future. So I organised another meeting with Chris Scott and Steve Hocking. They wanted to know where my head was at and I wanted to know what they were thinking.
I thought I had proved in the previous five games that my body had plenty of resilience left. And I certainly believed that I had been getting better physically as the season had gone on.
I said in the meeting that I was willing to do just about anything to stay at Geelong.
I knew that the Cats had some gun recruits, including Adelaide star Patrick Dangerfield, in their sights, so I had no doubt they were a massive chance to climb back towards the top of the ladder in 2016. I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
I had said to Geelong’s list manager, Stephen Wells, weeks earlier that I would be prepared to play for around half my current salary.
I also said that if they wanted to keep playing kids, I would be happy to play only 15 games in the AFL.
I told Scotty and Hock that I knew plenty of people believed I was finished, but I wanted to prove them wrong.
They seemed to appreciate that I believed I still had something to offer and that I wanted to be a one-club player.
The meeting wound up with them saying they still hadn’t made their minds up and that they would go away and chat about it. I walked out of the meeting thinking I had a chance to survive.
I’m led to believe that the discussion about my future lasted for quite some time that Monday afternoon and started up again on Tuesday morning.
I think the discussion was still going when our Tuesday training session started.
I was given the session off because I had an adductor injury, but I went out and stood by the sidelines as the boys went through their paces.
I was standing next to Cameron Ling, who was doing some work with our player leadership group when I saw Chris Scott walk up the race and on to the field.
I looked towards Scotty, but he just turned away. My stomach churned. “Oh shit,” I muttered. “He couldn’t look at me. I reckon I’ve just been given the arse.”
Not long after the session wrapped up, I was tapped on the shoulder by Steve Hocking. He asked me to come for a chat. I had a sick feeling in my stomach.
The meeting only went for 15 minutes but it felt like an hour. Hock looked me in the eye and delivered the news.
“We’re not going to offer you a contract for next season,” he said.
I tried not to show any emotion. I knew there was nothing I could say to change their minds, so I just had to cop it on the chin.
I could see that it had been a difficult decision. I could see that written on the face of Stephen Wells — the bloke who had drafted me — and I could see it on Scotty’s face, and I have no doubt that he found the process of moving on blokes like Kel, Stokesy and me very difficult.
I asked them why I was not deemed up to getting another year.
The answer was something along the lines of them not being comfortable with me playing the majority of the following season in the VFL.
I was in a bit of a state of disbelief. Then the reality of the situation dawned on me.
My lip started quivering a little bit as I looked around the room. I shook their hands and walked out.
I didn’t want to be bitter at that moment, but I was. I had been sacked from my job.
That’s what made me feel embarrassed. I went over the road to the 7-Eleven and bought a packet of smokes. I chugged down two darts in the car park as all sorts of emotions coursed through my brain.
I’m a pretty proud person, and I still felt I was capable of doing my job.
But I was embarrassed that my bosses had lost their belief in me. It was a crushing feeling.
At around five o’clock that evening my doorbell rang. I found Chris Scott standing there with a blank look on his face and a six-pack of Asahi beers in his hand.
Scotty didn’t seem to know what to say. I invited him in and we sat on the couch and drank the beers while the kids played at our feet.
I said to him that I understood it was his job to make these kinds of hard decisions. I added that I didn’t agree with the decision, but I understood how footy clubs work. I wasn’t going to hold it against him.
I knew that blaming people and getting upset wasn’t going to be good for my future prospects in footy.
I think he respected that I copped the decision on the chin. When Erin came out and sat with us, Scotty said: “I completely understand if either of you want to punch me right now.”
Erin had a chuckle, then asked: “Who’s taking Steve’s position next season?”
Scotty reeled off seven or eight names of young guys who were likely to be used across half-forward and in short bursts in the midfield.
Among his list were Daniel Menzel, who had only recently returned from his fourth knee reconstruction, and Linc McCarthy, who hadn’t played for a year due to chronic foot problems.
I thought, “Geez, I wouldn’t be pinning my hopes on these guys.”
I was really keen for those players to shake off their injury problems and do well. But to me it seemed a high-risk strategy to get rid of a player who had a track record of kicking 30 to 40 goals in most seasons and replace him with virtually untried kids.
It did leave me wondering a bit about the decision-making process.
Our discussion became a bit lighthearted again when I asked Scotty, “If I do play somewhere else next year, who are you going to play on me?”
Scotty had a laugh. It was a bit of an icebreaker after all the serious talk. He wasn’t sure. As he sat there pondering my question, I got the feeling he was thinking, “I hope he doesn’t make us look silly by dominating a game against us next year”.
After a while I could sense Scotty getting a bit emotional.
It was clear that playing a role in ending my career at Geelong had been really tough for him.
There’s no doubt Chris found it really difficult to have to push three of us out of the club.
I think he probably found himself thinking, “Who am I to show these blokes, who have given everything for the club and played in so many premierships, the door?”
I thought it showed a lot of character for Scotty to come around to my house. I was really impressed by that.
By the following day I had calmed down and begun to accept the decision.
I committed to playing a farewell game. I could sense that all my teammates really wanted to perform well for Kel, Stokesy and me, even though the game was a dead rubber because we were out of finals calculations.
I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder as I ran through the banner.
I wanted to prove to the footy world that I still had plenty to offer. But any lingering bitterness soon dissipated when the game started and the crowd roared at my every move.
The buzz around the stadium was awesome.
On that day against the Crows I felt like every time the ball came inside 50 my teammates were looking for me, even if I was a bit out of position.
We were taking the piss. It was awesome fun. I got an opportunity late in the game when Stokesy carried the ball inside 50 and kicked it in my direction.
I took a chest mark in the goalsquare and fell to the ground. The crowd went mental.
I didn’t know the Geelong crowd was capable of making that much noise. It was a great feeling.
I gave the crowd a couple of fist pumps. Not far from me, Andrew Mackie was waving his arms in the air towards the crowd.
Suddenly, all the fans at that end of the ground were out of their seats. It was incredible. It just made me feel so good inside.
The support the Geelong supporters gave me over the journey, through the ups and the downs, was pretty special.
I’ll fondly remember the way they sent me off for the rest of my life.
I enjoyed a great ride with the Cats, but all good things have to come to an end.