Cats’ Steve Johnson defies the sceptics
All week the question was would Steve Johnson play. Boy, did he play.
The Geelong star’s remarkable performance in the Cats’ 38-point victory over Collingwood in Saturday’s AFL grand final came just a week after he lay on the MCG turf with a wrenched knee that looked to have shattered his hopes of playing.
According to team-mates, Johnson was struggling early in the week just to get out of bed and walk.
He declared himself a certain starter on Friday.
Few outside the Cats’ inner circle believed him until he took the field.
And once there, sceptics, conspiracy theorists and Collingwood couldn’t keep him down as Geelong took control in the final term of a match finely balanced for three quarters to run out 18.11 (119) to 12.9 (81) winners.
Johnson wasn’t just a man with one good leg making up the numbers. Instead was racking them up.
The 28-year-old booted four goals, had 14 possessions – many of which helped change the momentum Geelong’s way – and left his team-mates awe-struck.
“He was amazing. For a bloke who couldn’t walk when he got out of bed for the last couple of days, to do what he did today was just incredible,” Cats defender James Kelly said.
“I’ve known Stevie for a long time, and I know how mentally strong he is and how tough a bloke he is.
“The pressure that was on him – if he played he would have to perform. And he managed that pressure.”
Skipper Cameron Ling agreed.
“We knew once he put his hand up to play, there’d be no doubts he’d be able to play 100 per cent,” Ling said.
“He wouldn’t allow himself to go out there and let the team down. He was sensational.”
Midfielder Jimmy Bartel was clearly best afield in a match full of blue-and-white hooped heroes – with four pivotal moments to drag the Cats over the top of the Magpies.
His freakish banana kick goal from a forward pocket inside the last minute of the second quarter sent the Cats to half-time just three points down and with momentum.
And three third-quarter moments proved vital. With the Cats trailing by five points midway through the term, Bartel pulled down a huge mark and goaled to put his side ahead.
Then two clever handballs set up goals to Mitch Duncan and Tom Hawkins to give his side a seven-point buffer at the final change.
Hawkins, who booted three goals in the third term, then set about dominating the early part of the final quarter.
He missed two set shots from big marks, then took another and dished off to Johnson for the opening goal of the fourth.
Fittingly, Bartel iced the match at the 14-minute mark of the term with a goal to put his side into an unassailable 26-point lead.
Defender Tom Lonergan was another important player, shutting down Collingwood forward Travis Cloke, who was threatening to tear the game apart in the first quarter.
But when history revisits the match, much will be made of Johnson’s efforts just to grace the MCG.
As he avoided the media to instead soak up precious moments with family, they let slip just how confident he was he could handle the occasion – and how proud they were of his bravery.
“We’ve spoken to him every day this week,” his mother Jenny said.
“I did have a few reservations, I was worried he wouldn’t play well and he’d be vilified for not playing well.
“But he’s gone out and proven that he was right to play.
“There’s no-one prouder in Melbourne at this moment than I am.”© AAP 2014