Photos (Top to Bottom): Jack Johnston, the new FFT Board member; Jack Johnston (back row, extreme right) in a Caledonians side photographed at KGV Park in the late 1960s; Jack Johnston (second from left, front row) and the author (third from left, back row) in a Caledonians reserve side photographed at Wentworth Park in the late 1960s; Referee Jack Johnston (partially obscured at extreme right) introduces the captains of a Tasmania youth side(Chris Hey on left) and the Australian Institute of Sport teams before a game at KGV Park in the late 1970s.
Jack Johnston remains the only Tasmanian referee to have reached FIFA ranks.
The 61-year-old retired police commissioner has returned to the game as a member of the board of Football Federation Tasmania.
I interviewed him this week about his life in football, as a player and a referee, and his forthcoming work on the FFT Board.
Walter Pless: When did your involvement with football begin?
Jack Johnston: As a very young child I would go with my father almost every Saturday afternoon to South Hobart, mainly to watch Caledonians (Calies) play. Of course, back then, football supporters followed the team which respresented their background, so, being true Scots, that was Calies.
They were great times as the senior players were all so welcoming and had a great attitude towards the sport. There was no primary school football in those days so it was not until Clarence High School that I was able to play competitively, although that’s maybe not the right word to describe our team. Whilst we were pretty honest toilers, our lack of skills as a team meant that we usually were beaten by double digits each week, but that never stopped us coming back for more. I was pretty lucky in those days to play alongside some pretty good young footballers in the State Representative teams as well.
WP: Which clubs did you play for?
JJ: With the background with Calies, it seemed only natural to join them and I was able to get games in their reserves, with a couple of senior games thrown in before I transferred to Launceston in my job when I was 18 and I joined what was then Ravenswood Olympic.
WP: Why did you become a referee?
JJ: Everyone took their game pretty seriously back then and, after a couple of years with this great bunch, I transferred to Deloraine in my job. There was a ‘no train no play’ in force at the club and no exceptions were granted, so, not being able to get through to Launceston for training on a regular basis, I had a tough choice to make. It was then that I decided to take up refereeing so that I could maintain my involvement in the game and be motivated to stay fit for when I returned to Launceston or Hobart and started playing again.
Once I started, though, I loved it and found that I seemed to do a reasonably good job of it.
WP: Did you miss playing?
JJ: In the time just before I went to Deloraine I had had a fair bit of success scoring goals for the second division side at Ravenswood Olympic and was in good form and playing alongside some really good players. so it was hard to be away from the friendship and camaraderie of mates in a team sport to be a bit isolated as a referee.
After a short time. Though. the ‘refereeing family’ filled the void. For several years. though. I harboured a desire to see whether I could make it again as a player. but as time went by it became obvious that I was better suited to refereeing and could contribute to the game more in that capacity.
WP: You rose to FIFA ranks and became the only Tasmanian referee to do so. How did that come about?
JJ: There is no doubt in my mind that ‘timing is everything’ in sport, as in lots of aspects of our lives, and we must always position ourselves to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. At the time, I was pretty young for a referee and was refereeing well. There were a few senior referees in Tasmania who wanted to see a FIFA Referee and they thought that I had what it took. At that time, I had been refereeing cup finals, senior leagues, representative games and so on, so they thought that I had the experience and the potential.
The National President of the Referees Federation came to Hobart and watched me officiate in a match between China and a Tasmanian Representative team played at the Showgrounds. He was pleased with what he saw and pushed my case with officials on the big island. It all took off from there.
I was then used regularly to fly to Melbourne, and also Sydney and Adelaide, to referee matches in the National League (The Philips League) and even had the honour of being selected to referee the Philips Cup Final. I must have done a reasonable job as I was added to the FIFA list and proud to be selected to travel to the youth tournament in Mexico
WP: There do not seem to be the same pathways for our young referees, given that we have no A-League team. Would you agree with that?
JJ: I am not sure that I do agree. There were no Tasmanian teams in the National competition when I was selected, but whilst that meant that I was not (initially) given as many games as the referees on the mainland in that competition, I was provided with the opportunity. Referees nowadays are given opportunities at national carnivals to be ‘seen’ and, if performing at a high enough standard, they will be identified as having potential. There is no doubt, though, that if we had a team in the A League, then there would be more opportunities.
WP: What would be your advice to young referees aspiring to rise to the top?
JJ: Simply be the best that you can be. To get to that level, though, takes work to understand the Laws of the Game, to be fit enough to ‘be there’ when the tough decisions need to be made, to be mentally strong but also understanding of what players are experiencing. Not much to it really, is there?
WP: What practical advice would you give a young referee in regard to handling a match?
JJ: The things that really matter, I have just mentioned. Fitness is critical. If you are not ‘there’ when something happens, how can you get the decision right? If you are puffing and out of breath, how can you talk to the players to defuse potential incidents?
WP: What are your aims as a director of FFT?
JJ: I was really pleased to be invited to join the Board of FFT, but, after being out of the game for quite a while, a lot of things had changed. I have been so warmly welcomed by many of my older colleagues (some of whom were not necessarily my strongest supporters when they were players). I am still catching up and have to listen to lots of people to get a better understanding of where everyone wants to be with this great game of ours. My simple aim at this stage is to contribute to the advancement of football at all levels in Tasmania. I must say I have been impressed with the work that has been done to try and realise a vision of a ‘home of football’ and hope to help this progress.
WP: Do you have a specific role on the FFT Board?
JJ: The President, Sean Collins, runs a focussed ship and everyone on the Board has a role to play by bringing their own personal experiences, both from within the football community and life more generally, to every decision that has to be made. Everyone, me included, is there to do the best that they can. I must comment on the efforts of the new CEO of FFT, John Boulous. He has brought a level of energy and professionalism that can only enhance football in this State. With all of these people working together with the football communities, it is hard to see us not advancing.
WP: Are you optimistic about the future of Tasmanian football?
JJ: I see a great future for football in Tasmania. It was disappointing that Australia’s World Cup bid was not successful as that would have provided a fantastic impetus for our game, but we shouldn't dwell on that. We have a long history of a lot of young people playing our game at junior levels, but that does not translate into increased participation levels at senior ranks. This has been the case for a long time, but if we can increase youth participation by just a few per cent, then our game will move to the next level. There is no doubt that we have to work on the standard of our grounds so that more football can be played more often and at a higher standard for all levels. We should never give up on the aspiration for a return to a viable State League and a team in the national competition as it is through these that we can provide pathways to excellence for those that have the ability. Then, when these things are done, grow football as a sport for the whole family and one where families can interact with each other.
WP: Will we see you at games next season?
JJ: I look forward to turning up at a range of games and catching up with as many people as I can and find out what it is they are thinking about for the betterment of our game.
WP: What is your favourite personal anecdote about your own refereeing days?
JJ: There are so many that maybe this should be a discussion for another day.
WP: Do you still see any referees or players from the time you were a player and referee?
JJ: Yes, it is really good to be able to meet from time to time with some of the older players and former referees. Those that are still involved in the game with various clubs have been most welcoming and make me feel good to be back.
WP: Do you think referees should be 'wired for sound', as they are now at the top level to facilitate communication with their assistants?
JJ: I must confess to being a little bit bemused about the technology to enable the referee to communicate with his assistants. The only times I had trouble communicating would not have been helped by technology, simply because of the different nationalities of the people involved. Referees working closely with their assistants develop their own ‘language’ for communicating and those silent signals are sometimes the preferred means of communication.
WP: Do you want to see technology introduced to judge, for example, whether a ball has crossed the goal-line, or do you favour the current set-up where the referee is the sole arbiter?
JJ: I am a traditionalist and prefer to leave the referee and assistants to get on with their jobs. There will be mistakes and these, unfortunately, usually happen in the higher profile matches and so they get greater negative coverage. In the overall scheme of things, the referees get a damn sight more right than wrong, and even the use of technology such as goal-line cameras can make errors. They can’t stop players from getting in the way, for example. Part of the experience of refereeing is to know that the buck stops with you and there is nowhere to hide. I think that this would be diminished if referees felt ‘Oh well, I don't have to be up with play because the camera will sort it out if I get it wrong’.