A fan favourite, Graham Johncock played 227 entertaining games for the Adelaide Football Club.
After starting out as a small forward, Johncock established himself as one of the most damaging rebound defenders in the game.
In this instalment of Where Are They Now? we reflect on his decorated career, and tell how the Crows threw out their draft plan to secure the Port Magpies junior in 2000.
Johncock was born and bred in Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. He grew up around football and, specifically, the Mallee Park Peckers where his father Jack, uncles and cousins all spent their Saturdays.
Johncock started playing at the age of six or seven. He ran water for the senior teams, and as he grew older regularly played two games on the same day – Under-17s and A-Grade. In 1999, he played in two winning Grand Finals on the one day. Mallee Park is famous for being an AFL breeding ground, particularly for Indigenous talent …
“There have been a fair few AFL players out of Mallee Park. Peter Burgoyne and Byron Pickett were a little bit older than me. In my age group, there was Shaun Burgoyne and Elijah Ware, who was on Port Adelaide’s list for a while. Then there were some younger guys like Eddie Betts, Lindsay Thomas and Derick Wanganeen, who was at Hawthorn. Daniel Wells also played there for a bit.”
Port Lincoln forms part of Port Magpies SANFL development zone. At the end of 1999, the Magpies invited Graham, his brother Barry and cousins Jeremy and Malcolm to train with the club …
“Port Magpies kept a bit of an eye on us in Port Lincoln. They wanted to have a bit more of a look, so they offered to get us some accommodation in Adelaide while we trained with them over the offseason.
“At the end of pre-season, they extended the lease on the house and wanted us to stay in Adelaide and play. We spent the year 2000 playing for the Port Magpies. I spent the first half of the year playing Under-19s, and in the second half of the year I played in the reserves. I played in a reserves Grand Final that year, but we lost to the Eagles.”
The raw but talented teenager was invited to the AFL Draft Camp, where he spoke to about half of the clubs. The Crows had to rethink their pre-draft strategy when Johncock’s name was still on the board at pick No.67. The Club had only planned to use four selections and pass on their fifth pick, which they would hang onto for the Pre-Season Draft.
But Recruiting Manager James Fantasia and Football Manager John Reid, who had seen Johncock star in a Grand Final as a 15-year-old while scouting another player, insisted the hard-nosed defender was too good to pass up and called his name with the Club’s fifth and final pick. After the draft, the Adelaide recruiters found out that Hawthorn were poised to pounce with pick No.72 …
“At the end of 2000, I put my name in the draft and was lucky enough to get picked up by Adelaide. I only spent the one year in the SANFL system in Adelaide. It all just happened so quickly – within 9-10 months. I guess the SA-based clubs had a bit more of a look in because I’d played locally.
“I didn’t care that I wasn’t picked until late, I was just happy to be picked up at all. I guess I just put it down to the fact that not many clubs knew about me.”
It was a dream come true for the Adelaide fan, who had made ceramic replicas of the Club’s 1997 and 1998 premiership cups as an art project …
“I was a mad Crows supporter growing up, so it all worked out for me pretty well. I looked up to the likes of Andrew McLeod, Simon Goodwin, Mark Ricciuto and Darren Jarman. To be drafted and then training and playing alongside them was pretty special.”
Johncock’s first year with the Crows was a frustrating one. He fractured his jaw in a collision with a teammate in his SANFL league debut for the Port Magpies, and spent a few more weeks on the sidelines after having his wisdom teeth removed.
After being named as an emergency a few times late in the 2001 season, Johncock made his AFL debut against the Western Bulldogs at Docklands in Round One of the following year …
“I came off the bench in my first game and got sent down to the back pocket. The ball came in and my opponent, Simon Garlick, took a mark on me in the goal square and turned around and kicked the goal. That was my first contest in the AFL. I thought, ‘This is going to be pretty hard!’
“I was a bit nervous, but I settled down and started to find the footy a bit. I actually kicked a goal myself, so that was probably the most memorable moment of my first game.”
Best on ground in Adelaide’s win over the Bulldogs that day was Andrew McLeod, who immediately became a mentor to the wide-eyed lad from Port Lincoln …
“Bunji (McLeod) was the first person to greet me and shake my hand when I walked into the Club on day one. He always invited me around for dinner whenever he sensed I was a little bit down with form or injuries or whatever. He always wanted to see how I was going.
“Training-wise, he was second-to-none in terms of how he went about it. He had crook knees and couldn’t train the same as everyone else, but he made sure he was in good nick. He’d be on crutches after games because his knees were so bad, but his professionalism got him up to play every week.”
Johncock went on to play all 25 games in 2002 and was one of only six Crows to do so. He won the Club’s award for Emerging Talent, playing not in his regular role as a defender but as a forward. In 2003, the skilful small topped Adelaide’s goalkicking with 30.8, including a career-high haul of six against St Kilda …
“I played a couple of years up forward and went alright. I won the goalkicking even though it was only 30-odd goals! At the time, we had stars like Andrew McLeod and Wayne Carey, who kicked 29 goals, and Mark Ricciuto (24) wasn’t too far off either. To pip them at the post … I’ll claim it!”
But the popular Crows figure is best remembered for his smarts and rebounding ability in the backline, earning the reputation as one of the best small defenders in the modern era. One of the most memorable clips in his show reel is a chase-down tackle on Gary Ablett Junior in full flight …
“Early days, I stood the likes of Gavin Wanganeen and Phil Matera. Matera was always dangerous. He’d only get eight or nine touches but he’d kick four or five goals. In the latter part of my career, it was guys like Steven Milne and Mark LeCras, who were always tough to play on. There were a lot of good players with different styles and they all probably gave me a bit of trouble at times.”
After overcoming a few injuries early in his AFL career, Johncock became a durable and consistent contributor. He finished top five in Adelaide’s Club Champion award six times, and was selected to play in the International Rules series, as well as the Indigenous All-Stars and the ‘Dream Team’ in the 2008 clash with Victoria.
Johncock achieved all this despite a disdain for pre-season training, and rocking up underdone at the start of nearly every summer …
“It was the worst thing about playing footy, especially, at the highest level. There was always a level of work that needed to be done over the summer. In the offseason, because we didn’t get much time away during the year, I liked to get away from the Club and footy and go and do a lot of camping, fishing and catching up with family and friends.
“I didn’t mind a beer every now and then either and I think that was my downfall in the end. Basically, I just looked at beer and got fat!
“It used to make it twice as hard to get back into good nick for the start of the season, but somehow I was able to do it. By the time Round One came around, I got my skinfolds under control and was ready to go for another year.”
Johncock played a total of 227 games for Adelaide – ranked 11th all-time at the Club. However, his 200th game was one to forget. He’d spent the week leading up to the game against St Kilda at Docklands icing a hip injury, which had landed him in hospital the week prior …
“Against Essendon the week before, I actually got carried off the oval and the doc at the time, Doctor Sando, pushed me across the ground in a wheelchair! He thought I might’ve fractured my hip with the way I landed awkwardly, but it turned out just to be bad bruising of the bone and muscle.
“With the recovery process, I managed to get myself up for the next week, which was my 200th game. ‘Craigy’ (coach Neil Craig) encouraged me to do everything I could to get up for the game, and not hold off for a week so I could play my 200th in Adelaide.
“In hindsight, I wish I did have the week off and played the game at home because we got flogged by the Saints that day and I had a few goals kicked on me!
“It’s just the way it went. I was still very proud to reach the milestone.”
Renowned as a big game player, Johncock lined up in 16 finals for Adelaide. His last taste of September action was the heartbreaking 2012 Preliminary Final loss to Hawthorn at the MCG, where he kicked a long running goal to put Adelaide in front with just minutes to play …
“It was my fourth Preliminary Final and we’d lost the previous three pretty closely. I started as the sub that game. I was keen to get out there, but I had to bide my time and wait for the call. Once I got out there, I tried to find the ball and get myself into the game.
“The ball happened to come my way. I got a short pass from Richard Douglas. I looked around and all I saw were the two big sticks. I thought, ‘Stuff it, I’m going for goal!’
“When I kicked it my first thought was, ‘I could be going to my first Grand Final here’.
“Then ball went back to the centre. Hawthorn won the centre bounce and the ball went straight down the other end where Cyril kicked the goal. It was pretty devastating. The one thing I didn’t get to participate in or achieve in my AFL career was making it to that last Saturday in September.
“We were so close, but yet so far on a few occasions.”
Johncock looks back at those big games as some of the fondest moments of his brilliant career …
“Playing at the ‘G’ in finals, we played in front of some big crowds. I think there were nearly 90,000 people there when we played Collingwood in the (2002) Preliminary Final early in my career.
“Showdowns were always good to play in because of the passion and the rivalry that exists in Adelaide. I think you always remember your first game as well.”
Limited to only two games in 2013, the much-loved Crow called time on his AFL career midway through the season. Although it was difficult at the time, Johncock knows he made the right call …
“I had a feeling that it might be coming, so I wanted it to end on my terms, and I did that. I have no regrets whatsoever. If you’d told me at the start of my career that I’d play over 200 games, I would’ve taken that every day of the week.
“I’m very happy with what I achieved and, at that stage, I thought it was time to start thinking about the next chapter of my life, especially, with a young family.”
Johncock didn’t hang up the boots altogether. In fact, he’s still playing and coaching back home in Port Lincoln at his junior club, Mallee Park. He’s also a mentor in the community through his role with West Coast Youth Services …
“I’m coaching and still having a kick, just roaming around the forward line to keep the boys honest! It was good to get back to Port Lincoln and play with the brothers again. We had a really good year last year. In my first year of coaching, we were able to win the Grand Final so I’m going at 100 per cent at the moment!
“I’m having a ball with it and learning along the way. I’ve got a lot of support as well, which is good. When I got back home, I got a knock at the door saying there was a job available working with youth in Port Lincoln. I’m working at West Coast Youth Community Services. It’s about empowering young people, working with them and trying to put them on the right track.”
Johncock still keeps an eye on the Crows and their new No.18 – his second cousin, Eddie Betts (his mother and Eddie’s father are first cousins). He attended the Club’s NAB Challenge game in Port Lincoln last year, and is hoping to visit the new Adelaide Oval this week …
“I still support my Crows and watch the boys play whenever I can. Hopefully, I can get over this week to have a bit of a look. I actually haven’t been to the new Adelaide Oval yet, so I’m looking forward to that.
“It’s not always easy to get over to Adelaide with a young family, as well as work and footy. My eldest daughter, Felicity, is going to school now. My second daughter, Nevaeh, has just turned five and my little man (Graham Junior) is about to turn two. They keep us on our toes, which is good.”