North Launceston/Melbourne, Full Back, 1956-69
35 games, 30 goals for North Launceston, 1956-57
202 games, 20 goals for Melbourne, 1959-69
4 games, 3 goals for Box Hill, 1971 (Captain-Coach)
Melbourne VFL premierships 1959, 1960, 1964
Captain of Melbourne FC, 1969
12 representative matches for Victoria, 1960-67
Tasmanian Schoolboy representative, 1952 (Perth)
Melbourne FC Hall of Fame inductee, 2006
Named as one of Melbourne FC’s ‘150 Heroes’ (2008)
Melbourne FC Team of the Century, 2000 (Full Back)
Tasmanian Team of the Century, 2004 (Full Back)
Tall but agile, tough but skilful, brilliant but humble, few players have so personified the word ‘champion’ as Melbourne great Robert ‘Tassie’ Johnson.
Robert Edward Johnson was born in Launceston on December 2nd, 1937. A talented footballer from an early age, Johnson represented Tasmania at the National Schoolboys Carnival in 1952, and four years later he made his first appearance in senior football with North Launceston under Jim Ross. Already a well-built young man, Johnson spent his early years as a forward/follower, averaging close to a goal a game during his two seasons at senior NTFA level and displaying many of the skills for which he would become renowned later in his career.
After being named in the best players in both of North Launceston’s finals matches in 1957, Johnson signed with VFL club Melbourne; however, the TFL blocked Johnson’s clearance (one of many that year) and attempts at reaching an agreement dragged on for months. As a result, Johnson was forced to sit out the entire 1958 season, and even as late as November the National Football Council had dismissed an appeal by Melbourne for the clearance to be granted.
Despite the hold up, Johnson relocated to Victoria anyway, spending the season training with the team and making his first appearance in an exhibition match against Carlton in Brisbane. It was also during this time that Johnson acquired his famous nickname ‘Tassie’, bestowed so as to differentiate him from the two other Robert Johnsons then at the club. Eventually, Johnson’s clearance was approved, and he officially debuted for Melbourne in the opening match of 1959.
It soon became clear that Melbourne’s determination in pursuing Johnson had been well-justified: the 21-year old quickly became a key member of the dominant Demons team under Norm Smith, not as a forward as he had been in Tasmania, but as a superb defender. By the end of his second season, Johnson was a two-time premiership player and entrenched as Melbourne’s first-choice full back; however he would not stay in that position permanently. By 1964, Melbourne possessed two equally skilled Full Backs in Johnson and Bernie Massey, and so it was decided to utilise the more athletic and versatile Johnson in other roles.
He was subsequently moved to the back pocket to play the ‘resting ruckman’ role, one he performed with distinction in the third of his premiership wins, the famous victory over Collingwood in 1964. Johnson’s versatility also meant that he was capable of taking on the responsibility of number one ruckman himself when required, and even revisited his North Launceston roots with the occasional stint at Centre Half Forward. Fans were of little doubt however that Johnson was always at his best at Full Back.
Johnson’s brilliance as a footballer stemmed from the fact that he was simply a master of his craft. At 6’2” (189cm) he was a tremendous aerialist whether marking, rucking or particularly spoiling, his defensive fist invariably getting to the ball before his opponent had the chance to mark. When he chose to mark himself, his judgement was second-to-none, he possessed extremely safe hands and was renowned as remarkably cool under pressure. He was also tough, fans of the day fondly recalling his countless physical tussles with opposition spearheads, most notably Hawthorn champion John Peck.
Even when the ball wasn’t in his immediate vicinity, Johnson’s outstanding ability to read the play meant that he was always in the right position to affect the best outcome for his side. The true feather in Johnson’s cap, however, was his tremendous kicking: renowned as perhaps the finest drop kick in Victoria, his kick-outs frequently reached the centre of the ground and with great accuracy. In addition to his brilliant skills as a player, he was enormously popular with supporters for his ‘film star’ looks and genial nature, especially towards young fans. Johnson’s prowess was such that he donned the Big V for Victoria on 12 occasions and was selected as one of Harry Beitzel’s ‘Galahs’ for his second ‘World Tour’ in 1968, playing games across Europe and the USA.
Johnson’s leadership skills and ability to inspire teammates by on-field deeds saw him appointed as vice-captain to Hassa Mann in 1967, and upon Mann’s departure in 1969 he assumed the mantle of Melbourne captain, the club’s first Tasmanian skipper since Fred McGinis in 1901. Unfortunately, the Demons were by now a shadow of the great side they had once been, slumping to their first wooden spoon in 18 years with just three wins. The season was nevertheless to contain one highlight for Johnson when – in Round 16 against Carlton – he became the first Tasmanian to play 200 VFL games. Two games later he was gone, bowing out of VFL football after 202 senior games and having left an outstanding legacy.
After a year out of the game, Johnson’s final football role was a one-year stint as captain-coach of VFA club Box Hill in 1971; unfortunately, he managed only a handful of games for the season and failed to guide his side into the finals. In later life, Johnson retired to Queensland. He remained involved in sport for many years, particularly with the Coolum Beach Bowls Club.
A passionate football person until the end, ‘Tassie’ Johnson passed away on October 29th, 2015 at the age of 77. He had earlier lived to receive numerous accolades in recognition of his brilliant career, named at Full Back in both the Melbourne (2000) and Tasmanian (2004) Teams of the Century and selected as one of Melbourne’s ‘150 Heroes’ as part of the club’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2008 (one of 12 Tasmanians selected).