RUSSELL Johnston came to Alberton from Collingwood in March 1981 putting the Port Adelaide Football Club on trial for a year. A decade later, he left with his resume reading as Port Adelaide's greatest ruckman.

And if Johnston could rewrite the script, he would leave it just as destiny delivered - Port Adelaide before Collingwood.

"I am dyed in the wool Port Adelaide," says Johnston, lead ruckman in Port Adelaide's Greatest Team (1870-2000).

"And that will never change. I love them. I love everything about Port Adelaide, every little bit of Port Adelaide."

If anyone thought Port Adelaide was being short changed by Collingwood offering an eight-game ruckman in the trade for "son of a gun" Mark Williams during the summer of 1980-81, all doubt was cast away by Johnston's first appearance in the black-and-white bars at Alberton Oval on March 14, 1981.

In match-up of the SANFL and VFL premiers, Johnston wore the No.29 jumper for the first time against Collingwood's fierce rival, Richmond.

"That was an amazing week," said Johnston. "I was young (21) ... and when you are young, there is just one way to play - go out there, give it all you got."

Johnston certainly did that. To quote former Glenelg captain Peter Marker from the television commentary in the match won by Richmond by one point, "Port Adelaide ought to get this chap off; he is going to send his price soaring the way he is playing today."

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PTV: Port v Richmond 1981 - Friday Flashback

A packed house at Alberton witnessed a one-point thriller between the previous years Premiers in the VFL and SANFL.

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Johnston certainly was not being denied a VFL-style pay cheque in moving to Alberton to ensure Williams was cleared to Collingwood where he became captain and a club champion with the Copeland Trophy. 

"I did very well that year," Johnston recalls. "Collingwood wanted me to go because they were so keen to get 'Choco'. And they kept me pretty happy by topping up my wages. Yeah, I did pretty well that year getting two pay cheques. That's how keen Collingwood were to make that deal for Mark Williams go through."

The real pay dirt was in the rewards no money can buy in league football - an SANFL premiership in Johnston's first season at Port Adelaide with grand final success against Glenelg in 1981.

"You go through life dreaming of playing for Collingwood - and then you get to Port Adelaide," Johnston said. "As soon as I arrived, I felt I was at a club that belonged in finals - so I wanted to be part of Port Adelaide. From that first moment at Alberton, right there and then, it felt right to be with Port Adelaide. And I am never changing ... I am Port Adelaide forever. Nothing will change that."

RUSSELL JOHNSTON grew up in Casterton, Victoria - close enough to the South Australian border to know "a bit about SANFL football".

"I'd grown up knowing about Sturt and what they had done in the '70s," said Johnston of Port Adelaide's nemesis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I'd seen the odd-SANFL game you'd pick up on television. But when I moved to Melbourne, I lost touch and I didn't think much of it (the SANFL). It was VFL ..."

Johnston made his VFL debut in round 3, 1980 in an 11-point loss to Hawthorn at Princes Park earning three hit-outs while Peter Moore led the Collingwood rucks. He stayed in the senior line-up for a month playing against Hawthorn, Richmond, Essendon and St Kilda before earning a recall for another four-game run from rounds 17-20 against St Kilda, South Melbourne, Fitzroy and Geelong.

"I was the country recruit working my way from the Collingwood under-19s, trying to break into the league side with a bloke who won a couple of Brownlow Medals, Peter Moore, in my way," recalled Johnston.

"I'd played a few games and then Mark Williams was in Collingwood's sights. I went to Port Adelaide to give that a one-year trial ... and loved it. Even more when you win a flag in your first year. I was not going anywhere after that ..."

Port Adelaide was tested, on and off the field, in the mid-80s before John Cahill returned - after stints at VFL club Collingwood and SANFL rival West Adelaide - for the 1988 season. Johnston's part in that campaign ended after the round 19 clash against Sturt at Football Park. He was cited by SANFL umpiring director Peter Mead on video evidence for a bump on Sturt centreman Carl Dilena at the half-forward zone at the southern end of the West Lakes arena.

The five-game ban ended with Port Adelaide's grand final appearance - and victory - against Glenelg at Football Park.

"I was never reported by an umpire," Johnston said. "I never intended to hurt Carl; I did not play that way. But it looked bad. It looked ugly. And I could not change what had happened.

"I was shattered when they hit me with five weeks. I kept training - every day. There was still the chance, if we lost the second semi-final, that I would be clear of the suspension on grand final day.

"It didn't work out that way. I sat on the bench grand final day ... not sure you could do that now. I kept telling myself not to worry about what I could not change. I also felt I was going to get that one back ... we felt we had more premierships coming our way with players returning from the VFL - Greg Phillips, Martin Leslie, Bruce Abernethy were back (from Collingwood, Brisbane and Collingwood respectively) and there were more Port Adelaide players on the way (from VFL escapades)."

Russell Johnston (left) did not let his grand final suspension prevent him from celebrating the 1988 premiership; pictured here with Greg Phillips and George Fiacchi in the rooms post-game.

SEASON 1989 was the ultimate redemption for Johnston. He not only led Port Adelaide to the SANFL league premiership; he also collected the Jack Oatey Medal as the best-afield in the grand final whitewash of North Adelaide that was held to one goal (scored in the third term by Craig Burton, father of current Port Adelaide defender Ryan Burton).

"Going into that game," said Johnston, "we felt we had not played that well against North Adelaide (losing twice in three home-and-away matches in 1989, by 39 points in round 3 and by four points in round 21; but winning by 84 points in round 12 and 23 points in a keenly contested second semi-final).

"I felt we were evenly matched; a 50-50 grand final. It turned out pretty different.

"Life felt pretty good after that win (by 94 points, 15.18 to 1.8). I'd missed '88, had a lot of drive to make up that flag in '89 and finished with another in 1990. 

"We were always under pressure to win at Port Adelaide, but the real pressure that year was on (club president) Bruce Weber and his board while the AFL bid was on. As a team we were stronger with Mark Williams and Ben Harris back (from Brisbane). And Jack was in fine fiddle as a coach. Sure, we were under a lot of pressure as a team and as a club, but we achieved what Port Adelaide is all about - premierships.

Johnston, draped with his premiership medallion and Jack Oatey Medal as best afield, hoists the Thomas Seymour Hill trophy with John Cahill after Port Adelaide resounding win in the 1988 grand final.

"In 1990, we had a good year, a good side and a great win in the grand final.

"And that grand final (against Glenelg) finished me; I did the ankle late in the first quarter, needed a pin and never played SANFL again," added Johnston who moved to country football, returning to his SA-Victoria border roots at Millicent.

"Not a bad career - even made the State side; that proved I really belonged in senior football," said Johnston, a six-time State representative in the mid-80s.

But the ultimate selection was in Port Adelaide's Greatest Team as the lead ruckman.

"You don't go out for individual awards, but that one leaves me feeling incredibly blessed and honoured," Johnston said. "You play for premierships at Port Adelaide. But that (Greatest Team selection) is a tremendous honour. You look back and are left to think, 'You must have been pretty good'."

Johnston has lived on Queensland's Sunshine Coast for the past 25 years, near Port Adelaide premiership defender Roger Delaney. He remains tied to football with the Maroochydore Roos juniors and women's teams.

"And I love it," said Johnston.

Russell Johnston now resides in the Sunshine State; pictured here with fellow premiership heroes Roger Delaney and Greg Boyd and infamous Port Adelaide runner David Arnfield observing the team being put through its paces at the club's pre-season camp in Maroochydore earlier this year.

RUSSELL JOHNSTON

Age: 60 (February 10, 1960)

Played: Eight VFL games with Collingwood, 1980; 207 SANFL games with Port Adelaide, 1981-1990. Represented South Australia, six times.

Honours: Port Adelaide premiership player, 1981, 1989 and 1990; Port Adelaide, 1986-1990; Port Adelaide best-and-fairest, 1989; Port Adelaide Greatest Team, lead ruckman.

PORT ADELAIDE GREATEST TEAM

IN 2000, at the end of the 20th century, Port Adelaide honoured its greatest players - position by position - from the club's inception in 1870. This challenging task of selecting the ultimate team line-up fell to find club legends - Bob Quinn, Fos Williams, Dave Boyd, Russell Ebert and Greg Phillips. 

Selection criteria demanded a player have at least 50 games at Port Adelaide and the final line-up had to be a team built to win. The field was reduced to 51 nominees.

Since the team was named in June 2001, eight players have earned induction to the Australian Football Hall of Fame: John Abley, Craig Bradley, John Cahill, Russell Ebert, Geof Motley, Greg Phillips, Bob Quinn and Fos Williams.

The greatest line-up, from 1870-2000 is:

F: Scott Hodges, Tim Evans, Bob Quinn

HF: Dave Boyd, Leslie Dayman, Harold Oliver

C: Craig Bradley, Russell Ebert, John Cahill

HB: Neville Hayes, Greg Phillips, Geof Motley

B: Dick Russell, John Abley, Ted Whelan

1R: Russell Johnston, Allan Reval, Fos Williams (c)

Interchange: Harry Phillips, Jeff Potter, Peter Woite, Lloyd Zucker.

Coach: Fos Williams