HARVEY Johnston has always had his doubters. Now he’s focussed proving them wrong.
“I think I’ve come out of the blue a little bit, I’ve always been a bit of an underdog,” said Johnston.
“In every case of my life whether that be sport or school, I’ve always been doubted.
“Even coming into this year, no one really thought I was a chance of being picked up.
Johnston’s hard work and determination is allowing him to turn his expectations into reality.
Johnston played just two games of footy for the Sandringham Dragons last year, forced to bide his time in local footy as the older “top agers” were preferred in their draft year.
“Last year I felt that I’d put in the work at training, to not get picked continuously frustrated me a lot and made me doubt myself a bit.
“I thought if I’m doing all of this, why can’t I get an opportunity, it was challenging at times and a bit tough.
“My teammates were good at keeping me positive and reminding me that my time will come.”
And hasn’t Johnston’s time come.
The midfielder/forward, who plays in the mould of former Tigers champion Shane Edwards, averaged 17.5 disposals and booted six goals throughout his 2023 campaign.
“I loved the Dragons season.
“I achieved all my goals that I set out to achieve in the pre-season.
“Playing each game I could and going out there to showcase what I can do was really valuable to me.
The Mordi Brae junior doesn’t accumulate the same amount of footy as some of his other teammates, but certainly makes every possession count.
“Playing in the finals series was unreal.
“It was the best feeling to win the flag, even to this day it’s so good to reflect on.
“People doubted us, I sort of had a laugh about it because people didn’t see the work we put in behind the scenes.
“To bounce back from that criticism made it even more special, it was fantastic, everyone was doing all the team things, and I couldn’t ask for a better bunch of boys.
“To finish the season like that was unreal.”
Johnston was elected vice-captain of the Dragons this season and thrived in the leadership position.
“I love to get everyone involved and I try to be the guy that everyone can come up to and speak to.
“I didn’t want the younger players to feel like if they made a mistake that they wouldn’t get another game, I wanted to reassure them that they’re here for the right reasons and that they’ve been picked because they earned the opportunity.
“I like to give lots of positive feedback but also constructive criticism when they need it, which I think is important in leadership.”
Johnston is a lead by example type, who tries to bring other players along for the ride with him and says he learned a lot from the likes of Will Ashcroft and Harry Sheezel last season.
“Last year was a learning year for me.
“I was very grateful to play those two games, but I really wanted to play more and showcase my skills at that level.
“Watching those blokes at training, the way they trained correlated to how they played on game day.
“Seeing what they did week in week out helped me to see what I needed to do, so I had a big focus on doing all the little things really well.”
Sandringham Dragons head coach Rob Harding was impressed by Johnston’s development throughout the season and his ability to play a variety of roles.
“He stood out in pre-season with his ability to find a way out of traffic and that just grew throughout the year,” said Harding.
“His game grew enormously throughout the year, he’s very creative and sets his teammates up really well.
“He’s fantastic around the group, he’s a great cultural leader and I think that’s one of the most important things he would bring to an AFL club.
“Every teammate absolutely loves him; he was one of our key cultural drivers at the Dragons this year.
“He’s a beautiful person and comes from a great family, he’s very humble and is proud to have achieved what he has so far, but he knows he’s got a lot more that he can do.
“I think he’s going to be an exciting one to watch.
Johnston had a breakout game against Western Australia in the National Championships, racking up 29 touches as an inside midfielder.
“It was such a big achievement for me, even just to make that squad,” said Johnston.
“It was one of my main goals for the year.
“It was a great experience, going to training to train with the best of the best and seeing how each person goes about it was great.”
Johnston was one of six bottom-bottom agers to join the Dragons a few years ago and prior to that was on his way to pursuing a basketball career.
He was recruited at 13 years of age to join AUBD, a basketball academy run by former NBA superstar Sedale Threatt and family.
In 2017 and 2019, Johnston flew over to the United States of America to participate in a tournament against the likes of up-and-coming young guns Trentyn Flowers and Isaac Peralta.
“I won a championship over there; it was such a great experience.
“They were really good for me because they cared heaps. They always put me with the older kids so I was able to develop a bit earlier and quickly and get used to the physicality.
“At that time, I thought I was going down the basketball pathway.
“It was good to get that experience and exposure over there, when I came back here, I couldn’t make a state team and then footy came to the fore a bit more.”
Johnston says the hard work he put in in during the early morning training sessions helped him when the football training regimes increased once he spent more time in the elite talent pathways.
“Trainings would start at 6am so I had to be up at 5am and eat breakfast to get there by 5.30am. I trained until 7:30am and then had to quickly get to school.
“It really shaped me and helped me to realise that if you really want something you sometimes have to go to great lengths to get it.”
It came to the stage where Johnston had to choose between both sports and so he decided to put his basketball career on hold.
“It was getting pretty full on; I’d have basketball training in the mornings and footy after school which made it a long day.
“It helped me to learn how to train and train properly.
“I had to make a decision, I dropped basketball because I felt I had a bit more of a realistic future in footy.
“I think basketball really helped to shape the footballer I am.
“I loved both sports, but always loved footy that little bit more. I haven’t looked back or second guessed it at all.”
When the Coates Talent League went on a community break, Johnston was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to play for the Sandringham Zebras in the VFL during the year.
“Like with everything this year it’s been such a great experience, to get the opportunity to play with AFL-listed boys was unreal.
“They’re a bunch of rippers, I had a great time down there.”
Johnston has an extensive support network of family and friends who has helped him get to where he is today but says mutual friend George Grey has been pivotal in guiding him.
Grey has spent time in the VFL playing for the Casey Demons.
“A lot of people say we’re a bit similar, he would always ask if I wanted to go for a run or a kick and this was 2-3 years ago when I was still really developing.
“Even this year, with talking to agents and clubs he’s given me heaps of advice.
“I’d love to see him get a chance in the AFL, the way he goes about things and trains is really impressive.
“I love bouncing ideas off him and asking questions of him.”
Johnston has also got a strong relationship with fellow Dragons Brodie Findlay and Tarkyn O’Leary.
“They’ve been so good over the years; I’ve loved growing up with them.
“They’ve been great with pushing me to be the best version of myself that I can be.
“We’re all like-minded people and I like to surround myself with people like them.”
It is clear that Johnston is a big family man who holds those close to him dearly.
“Mum and Dad have been really big with me and helped me to stay level-headed, I know I can always lean on them for support.
“I’m one that’s come from the unknown, last year when I was worrying about if I had a chance to get drafted, they were really good at keeping me grounded.”
Johnston is the eldest of three siblings to brother Fletcher and sister Lexi in the tight-knit Johnston family.
“They love their footy heaps; I try to be there for them whenever they need it and give them support.
“I always try to get down to their games and help them to continue to improve their footy.
“Mum’s adjusted her work hours each week to get us to training and games and has done that since we’ve been young, it’s a huge credit to her and I can’t thank her enough.
“Dad’s always been there for us when we need it too.”
Johnston said it would be a “surreal” feeling to hear his name called out at the draft and that “a few tears might be shed”.
“It would be amazing, I’ve put in so much work and made heaps of sacrifices, it would mean the world.
“If I was to hear my name called out, I’d just be so happy to get that opportunity to be at an AFL club.
“It would mean so much to my family as well, they’ve put in heaps of hours into helping me develop, watching me even when no one else was.
“My mates would be so pumped up as well, they’d be so happy for me.