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John’s romantic return carries even greater poignancy

CFC TV: John Stephenson Interview John Stephenson played one senior game for Carlton in 1958. CFC TV had the great honour of interviewing him in June this year
Former Carlton player John Stephenson. (Photo: Supplied)
Former Carlton player John Stephenson. (Photo: Supplied)

On the morning of June 12 this year, on the eve of the team’s 13th round match with Hawthorn at the MCG, John Stephenson returned to the place he remembered as Princes Park some 56 years after first running out for Carlton.

John had answered the call to join fellow past players in a convivial cup of soup with today’s footballers following a training session at Visy Park, in what was also the lead-up to Carlton’s 150th celebrations that Saturday evening.

John introduced himself as a one-game senior player originally recruited from the central Victorian goldfields town of Maryborough, the place from which this club’s greatest player of all time, John Nicholls, originally hailed.

John also talked quite proudly of a Carlton connection spanning almost 100 years, as his father Jack Stephenson represented the Blues at senior level in 22 games (amongst them the 1921 Grand Final) through 1920, ’21 and ’22.

Like most former players, John knew that representing this club wasn’t a right, but a privilege.

Recruited to the club at 19 after a three-year stint with Benalla, John’s only senior appearance came against South in the final home and away round of 1958, when he followed Captain Bruce Comben down the race and onto the hallowed Carlton turf. Wearing the No.9 on his back, John made his senior debut with Chelsea’s Bill Armstrong – a two-game player later awarded an Order of Australia for service to the international community through Australian Volunteers International.

Warming the pine as 19th man alongside 20th man the late Chris Pavlou, John, together with the Nicholls brothers John and Don, John James and Sergio Silvagni contributed to Carlton’s narrow two-point victory over a spectacularly wayward South Melbourne, 12.11 (83) to 10.21 (81).

A gentler soul you’d never find, John truly savoured his visit to the Visy Park redevelopment. He cast a judicious eye over today’s players from his vantage point on the landing, then shared a cup of soup with the likes of Marc Murphy, Bryce Gibbs and Chris Judd afterwards.

John was part of a core of former players including the then Carlton President Stephen Kernahan, fellow Director Adrian Gleeson, Ken Hunter, Ken Sheldon, Peter Bosustow, Mark Maclure and Greg Williams who gathered that morning.

Who was to know that this sentimental homecoming would be John’s last?

John Stephenson was the pilot who died when his kit plane lost control and struck a house and cars in Chelsea a week ago. In the days since, the 77 year-old has been lauded as a hero for somehow managing to steer his plummeting aircraft clear of people frequenting a nearby shopping centre.

John’s son Peter said yesterday that his father, the 723rd man to represent the club at senior League level, wore his commemorative Carlton badge (No.723) with pride to what was billed as the Blues’ “biggest celebration in 150 years” at The Plenary.

“Dad’s father represented Carlton in a Grand Final so he obviously followed the club and he really enjoyed the 150th experience. He renewed acquaintance with a lot of old players and he got to meet ‘Juddy’ (Chris Judd),” Peter said.

“He sat at a table with a group of former players that night, amongst them Barry Bryant, ‘Turkey’ Tom Carroll and Vasil Varlamos. At one point Dad got a mention by the MC, and he got a ribbing from all the others because he’d played only the one game and they’d played more.”

Bryant, who sat alongside John that evening, remembered how upbeat John was to be in the room.

“I remember playing a few games with John in the seconds. He was a half-back flanker as I recall,” said Barry, a 14-game Carlton senior player through 1960 and ‘61.

“I liked him a lot back then and just as much all these years later. I sat with him all night at that function and it’s quite unbelievable now that he’s gone.”

John Stephenson at Visy Park earlier this year. (Photo: Carlton Football Club)

Bill Armstrong AO was also at The Plenary that night, but regrettably did not cross paths with his former teammate.

Speaking this week, Bill could not recall John’s presence in that match with South all those years ago “perhaps because I was overawed by the fact that I was playing my first game and I wasn’t terribly aware of others”.

“But I do remember John around the club. He was a year or two younger than me I think, one of the young lads at the place,” said Bill, Carlton’s reserve grade Best and Fairest in ’58 (with John its Most Consistent).

“He was a fairly boisterous character for memory, a very likeable guy - that’s how I remember him – and in reading what’s been written in the press he was a great family man who also did well in business.”

When news of John’s passing came through, this reporter’s thoughts turned to that lovely one-off  meeting in June during which time John also agreed to be interviewed to camera.

That interview, which was not screened at the time, can now be shown with the permission of the Stephenson family.

John Stephenson is survived by his devoted wife of 51 years Val, children Sue, Greg, Janine and Peter, their respective spouses and nine grandchildren.