Captains usually aren’t just great players on the field, but also terrific leaders off it. Plenty of praise is coming in for Casey VFLW captain Sammie Johnson and the way she has led a culture change at the Casey Demons.

 There are plenty of good captains around elite football teams. But there’s only a rare few who are revered as both great people and outstanding leaders. In her year and a half with Casey so far, VFLW skipper Sammie Johnson is already revered as a captain of the highest quality.

And it all wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t first delisted.

At the end of the first COVID-riddled AFLW season in 2020, Johnson was struggling. Having felt the adrenaline rush of being selected to be on St Kilda’s AFLW list in the club’s inaugural season in the league, Johnson could only break through for the single game at the top level. When she was eventually delisted by the club at the end of her only season on an AFLW list, it was a bitter pill for the midfielder to swallow.

“Being delisted by St Kilda at the end of the 2020 season was quite tough,” Johnson told Casey Media. “I went away and reassessed what I wanted to do football-wise. I just wasn’t really sure and I took my time during COVID lockdowns to figure out where I was at and what I wanted to do.”

The Casey Demons picked the perfect time to come calling. Melbourne’s AFLW list manager Todd Patterson had his eyes on Johnson and gave her a call during lockdown. Sat in home on the phone to Patterson, the talent manager asked if she was interested in coming down to Casey and trialling for the Demons when lockdown lifted.

In a make-or-break moment, the former Saint thought ‘why not?’.

The decision was influential. Johnson went down to Casey Fields for one session. It was enough to sway her.

“I loved it from the very moment I walked in the doors,” Johnson said. “It was an easy transition across.”

If Johnson hadn’t stumbled upon Casey, the Demons’ fortunes may have been remarkably different. The impact Johnson has had since first coming down to Casey in 2021 has been lauded by teammates, coaches and officials around Casey Fields.

The midfielder/ winger is averaging over 13 disposals a game in her first two seasons with the Demons. Since Casey finished eighth on the VFLW ladder in 2019, the Demons have a win-loss record of 17-8 under the leadership of Johnson.

But coach Peter Mercoulia told Casey Media that her impact as a leader is far more multi-dimensional than just her on-field capabilities.

“There’s a reason why since Sammie has been the captain of our club that the team has had a 17 and 8 record,” he said. “She brought a level of hard edge and expectation to the place and her ability to set standards allowed this group to not only change the philosophy but also the narrative of who the Casey Demons are.

“I put her up there with the best captains I’ve ever seen or come across in my time in football.”

Mercoulia was quick to mention that Johnson is at the heart of Casey’s culture shift. Both Mercoulia and Johnson combined in their first season as leaders in 2021 and took the Demons to a finals finish. Now they are continuing their winning ways with a 9-1 win-loss record to begin their 2022 VFLW campaign.

“It still has a long way to go but I don’t think we can understate Sammie’s role in that culture change,” Mercoulia said.

“I think her involvement is really important to be noted, while her courage and willingness to compete is unbelievable.”

For Johnson, she came to the Demons looking to grow as a person after leaving St Kilda disappointed at the delisting.

Being part of an AFLW squad and not having things go her way only made her stronger. By the time she was out of the AFLW system and at Casey Fields, Johnson felt she was ready to dominate games when she got the opportunity.

“For me that time at St Kilda was about reflecting on what I could do to make sure I was an influential player when I was on the field,” Johnson said. “The fresh start at Casey allowed me to continue reflecting on that and what I wanted to bring to a new side and a new club.”

This drive to keep learning eventually brought out her leadership capabilities – something that Johnson is now proud to have discovered with the Demons.

She said she “loves being a leader” and seeing herself develop off the field. With faithful vice-captain Ally Kirkwood by her side, Johnson is confident about the way Casey is going both on and off the field in 2022.

“Now I find myself captain of the Casey Football Club and that’s a massive achievement in itself,” she said. “Having Ally (Kirkwood) as my vice this year really helps. You can’t question her intent at trainings and what she wants from the group as she’s just really passionate about her footy.”

Being able to lean on other established leaders like Kirkwood and Mercoulia have helped Johnson become the captain she is. When it comes to her on-field presence, Johnson has enjoyed changing her role and moving out to a wing this season.

“Moving out to the wing was a role change for me as I’ve always been an inside midfielder,” she said. “I have noticed my development on the wing. I’m running smarter and feeling fitter and stronger than I’ve ever felt before.

“I like the change but I also don’t mind being thrown back in the middle occasionally.”

Her move to the wing has allowed Johnson to see some of her teammates shine. The Casey skipper mentions forwards Tahlia Fellows and Cara McCrossan as two players who “have made a massive impact” on all of Casey’s games so far in 2022. While they bring speed, the likes of Rebecca Grant and Mel Hogg have also made Johnson proud throughout the season.

Despite stumbling against Hawthorn last week and suffering their first loss in 2022, the Demons aren’t phased. Instead, Johnson was proud of the way her side fought it out in the final term and said it summed up the change in mindset that the Casey squad now displays as it strives for its first VFLW finals win in 2022.

“I was really proud with that last quarter because we got challenged to dig deep when things weren’t going our way,” Johnson said. “We wanted Casey to look like this in 2022 where everyone who wears the jumper is making the most of it and contributing to an even side.

“We’ve got a really strong group of girls and a great culture. We have a lot of fun but we also work really hard and I love it.”

Another shot at an AFLW career could be on the horizon for Johnson. But the Casey number six is no selfish leader. With four new sides about to join the AFLW next season, the Demons’ skipper is only thinking of her Casey teammates and this current VFLW campaign.

“There’s definitely some teammates I want to see take the next step in their football career,” Johnson said. “But for me, leading this club and sitting where we are, my focus right now is on the girls and our squad.

“I’m more of a go-with-the-flow type of person. At the moment I’m just focusing on Casey and getting us a result at the end of the season.”