Football has a particular habit of throwing up matches that can highlight an otherwise forgotten situation, or player. Such a game occurred early afternoon on Saturday when Wolverhampton Wanderers entertained Birmingham City in a SkyBet Championship match. It was of course a Midlands derby, bur for one particular player, the significance wet much further than that.
Forgotten centre-back Roger Johnson has played for both clubs and statistically has almost mirrored records for them. He turned out 76 times for the St Andrews club and 69 times for Wolves, netting twice for each club. That however is where the similarity ends. Wherein Johnson’s time with the Blues saw a highlight of his career to date, ironically wearing gold and black has very much been a case of the blues as his prospects have nosedived to the point where it’s difficult to see where his next first team game will be.
Although born in Ashford Surrey, Johnson’s had spent three seasons at Cardiff before Birmingham succeeded with a reported offer of £5million to secure his services. It was a move that made his career. United with Scott Dann at the heart of the Blues’ defence, Johnson became a dominant force at the heart of the club’s Premier League campaign. The campaign ended in relegation for Birmingham, but there was the consolation of silverware as they defeated Arsenal to lift the League Cup. As well as marshalling the backline to contain the Gunners’ celebrated strike force, Johnson also set up Nikola Zigic’s goal. Although the trophy was hugely significant for a club starved of glory, Johnson’s goal against fierce local rivals Aston Villa in the second city derby probably did just as much to endear him to the St Andrews faithful.
Relegation however meant a need to cash in on the club’s more marketable assets, with Johnson and Dann certainly fitting into that category. Liverpudlian Dann decamped back to the north-west to join Blackburn Rovers, whilst Johnson made the move across the West Midlands to Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers. Although not officially disclosed, reports on the fee involved ranged from £4million to £7million. Either way, it was a non-too-shabby investment for club owner Steve Morgan, but seemed to promise excellent value for money with Johnson widely being touted as a possible England player of the future. The reality was however to play somewhat differently.
The season began with promise for Johnson as McCarthy handed him the captain’s armband. That was probably as good as it got however, as the team struggled against the harsh quality of Premier League football. Come the following February, McCarthy was gone, and Johnson found himself out of favour with the new man in charge as McCarthy’s deputy Terry Connor stepped up for a brief and lamentable period in charge. Bad turned to worse when an alleged incident occurred with the player turning up somewhat the worse for wear at a training session. Disciplinary action followed, and in one of the only two games he played as the season petered out to relegation, Johnson was involved in an on-field clash with the team’s goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessy.
With relegation confirmed, Connor was removed and maverick appointment Ståle Solbakken seemed to offer the chance of redemption with a return to first team football. By now however, the club was in a tailspin, and a further relegation to League 1 followed. Johnson’s third in as many seasons. Facing football in English football’s third tier, the club realised that it was time for a safe and experienced pair on hands on the tiller and appointed Kenny Jackett to rebuild the club and squad. One of the former Millwall manager’s first moves was to offer Johnson for transfer, as he sought to move on perceived big money, but failing, players. No offers were received however, and Johnson began the season without being issued with a squad number.
A month into the season however, a loan period with Sheffield Wednesday offered a way back, and Johnson made 17 appearances for the Owls. Reports suggested that the Hillsborough boss was seeking to extend the deal, but nothing came of it, and a further loan spell at West Ham followed. It was hardly a resounding success though, and included the 6-0 hammering by Manchester City in the League Cup semi-final. Upon completion of the deal he returned to Wolverhampton, and training isolated from the squad.
With the fixture being screened by Sky, the channel’s Soccer AM progamme took the opportunity to speak with Johnson. Despite cutting a fairly upfront figure, Johnson’s plight was revealed as being a particularly difficult – if overly well-paid. Still happy to collect his £25k salary from the club, he trains at 2.00pm alongside another club outcast, alone with coach, Steve Hodge. It seems a fairly disconsolate and solitary experience, but one that Johnson seeks to make no apologies for. “Where Roger Johnson is concerned, my conscience is utterly clear. They (fans) can point the finger, but I didn’t ask to come in at 2pm. I didn’t ask not to play. I want to play football,” he explained. Despite admitting it’s difficult to inspire himself in such a situation, he pleads innocence for the cause. “I’m employed by the club. I come in at 2pm – I don’t come in during the morning like the rest of the boys. There was a few of us at the start of the season but the numbers have dwindled and it’s just me and one other (Kevin Foley) at the moment, so it’s been tough.
He went on to say that “There’s a lot of politics involved, so I just try to keep my head down and keep myself fit and, hopefully, that chance will come. Last season it did – I went to Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham on loan and I was hoping the same would happen this season but, so far, it hasn’t.” In such a seemingly hopeless situation, he was asked if he was seeking a further opportunities at the club, by trying to convince Jackett of his worth. “I would say it’s gone well past that stage. I’m a proud man and I wouldn’t beg anyway.
For a player that seemed on the edge on a national call up when he joined the club, it’s difficult to understand how the fall could be so rapid and so far to be beyond redemption. It appears clear however that whatever Johnson’s future is, it lies away from Molineux. In the meantime, expect Johnson to turn up at 2.00pm to be put through his paces and then pick up his salary. Some may consider it an easy gig, but for both club and player, the waste is obvious.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘theaspirer’ website).