Ex-Derby and Birmingham favourite Michael Johnson reflects on his career
MICHAEL JOHNSON was a rock at the back for club and country for 19 years, facing some of the world’s greats like Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane.
It was a career full of ups and downs but the man himself feels fortunate to carry so many special memories.
Local boy Johnson began his career at Notts County and soon established himself in the first team. He moved to Birmingham, then Derby County and experienced a brief loan at Sheffield Wednesday before finishing his career back at Meadow Lane.
He formed close connections with the clubs he played for, always keeping up to date with how former teams were progressing. His level of commitment never went unnoticed and he received fantastic receptions from the supporters of each club when he returned for matches.
Johnson made a total of 562 appearances, scoring 19 goals. He also played 12 times for Jamaica during his time with Birmingham.
In all, Johnson was a model professional, even if on one occasion he did forget to put on his shorts...
Notts County. I joined the club at 14 and when I was 16 I became a scholar. In that season we got to the FA Youth Cup quarter-final and won the Youth League which, for a club like Notts County, was a big achievement.
I was fortunate enough at 17 to be deemed as one of the most promising players of the youth team and I managed to go on and make my debut against Arsenal at Highbury. Unfortunately we lost, but it was a proud moment for me to make my debut at such a young age.
The best person I have worked with was Mick Mills when he was assistant-manager at Birmingham. Mick was the great Ipswich right-back and former England captain in the 1980s. As a defender he understood my game, but most importantly he understood me.
He was a good man-manager and had bags of knowledge having played in World Cups and enjoyed European adventures with Ipswich. I really listened to him and excelled playing under him.
Christophe Dugarry. He was a World Cup winner with France so he was extremely experienced. He came to Birmingham in 2001 at a time when we looked doomed for relegation and he single-handedly turned the fortunes of our season around and made sure the club stayed up.
Our goalkeeper at Birmingham, Ian Bennett. He had a real dry but brilliant sense of humour.
He did numerous remarkable impressions of the school teacher in the film Kes. He also had animal noises down to a tee. He used to do the noise of a falcon and kestrel, he was just hilarious and always had the changing room in hysterics.
The shorts incident while I was playing for Derby. I wasn’t sub many times in my career but I was just coming back from a hamstring injury, so I took my place on the bench.
I was wearing some see-through cycling briefs that you normally put on underneath your shorts. I put on my jogging bottoms over them.
Midway through the first half one of the defenders went down and George Burley said ‘Come on Johno, get ready you’re going on’.
As I made my way back to the dugout I pulled my jogging bottoms off and ran on to the pitch. When I ran on I could see some of the players were laughing, and I could hear a gasp from the crowd. I didn’t know what was going on.
The referee slowly came over to me to remind me I needed to go off and put my shorts on. When I looked down I had these skin tight, see through cycling shorts on in front of 25,000 people!
What topped it off was when I ran to the changing room we were a man down and within a minute they had scored. You can imagine what the manager was like at full-time.
I was part of the squad at Notts County that got promoted under Neil Warnock.
I sampled the atmosphere of what it was like to be in a promotion winning team – and it was some feat as we made the old First Division, only to be immediately relegated the season before the Premier League kicked off.
With Birmingham I managed to get promoted to the Premier League after several failed attempts. When we got there in 2002, it was a feeling of sheer relief because of the disappointment of the attempts before that.
We had been in three previous play-off semi-finals and lost them all, so you think you are going to be tagged as a nearly team, but then to actually do it like we did against Norwich, is something that will remain with me forever – an immense feeling.
I’ve had a few real fortunate moments in my career which I look back on with great pride.
The promotion with Birmingham in 2002 was a high point. In 2007 I captained Derby County but I didn’t play on the day of the play-off final against West Brom. I damaged my medial ligament leading up to the semi-final, but I still climbed the steps at Wembley to lift the play-off trophy for Derby as club captain – something that will stay with me forever.
Also playing for Jamaica.The first time you go back home, your family is in the crowd and the national anthem is playing, you realise that this is the pinnacle. No matter what happens they can’t take that away from you.
To go to Kingston and play in the national stadium in front of a full house, live on national TV, was amazing.
Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at Manchester United. You just didn’t know what to do with him.
If you gave him half a yard, you were out of position and he punished you with a shot or he would go past you. When he’s on his game he’s unplayable. It is no surprise that he’s now gone on to be arguably the best player in the world.
The League Cup final defeat to Liverpool in 2001. For a club like Birmingham to get to the final was fan- tastic and I thought to myself, would this be my only chance of winning a medal in a cup competition in Britain?
You don’t get a chance to compete in finals that often throughout your career, so when we got there it would have been great to win and off the back of that we would have been talking Europe.
Robbie Fowler scored an incredible goal. We had a penalty and then should have had a second penalty, so you start thinking it isn’t meant to be.
The game finished 1-1 and the minute it went to penalties I knew we were going to lose because of the standard of players they had.
No disrespect to our team, I just knew we had a miss in us somewhere. The day was tinged with great pride
seeing the sea of blue but the worst place to lose is a cup final. To get that close and walk past the trophy at the end of the game is hard to take.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
The Azteca Stadium in Mexico because of the high altitude. Within 20 minutes of the game starting it felt like you had played an hour and a half!
You were short of breath, it was boiling, extremely humid and all of a sudden you felt like you were jogging rather than sprinting. The Mexicans were used to it so we got beat 5-0.
However, the atmosphere was tremendous.To play for your country in front of 120,000 was an immense feeling, but when you come off being beat 5-0, it wasn’t such a good place to be!
FAVOURITE PLACE TO PLAY
Anfield. I loved playing there and I’m a soft Liverpool fan. I like the tradition and what the club has been doing over the last few years. As a kid growing up it was brilliant to watch them.
I loved the grounds I played at – Meadow Lane, Hillsborough, Pride Park and St Andrews. These grounds were spiritual homes for me.
I’m currently ambassador at Birmingham City FC. I do a lot of consultancy work with governing bodies. One day I would like to be coaching and maybe get a managerial position.We will have to just wait and see. I’m now a fully qualified pro license coach so it’s just about getting that opportunity.
Best team-mate: Christophe Dugarry Funniest team-mate: Ian Bennett Toughest opponent: Cristiano Ronaldo Toughest place: Estadio Azteca
Biggest achievement: Derby captain for