From 'Boro to Bengaluru - John Johnson's memorable Blues journey comes to an end
The final of the inaugural Indian Super Cup saw something a little unusual. After Bengaluru FC had won the final, club captain Sunil Chhetri decided that a departing club legend deserved to have the armband and lift the trophy in his last game for the club.
Who is that man, and what made him a legend?
A little background, first.
In 2013, the JSW group decided to form its own football club. They decided that Bengaluru would be the home for that club. They decided a mercurial young Englishman named Ashley Westwood would be in charge of the club.
The first foreigner they brought in to the club would go on to define everything that Bengaluru FC has stood for in the five years of its existence. That man came from Teesside - in the northeast of England. Regular watchers of English football would possibly know that Teesside is the home of Middlesbrough FC - where John James Johnson had his initial football education.
When Johnson made his debut for the Boro first team against Chelsea, he’d have hoped for it to be the start of a journey to him becoming a local idol - the kind of story that most football fans love.
But alas, that wasn’t to happen. After spells at clubs in the lower echelons of the English league, Johnson decided to start afresh, with a move to India’s Garden City.
Five years later, Johnson is an idol to the adoring public that turns up at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. How did that happen? How did a little-known unassuming Indian crowd adopt as their own, a man from far far away, a man whose accent some of them find difficult to understand?
To answer that, you could use the word ‘football’, but there is far more than just that to the relationship Johnson has built with the Bengaluru fans.
A gangly, lean young man stole their hearts at the Bangalore Football Stadium, where the journey began for BFC. From there, there was no looking back for the fans - Johnson was their hero.
The Bengaluru fans have a chant for their team, a line which goes, “We fight till the end, we shall never bow to you”. Perhaps Johnson was the best embodiment of that on the field.
With now good friend and club captain Sunil Chhetri, Johnson formed the bedrock for the BFC team to be built on. For Ashley Westwood or Albert Roca, there was a knowledge that they could trust him. It was knowing that he would help the younger Indian players improve their skills, and help other foreigners settle into what is a different environment, in Indian football.
Ask Cameron Watson, ask Juanan, ask Erik Paartalu. The role that Johnson has played in helping them settle down and plug away, with the ethos of the club in place, cannot be underestimated.
But even that is secondary. Why Johnson is loved is primarily because of the warrior that he is on the football field. Why Johnson is loved is because he is a top-class central defender, the likes of which there have been very few in Indian football before.
Johnson is loved because he gave his blood, sweat and tears for the Bengaluru FC cause. A broken jaw once didn’t stop him. Plenty of stitched up wounds and a bandaged head could never stop him. A cracked rib threatened to derail a whole season. But anyone who knows Johnson would know that nothing was going to derail the Johno train at BFC.
The cracked bones and bleeding heads were a stamp on what Johnson loved doing - he loved being at the heart of the battle. He loved the ugly side - the side of football that allowed him to be who he is - a pawn on the chessboard, but he was a pawn with the power of the King. He was the first line of defense, but he was also the man who gave direction to those around.
When talk of Indian football’s foreigners comes up, the likes of Ranti Martins, Odafa Okolie and Jose Barreto are naturally spoken about. The odd one out there is Johnson. He is the one defender in a list filled with strikers who terrorised defenses.
Maybe it helped that he announced himself to Indian football as just that - as a man who terrorised defenses. In Bengaluru’s first four competitive games, Johnson scored in three, with the Blues winning all those games.
He’s played more than 100 games for the club since then, but he hasn’t yet doubled that tally. Talk about a false start, eh?
But was he in the team for that? No, he wasn’t. He was in the team to be the dominant beast at the back, that the likes of Martins and Odafa didn’t want to be around.
Curtis Osano and Johnson formed a formidable partnership in central defense for Bengaluru in their first season of existence. It was a season which ended in glory for the Blues as they finished as winners of the I-League.
31st May, 2015. A night that any Bengaluru fan would remember, a night that many of them don’t want to talk about ever. It was a night when they had one hand, and a few fingertips of the other, on the I-League trophy. It was a night when Mohun Bagan shoved the hands and fingertips away and took home the trophy, with just a few minutes left on the clock.
It was Johnson who had earlier sent the West Block into delirium by scoring the goal that put the Blues on course for their second title in two years.
Johnson’s tears on the night were a reflection of the mood - but the tears served as a reminder to everyone. As many a BFC insider would tell you, the tears shed on that night were the backbone of the title victory the next season - they didn’t want to be there in the dumps again.
But in 2016, the joy didn’t stop with the I-League victory - even though Bengaluru rejoiced winning back what they thought was rightfully theirs.
The joy went all the way from Bengaluru to Doha, before being halted by a brilliant team from Iraq.
It was a typically mild October night in Bengaluru, when the defending AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta’zim came to town for the semifinal second leg. Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s thunderbolt at the Larkin Stadium in Johor had given BFC the away goal advantage.
Chhetri, twice, and Juanan sent the Blues on their way to the final in Doha. But it was not before Safiq Rahim and co. were met by the wall. The Great Wall of Bangalore, as they call Johnson, was in his element. Headers were won thumpingly, tackles were accompanied by a swagger, and a new Spaniard alongside was being initiated into the world of John Johnson.
In many ways, that was when the guard began to shift. From Johnson, the mantle of defensive talisman was being taken over by Juanan.
But the old warhorse was not going to go away. Throughout the 2017 I-League season, a cracked rib hampered Johnson’s movement, but he was never going to allow that to be a hindrance to what he does on the field.
That was best exemplified in Maldives, as he scored an injury-time winner against Maziya to keep BFC alive in the group, which they eventually won, before losing to Tajikistan’s Istiklol in the inter-zonal final.
Johnson, by the looks of things, is going to stay in India. But seeing him in the white and red of ATK is going to be different, to say the least.
For the average Indian football watcher, the blue jersey with the no. 6 became synonymous with the man who put Bengaluru FC ahead of anything else.
It was synonymous with a man who didn’t give a sweet bottom about the aesthetics of football. It was synonymous with a man who wanted to get his job done, at all costs, sometimes his own health put at stake. It was synonymous with a man who was the Robin, to the Batman that was BFC’s captain.
It was only fair that for a man like Johnson and for all his achievements with Bengaluru, his career with the Blues ended with wins over the two Kolkata giants - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. For four of Johnson’s five years in Bengaluru, those two teams represented BFC’s biggest rivals - in the days when the ISL was still the “other league”, as far as they were concerned.
Asier Dipanda in the semifinal, and Ansumana Kromah in the final, gave Johnson a difficult time, but the Englishman fought his way through the battle - scrapping for his life, fighting for every ball - it really was the only way that he knew.
As he moves on, the Bengaluru fans will say their thank yous and write their eulogies. But deep inside, even they know that they aren’t going to easily find someone who they can love as much as they loved Johnson.
John Johnson loved them back. He loved them back because Bengaluru showered love on a boy from Teesside, more than he could have ever imagined.