"I didn't have the attitude to progress at Manchester United" - David Johnson opens up about his footballing journey from Manchester United youth team to Nottingham Forest
David Johnson started his career with Manchester United before playing for Bury, Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest, and the Jamaica national team,
In this interview, we talk about what it was like as a young pro at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, promotion with Bury, his fall out with Gary Megson and life after football.
You started your career in England with Manchester United, winning the FA Youth Cup and being named on the first team bench. What was it like as a young pro there?
I joined Manchester United straight from school and wasn’t prepared for life as a YTS footballer. It was a tough environment under Eric Harrison, but an integral part of my development.
I ruptured my ACL at 17, which hampered my first few years and with my lack of professionalism, while out injured didn’t help my recovery.
We had an excellent group above (which I’m sure you’ve heard of - the Class of '92) who Sir Alex Ferguson had so much faith & trust in them and the youth team. We won the Youth Cup in the 94/95 season, which I was suspended for the second leg at Old Trafford in front of 45,000 people but played in the first leg at White Hart Lane.
I was given the opportunity to be on the bench for the first team for the Champions League game against Galatasaray at Old Trafford, which we won 4-0 - a night I will remember for the rest of my life!
Things went from bad to worse. Thinking I had made it, I didn’t have the right attitude to progress at Manchester United.
How did it feel when you were released at the end of your contract?
When I left Manchester United I had the opportunity to stay (if I lost weight and came back with a better attitude) but I was pig-headed and thought I knew best and left to join Bury.
Next, it was Bury (where I saw you play a lot), they had a great team at the time and many went on to play higher. How did you find playing first team football every week?
My time at Gigg Lane was the most enjoyable time of my football career, winning back to back promotions and it turned me from a boy to a man. I had to grow up quickly at Bury which was a tough school of Hard Knocks. There were no frills, no prima donna and no glamour but a group of men who would go through brick walls for each other.
The style of football wasn’t pleasing on the eye, not to everyone’s taste but very effective. Stan was a great manager, who brought some good young players, he got the best out of me and I thrived on it.
A £1.1 million move to Ipswich followed, was there move expectation to perform?
I was sold after our second promotion to the championship to Ipswich after I started the season well scoring 10 goals in 18 games.
It was a move out of the blue, a club I never paid too much attention to, but I knew about the clubs history.
I hit the ground running scoring on my debut and never looked back, scoring 23 goals in my first season and ten at Bury, which was one of my best seasons.
After four years and promotion to the Premier League, I had a bad start, which saw me move to Nottingham Forest, for a fee of £3.5million.
You fell out with Nottingham Forest manager Gary Megson after scoring 29 goals the previous season, what happened?
My time at Forest was the complete opposite to Ipswich, where I struggled for fitness and goals, and the expectations of being their record signing played its part.
After two loans at Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley, I found my confidence in front of goal again (playing under Stan Tennant) just missing out on the playoffs.
I had a great season the following year, scoring over 30 goals, winning player of the year, getting in the team of the year and a playoff semifinal, who everyone will remember, but ended up on the losing team.
Another poor start of the season, saw the manager sacked and Gary Megson arrive, I was injured with a slipped disc and was no use to him what so ever. When I came back from injury I struggled with form and wasn’t the same player and couldn’t find my scoring feet from the two seasons before and we fell out constantly as I felt he was a bully.
No one enjoyed playing under him, even the players he signed. He didn’t last long and was sacked as he drained all the confidence out of the players with his management style which we ended up relegated that season.
An injury to you back saw your career start to come to an end. Can you tell us more about that?
Colin Calderwood got the job and after a preseason in Italy, which I struggled to get out of bed, put on my socks and couldn’t even run without break down. The physio and I sat down and on their advise I had to see a doctor and he confirmed my career was over.
Mentally I knew but I thought another operation, more pain killers, I would be able to make another come back. It was emotional when the club announced it but I was allowed to stick around and do my coaching badges, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
How do you look back on your career?
I look back on my career with loads of regret and wish I had the same attitude and professional as my son (Brennan Johnson) does.
I loved my time playing and I lived the dream but it’s over now and I just remember the good times, which I had loads of.
Now as a scout, you have worked with Chelsea and Leicester City; Can you tell us more about that?
I worked as a scout for Chelsea for three years and loved my job, traveling Europe looking for talent. Going to countries which you would never go to but the experience was amazing.
I left Chelsea to join Leicester as the Under-21 recruitment officer, it couldn’t have gone any better as the club won the Premier League, which was a fairy tale and to be part of it was amazing.
Who is the best player you played with?
Difficult as I got called up by England B just before the World Cup in France. The team was ridiculous, the training was higher than I’ve ever trained and I played alongside that golden generation.
Who is the best manager you played under?
Football-Wonderkids focuses on youth players, do you have any advice for young players just starting their career?
I follow your twitter feed and it’s funny that the players you highlight are the ones I did so many reports on across Europe. You make so many scouts job easier now haha
Young players now get given all the tools to be top players nowadays but the talent is not enough now. Mentally you have to be on another level with social media and nowhere to hide.
It’s tougher now to become a professional footballer in the Premiership as it’s flooded with players from abroad and there are not many managers who have the patience or time to blood young British players.
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