John Johnson: The bedrock of Bengaluru FC’s defence
“Let’s go Johnson, let’s go” echoes loudly around the Sree Kanteerava stadium as the Bengaluru FC centre-back lines up in the box for an incoming corner. As he rises above everyone around him to head home a perfect finish, the West Block Blues are in delirium, screaming and chanting “We love you Johnson, we do!”
John Johnson, popularly and affectionately referred to by the Blues faithful as Johnson, arrived in India in July 2013 as one of the first foreign signings of the then newly formed I-league outfit JSW Bengaluru FC.
The former Middlesbrough academy product was chosen to partner countryman Curtis Osano in the heart of the BFC defence and hasn’t looked back since. He has been instrumental in the Blues’ campaigns, helping them to two I-league titles and a Federation Cup during his stint.
In this segment, we take a look at his influential career with Bengaluru FC so far and what the immediate future holds in store.
Background and English football experience
Johnson was born in Middlesbrough and was part of the club’s youth academy before going on to make a solitary appearance for his home club against Chelsea in the Premier League during the 2008/09 season.
However, he was soon loaned out to lower division clubs – first to Tranmere Rovers and then Northampton Town. In 2010, he made his move to the latter permanent and went on to make over a century of appearances for them during his three years there.
After a successful start, during which he cemented his place in the team and also scored some vital goals, he was named captain ahead of the 2011/12 season. However, it was a position that he had to vacate following the arrival of Clarke Carlisle.
Johnson was a first-team regular for Northampton throughout the first two seasons and also chipped in with the goals. He was sidelined due to a cartilage injury and then a knee surgery during the 2012/13 season, following which he was released by the club.
Transfer to BFC and winning silverware
Bengaluru FC was formed as the I-league representative club from the garden city in 2013 and Ashley Westwood was soon roped in as the coach.
Johnson was one of BFC’s initial signings and their first foreign player. The defender arrived with a solid reputation and Westwood knew his man well, having been John’s teammate back at Northampton.
During an interview, when asked about how he got an opportunity to play in India, Johnson said:
"Basically, I used to play with a lad at Northampton and then when he retired, he went into coaching and became Michael Appleton's assistant at Blackburn.Then I think with all the Indian links at Blackburn he got offered the job at this new club in India. And then because I used to play with him he messaged me and asked me if I fancied playing over in India, and that's how it happened.”
Bengaluru FC may have been a newbie club but their performance on the pitch was a far cry from that. They won the domestic title in their first season and John Johnson was part of the core that led from the front by example.
His defensive partnership with countryman Curtis Osano was impressive and lent tremendous stability to the Blues’ backline.
Dealing with aerial threats comfortably owing to his height and experience in dealing with the physicality of English lower division football, Johnson also pitched in with 3 crucial goals during his debut campaign. He was named the I-league’s ‘Best defender’ for his efforts and took home two trophies in his first tryst with Indian football. Not bad, eh?
The following two seasons saw Johnson becoming an integral part of Westwood’s side, marshalling his teammates, shouting out instructions on the pitch and generally motivating his teammates.
His leadership qualities haven’t gone unnoticed and his voice is well respected by the BFC players. As BFC COO Mustafa Ghouse puts it:
“John Johnson has been immense for the club and has been the kind of leader who doesn’t need an armband. We are at a very crucial phase at the club and getting him on board for another two seasons puts us in a very good position. He’s always inspiring the lads on the pitch and is a great character to have in the dressing room; needless to say he’s a fan favourite.”
The Blues finished runners-up on the last day of the second season but romped to the title in the third, which concluded earlier this year.
Johnson, once again key to the Bengaluru defensive setup, won the ‘Best Defender’ award for the second time in 3 seasons as BFC let in the second fewest number of goals during the course of the competition.
The Englishman’s importance to his side cannot be explained adequately using even the choicest of words. He goes about his job in the most efficient manner, is his teammates’ protective cover in front of goal and every opponent’s bête noire.
It has earned him the love and acclaim of BFC fans, who sing and chant his name during games. On his relationship with the West Block Blues, the defender says:
“The fans have been amazing to me as well, they made me feel really welcome and obviously when I first went over it was a bit of a culture shock but I soon got used it. But yes, since day one they've been brilliant with me.”
The former Boro man has also survived the managerial transition at BFC successfully. He signed a new deal with BFC, keeping him at the club until the end of the 2017/18 season. Drafted into the side by former manager Westwood, he continues to be a vital part of new gaffer Albert Roca’s plans for the side.
His contribution in the Blues’ backline during the entire course of the AFC Cup campaign has been immense, to say the least.
Johnson formed a new partnership in the heart of the BFC backline with recent arrival Juan Antonio Gonzalez aka Juanan. The duo have developed a quick understanding of each other’s styles and managed to keep successive clean sheets against Singapore-based Tampines Rovers in the quarterfinals of the AFC Cup.
The Blues also conceded just twice during the two-legged semi-final against defending champions Johor Darul Tazim and they have Johnson to thank for it.
Ahead of BFC’s historic cup final in Doha against Iraq’s Air Force club, the centre-back was asked how he would deal with the strength of the opposition players. He replied without batting an eyelid:
“I’m going to overpower them. I’m going to do what they want to do and be strong, brave and bold and hopefully we will be the side that will be doing the bullying in the game.”
True to his word, he gave it his all and was outstanding with his physical presence keeping the Iraqis at bay while also being a threat in the opposition box during set pieces. He blocked and tackled and did not give the Air Force players any space in the box to shoot.
The immediate future
Johnson has stated his intent to stay put at BFC for the next couple of seasons and will be eagerly looking forward to start off the upcoming I-league campaign in Jan 2017 on a positive note. On his future, this is what the defender had to say:
“Well I've just signed a new two-year contract and that keeps me here until I'm 29. Then I'll see after that, I could come back home but I might even try another club in Asia somewhere. I've had a couple of offers from teams in Thailand and that sounds interesting. For now, I’ll take it as it comes.”