by Chris Brookes
Players throughout the game polarise opinion amongst supporters, managers and pundits alike. For instance there are some who rate Frank Lampard as a prodigiously industrious athlete and one of the best goalscoring midfielders this country has ever seen, while conversely there are others who will have you believe that he is ‘Fat Frank’ and little more than a glory taker for his more defensively-minded Chelsea teammates. Without delving into that one I’ve always erred on the side of the first argument. The point of this extreme diversity of views stands however and two divisions lower than Lampard is another example and one I have spent the last five years watching – Sheffield Wednesday winger Jermaine Johnson.
Ex-Wednesday manager Brian Laws signed the Jamaican international from League One Bradford City in the final days of the January 2007 transfer window, the fee believed to be between £250,000 and £500,000. I remember reading the transfer story at the time on the computers at school in sixth form and my first thought was how he’d handle the step up to the Championship. Of course he had featured in the top flight previously for Bolton but had failed to make a lasting impact under Sam Allardyce and had gone on to spend two seasons with Oldham in the third tier. His time with the Latics brings me to my second thought. In August 2004 we drew 1-1 at home to Oldham and Johnson scored the visitors’ equaliser as he latched onto a long punt from keeper Les Pogliacomi and took advantage of indecision in our backline to fire in a low finish. Later in that second half he was substituted and proceeded to exit the field in an extremely slow jogging manner which resulted in the referee booking him for timewasting. In that single game Wednesdayites got to see two moments which go some way to encapsulating what an up and down player he is. The raw pace taking him into the goalscoring position and the quality to bury the opportunity beyond David Lucas, as well as the behaviour in getting that later yellow card that can place him on the edge of the game’s rules.
He had picked up a red card for Bradford in his final game for the club, dismissed in a home defeat to Yeovil for his comments to the referee, and this resulted in a two-game suspension which Wednesday were the ones to incur. This meant that there was a delay in seeing the new man in action but he played seven times for The Owls at the end of the 2006/07 season and contributed two breathtaking moments of class. He had won an injury-time penalty against Southend which led to Steve MacLean sealing a 3-2 win but another 3-2 success, this time against Leeds United at Elland Road, provided the first of many moments where Owls fans would be rejoicing at his ability. A beautiful flowing team move saw Glenn Whelan help the ball on to the onrushing Johnson who launched a fantastic finish into the top corner from outside the box to send Wednesday into a 3-0 lead at the home of one of the old rivals. In addition to this he produced a similarly terrific finish on his weaker left foot in the season’s final game at home to Norwich, beating the defender with a well-executed stepover before finding the net from the edge of the area. Billy Davies had failed in his bid to sign him for a Derby side who went on to win promotion to the Premier League and the Wednesday fans were starting to see why there was so much interest in the Kingston-born wideman.
That season he came into a team thriving with confidence and genuine talent all over the Wednesday side and goals flowing from the likes of the aforementioned Whelan, Chris Brunt, Marcus Tudgay, Deon Burton and Steve MacLean. Those five players alone contributed 55 goals to a team that narrowly missed out on the Championship play-offs and it hit hard when MacLean left for Cardiff on a free in the summer of 2007 amid rumours of a derogatory contract offer, as well as the mercurial Brunt departing for West Brom after one game of the 2007/08 campaign. Whelan would also leave in the January transfer window and the creative mantle began to fall upon Johnson, a trend that has been worryingly frequent in recent seasons. Laws’ team avoided relegation on the final day of 2007/08 and Johnson himself had a season where he registered more red cards than goals: another excellent strike this time at Stoke arguably overshadowed by a dismissal at Watford and one at home to West Brom for lashing out at Jonathan Greening. There was also a very brief stint at right-back in which he made an error leading to Coventry’s Zavon Hines’ goal at Hillsborough, Johnson breaking down in tears on the pitch as a result. An undeniable indicator of his feeling for the club and its fans as it looked at the time like it could have been a catastrophically costly mistake.
The following season saw the comfort of mid-table with less anxious expectation weighing upon him, although he still only managed three goals, the latter of which was admittedly an absolute beauty in a win over future Owls boss Dave Jones’ Cardiff (a 1-0 win that saw Cardiff lose their play-off place on the final day). Just as memorable however was his bizarre red card in the Steel City derby, as the game was stopped some time after Johnson had been substituted for Mike Dean to call the winger out from the dressing room to issue the punishment for his reaction to being taken off. He had kicked a water bottle into the crowd and as he reappeared from the tunnel in his vest he had the dazed look of a man who had got out of bed to answer his door to someone first thing in the morning.
It looked like 2009/10 would be JJ’s year as he hit four goals in the opening month but there would be just three more in the season as Wednesday slipped through the trap door to League One. The side that year had disintegrated badly and never recovered from a huge hit in morale in the winter. One memory for me that sticks out is a fan remarking how the thought of JJ running at the Sheffield United defence was his only cause for optimism in the run-up to that year’s second Sheffield derby. It is a huge task to replace the void left by Chris Brunt or Glenn Whelan when you have little to no money and we hadn’t even come close to managing it as we entered League One. Add to this that JJ was now picking up injuries in a way that he had never done in the early days of his S6 career and we were really up against it. Top drawer goals against Yeovil and Exeter reminded us what we had been missing from him but the 2010/11 season had been shambolic for all concerned and a supposed promotion favourite finished 15th.
Gary Megson gave Johnson a new contract last summer, one which expires at the end of this current season, and it has been a familiar tale at times. Injury has disrupted his progress, a red card came against Stevenage (his 7th in English football), but there have been truly brilliant goals. For the first few months of the season Stoke loanee Ben Marshall had dominated the creative aspect, always finding a telling contribution from the wing, but he returned to the Britannia Stadium in January before signing for Leicester City. For a spell of games after Marshall’s departure we found ourselves realising once again how much we relied on Johnson to create something from nothing. Against Chesterfield in February he picked up another injury and our options were looking scarce to say the least. Before the Sheffield derby (which would be Megson’s last in charge) we had brought in a long-term loan target in Reading’s Michail Antonio and he has been simply outstanding with goals and assists which have helped to reignite the blue and white fight for automatic promotion. Noticeably, Megson seemed insistent on playing a central midfielder on one of the flanks and as much as I have spoken in appreciation of the job he did, it has been a welcome sight to see two natural wingers playing since Dave Jones arrived. We now have four widemen with Antonio, Mike Jones (who joined from Bury in January), Johnson and Keith Treacy (recently brought in on loan from Burnley) and are all the better for it.
On Saturday we beat Preston 2-0 in front of the Sky cameras and what was abundantly clear to me was how JJ was now just one of a number of players capable of creating. There is a real vibrancy about our play just lately with Gary Madine and Ryan Lowe scoring, Nile Ranger and Chris O’Grady also striking options, and genuine quality from wide areas rather than ‘square pegs in round holes’. Chris Lines has also done a good job this season, for £50,000 from Bristol Rovers he has slotted into the side seamlessly alongside the imperious fans’ favourite Jose Semedo, although many feel that the team would benefit from an extra creator in the engine room (whether long-time free agent yet undoubted talent when on his game, Jason Koumas, will be signed remains to be seen as he begins training with us).
Anyone who has observed Johnson will know just how magnificent he can be in one moment yet spectacularly off the mark in another. In five years I have seen it all from him: I have watched him leave countless defenders in his path with embarrassing ease, wonderful goals, yet just as many Row Z efforts, red mist moments and sometimes a failure to live up to the overwhelming expectation that arrives upon his shoulders every time he touches the ball. I saw him breeze though the Wolves defence in 2009 before somehow managing to put an effort over the bar which had even one of my non-football-following friends remarking in amazement. I even had one of his attempted crosses land literally on my foot in the Kop in a game with Blackpool in 2007, a match in which he set up Marcus Tudgay’s goal with a perfect delivery from the right. That’s him though – one extreme to the other in the most emphatic fashion.
At nearly 22, I am not quite old enough to have been blessed with the likes of Chris Waddle, David Hirst and John Sheridan so real thoroughbred talents have been fairly thin on the ground in my time of watching Wednesday. It is obvious that a player capable of carrying off some of the skill Johnson does must be unbalanced in other areas of his game otherwise he would never have dropped out of the Premier League. As much as he has frustrated he has also been a fantastic asset for Wednesday, drawing in so many opposition players to alleviate pressure and winning corners just from his running and dribbling ability only seconds after we were up the other end defending. I can only imagine how he feels when that roar of anticipation from three sides of Hillsborough or from our travelling army at away grounds rings out when he picks up possession – the expectancy on him is colossal. He hasn’t always managed to deliver in those situations but I love the excitement when the ball is at his feet.
With six games of the season to go Wednesday are in a fight with the Blades for Sheffield supremacy and the 2nd automatic promotion place, two points behind the red and white at present in 3rd. JJ has too often been the sole creative outlet and the one who every Owls fan looks to when we need a moment of magic. What we have now is a shift in that ethos; he is no longer the only one in the team capable and I believe he will thrive as the weight of expectation is shared. He is out of contract in the summer and it is of course unknown whether we will be in League One or the Championship for 2012/13. He will be 32 in June and some will say that the time has come to move on and that his explosive pace will continue to decline with age and injury. For me though it is not quite time to let him leave. What we have to ensure is that we never get in a situation again where all our hopes rest on JJ’s shoulders, but as long as we have bright and enterprising talents around the team to share that burden there is still a place in there for him to shine. It has been a hell of a rollercoaster having him at Sheffield Wednesday and there will soon be a day when he no longer dons the blue and white stripes, but with the club’s continued progression I don’t think it’s quite time to say goodbye yet.