by Chris Brookes
Football may be huge business the world over but one thing the decision-makers can sometimes be unaware of is just how much deeper it goes than that. It simply means everything to people, it is painted into the fibres of communities in so many ways and if you are a part of it you truly feel that largely indescribable sense of belonging. Certain memories and individual players can live long in the memory for a multitude of reasons and at Sheffield Wednesday we have a player who encapsulates so much of what we love about the game – goalscoring defender Reda Johnson.
This weekend saw Wednesday travel to Hull City who had gone nine games unbeaten in all competitions, propelling themselves into 2nd place in the Championship in the process. Despite an extremely testing season so far Dave Jones’ Wednesday had picked up three wins and a draw from the last five league games, the latter of which was unfortunately a home defeat to Burnley on New Year’s Day that had punctured the recent resurgence. There could be little argument that the possibilities however seemed stacked in favour of Hull but Steve Bruce’s side were beaten 3-1 by The Owls in a game with much to spark discussion. There was an unpunished two-footed lunge from the Tigers’ Abdoulaye Faye, a seemingly perfect Giles Coke goal ruled out for the visitors, and a catastrophic own goal from the home side’s Eldin Jakupovic, followed by a prolonged delay as he received treatment for what seemed completely innocuous contact with Reda Johnson after the ball had crossed the line. Johnson was also the man to open the scoring early on in the proceedings with a header from Rhys McCabe’s free-kick and his performance was one of the standouts as Wednesday secured the victory to haul themselves three points clear of the Championship relegation zone. It was the Benin international’s 4th goal of the season in only nine games and his 14th for the club in two years since joining from Plymouth Argyle. For a defender, his ability in front of goal is remarkable but the reason why he manages to strike a chord with Wednesdayites to such an extent is down to more than just six-yard box instinct.
In January 2011, chairman Milan Mandaric was in the primary stages of his tenure after rescuing League One Wednesday from the brink of ruin. Johnson was one of the signings made during that transfer window as he moved from Plymouth and it would turn out to be a shrewd capture. A more hard-working and meticulous manager than Alan Irvine you will struggle to find but his time in charge from January 2010 to February 2011 was a desperate one, for many reasons both on and off the field. He does however deserve credit for bringing the then-22-year-old Johnson to Hillsborough, and last season it was former manager Gary Megson who saw something in the ex-Amiens youngster as a left-back, converting him from his original central role. Reda excelled down the left and was a large factor in setting the club on their way to automatic promotion last May. Although injury ruled him out of the final run-in he scored an extremely impressive 7 goals in 24 league games, also picking up 10 bookings in the process. Statistics can be misleading at times but maybe not in this case! He is a wrecking ball for the opposition – both when it comes to their goalmouth and sometimes with opposition wingers’ body parts. Every player makes errors, all the more so outside of the top flight, and Reda can be guilty of diving in rashly and being caught out defensively on occasions. However, I could not have any more belief in the value of the good parts of his game and his overall character.
This season, a league higher in the second tier, he has been held back by injury but here we are in January and he has played nine, scored four, and picked up a ban for five bookings – same old Reda! For the rough edges to his game though he is loved by Wednesday fans, so much so that I can say hand on heart that I do not believe any of us have an ounce of dislike for him. In his nine games, Wednesday have won six, drawn two and lost just one. That defeat was a 3-1 loss at home to Huddersfield, a match with one (if not two) dubious penalties given against us and a game that Reda was playing in despite injury, and yet he still managed to score. In the three games he came back into the side for in late December we won two and kept three clean sheets. He was a big part of that and although he makes some mistakes does he really drop a huge error on a consistent basis, or is that an idea that some have learnt to associate with him when in actual fact it now happens much less than it did? His ability in attacking situations is outstanding but he also galvanises the players around him and undoubtedly the fans too. When we see his name on the teamsheet it gives us a lift as supporters and how many defenders can you honestly say that about?
As I touched upon earlier, football is full of emotions, the agony and the ecstasy, and that has always been the driving force behind my love for it for almost my whole life. For some professionals the game is merely a job, but there are others who immerse themselves in all that comes with it – Reda is the perfect example. Sheffield Wednesday is a special club, it is a community, something that touches your heart and never lets you go. For a guy born in France who plays his international football for an African nation in Benin, Reda just seems to understand what the club means to us all. Before the Charlton game at home in December his name was read out before kick-off and the roar that went up was like a goal had been scored. He turned to acknowledge the reception from three sides of Hillsborough and moments like that are spine-tingling. He has been found before with the travelling Wednesday fans at away grounds and I think people like him are worth their weight in gold. Think of how much better going to work is when there are people around who brighten up your day – the same rule applies here. He turns 25 in March and if he can shake off the injuries he has had of late then I believe his many good points will see him flourish, hopefully with that Owls badge on his chest along the rest of his journey.
It may be a small step but that flooding of pride and good feeling is pulsating after the win over Hull and I think a big reason why is because the team took on a side in 2nd place away from home and still looked so assured throughout. There was discipline, a sense of purpose and authority, and the will to see it through to the end. There will always be nervy times but when you can watch your team and feel security because they look in control of their job you can enjoy it so much more as a fan. That is why I think we are all so happy with this win – because it tapped back into that amazing feeling that characterised the magic of last season. Dave Jones deserves plenty of credit for the result and the approach he set out and I could go through the whole team and give praise for the way we won the game but I want to give a mention to Chris Kirkland for his penalty save from Jay Simpson late on. A really nice moment to have and I am delighted for him after the team’s struggles this season that he has not always had a chance to stop. This transfer window will be pivotal to our survival in the Championship and areas do need to be addressed (up front and extending on-loan Manchester City winger Jeremy Helan’s stay for example) but above all else we are just desperate for the club to pull clear so we can have more moments that have us emotional for all the right reasons.
As for Reda, I know he can be overzealous with his challenges sometimes but to me it can almost feel like you are a school teacher shaking your head at your precocious student for doing something slightly wrong, yet smiling inside at the same time. Nobody would try to suggest that he is the complete player but what an asset he is to have. Besides all the individual factors that make him who he is there is also just something about him we love and I would have him out there battling in my team every time. The Sheffield Wednesday ethos can be simple to understand if you act in the right manner as a player because you cannot fool the fans. I think we just want individuals and a collective group that show they understand what it is all about to pull on those famous stripes. Football fans need people like Reda, those that they can revel in talking about and coming up with puns and jokes with positivity behind them. For that he is ideal and maybe the Rampage Jackson / Mr. T look adds to his legend too! The story of centre-back Miguel Llera is one for another day and I am sure I will explore it with you in the not too distant future but with the likes of him and Reda out there on the pitch for Wednesday I always have hope and belief that we can score. You can go up for a corner or free-kick and make a token movement towards where you think the ball will go or you can approach it like these two do. That desire and unshakeable belief that the ball will be yours as soon as it is delivered is so vital. It is that mindset of ‘you better get out of the way or I am taking you with me’! When Reda was injured last April he tweeted that he would be in the crowd with the Stevenage supporters at the home of our unfriendly neighbours United to watch a huge match in our battle for promotion. Little things like that, however serious or light-hearted they may be, mean everything to Wednesday fans. It shows that this club that we spend money, effort and an endless stream of emotion on is not lost on the players that represent us each week and Reda is one of those who understands that. He may not be around at this club forever but for all the vital goals, the wholehearted challenges and the beaming celebrations, it is impossible not to take him to heart. Follow the Reda.
Check out Chris’ superb site http://beatsandrhymesfc.com where so far over 120 footballers have been interviewed on their favourite music. Also Chris is a must-follow on Twitter http://twitter.com/chris_brookes)