by Richard Brook
Roger Johnson has been thrown a career life-line, by his former Cardiff City manager Dave Jones, as a three month loan move to Sheffield Wednesday looks set to be confirmed. Johnson had found himself in a state of first-team exile at, parent club, Wolverhampton Wanderers amidst the midlands club’s successive relegations and reported attitude problems of the player himself.
Owls boss Jones is unconcerned by Johnson’s recent past, with the pair’s working relationship that was built up at Cardiff seeming central to the loan move. Jones said:
“I’m not interested in what’s been said about him. I know him. He was fantastic for me at Cardiff. I’ve given him a stage to get back on track. He’ll fight for his place but we’ve got a very, very good player. It’s up to him.”
Johnson has come in for heavy criticism since a big money move to Wolves from local rivals Birmingham City in July 2011. The fee was undisclosed but was variously reported to have been between £4 and £7 million. Wolves’ manager at the time, Mick McCarthy was delighted to have finally landed his man, having been beaten to Johnson’s signature in 2009 by Birmingham. Johnson who began his career at Wycombe Wanderers admitted the lure of staying in the Premier League following Birmingham’s, relegation had been too great to turn down.
For a move that all parties were so keen on, things quickly soured between Johnson and Wolves, leading local newspaper The Express & Star describing the defender as “arguably the most toxic player associated with the club’s dramatic demise” in the light of his imminent departure. The main incident, from which Johnson’s relationship with the club and supporters never recovered, was when the player reportedly turned up for training either drunk or hung-over depending which report of events you believe.
Whatever the exact nature of his state Johnson reportedly attended a Wolves training session feeling the effects of having consumed alcohol. Terry Connor, who was Wolves’ interim manager at the time, made Johnson train with club’s development squad. Johnson rated his own behaviour has having fallen below the level the club, and he himself, expected and he apologised to Connor, as well as to his team mates and the club. Connor confirmed a breach of club discipline but both Johnson and Connor stopped short of confirming the reported story.
The incident followed a 5-0 defeat at the hands of Fulham and capped an inauspicious start to Johnson’s Wolves career during which the centre-back’s form had been poor. At the time Wolves had lost 15 of their 27 Premier League games. Other reported incidents include clashing with goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and applauding opposing supporters while his own were deriding him from the stands. Johnson has also argued with fans who invaded the pitch and most recently expressed that he did not feel the need to turn out for Wolves under 21’s, while other senior players, that were short on games, were prepared to do so.
Wednesday manager Jones clearly sees another side to Johnson. The Owls are short on central defenders with only two recognised, senior players available in the position in the shape of Kamil Zayatte and Miguel Llera. Martin Taylor, another former Birmingham City player, has been loaned to Brentford after failing to hold down a first team spot at Hillsborough. Wednesday have also lost captain Anthony Gardner to an achilles injury which is expected to keep him out for four to six months. Gardner is a player of Premier League ability and experience, and a leader, for whom circumstances dictated he needed to play at a lower level. There are not too many like for like replacements available to Championship clubs. If Johnson’s head is in the right place he could be just that.
Jones has seen the very best of Johnson during their time at Cardiff – the form that earned Johnson his £5 million move to Birmingham from the Welsh club, amidst reported interest from Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Cardiff were then a Championship team pushing hard for promotion, and had knocked back a bid from West Bromwich Albion the summer before the 2009 transfer. Johnson was a player in demand, highly thought of within the game, with a reputation for total commitment and being prepared to put his body on the line to prevent his side from conceding. Johnson was level-headed on the speculation stating that he wanted to play in the Premier League in the future and he wanted it to be with Cardiff. Johnson said in 2009: “Hearing that Premier League clubs are interested must mean I am doing something right and I have to make sure I continue that.”
Roger Johnson has shown himself to be a very talented central defender, in his rise from Wycombe to the Premier League, his fall from grace was almost as spectacular as that of Wolves themselves. Already at odds with fans as the club’s slide, out of first the Premier League and then the Championship, commenced he was always going to be a natural target at such a time of supporter unrest. While too much water has passed under the bridge, for him to rebuild a career at Molineux a fresh start could be just what Johnson needs.
Dave Jones might be seen to be risking a lot on this loan move. If Johnson’s stay at Hillsborough does not work out Jones will find himself with just two central defenders who while very capable, are slightly prone to errors of judgment, and further injuries would be unthinkable. Wednesday endured a terrible opening to last season, under Jones, and the early results and performances this season have been unspectacular. Would Milan Mandaric tolerate another bad start? At this moment the Owls’ season could go either way.
Jones has had Johnson performing at the peak of his abilities before and must be seen to be backing himself to do so again. He is banking that the defender that Johnson once was is still in there and that two relegations and ostracism from the first team have been a big enough kick up the backside to bring Johnson’s former self back to the fore. Jones must feel that he has the requisite man-management skills to get Johnson back on form, because this is far from a risk free gamble.
The 2009 model Roger Johnson would be a fantastic acquisition for Sheffield Wednesday and, as Dave Jones says, it is up to the player to get everything else right so that that natural ability can show through. “It is up to him.”