A great interview with Daniel Taylor.
Andrew Johnson is sitting in an office at Fulham’s training ground, talking about his first impressions of his new club. He has been here only half a summer and injuries have restricted him to one appearance but, already, there is an unmistakable sense of affection in his voice.
“I just can’t believe how well we pass the ball,” he says. “I knew we had some top players but I’ve been surprised just how good they actually are. We don’t ever play long balls, we always try to do it the right way, and it’s fabulous for me because we played a lot of long-ball stuff at Everton. I’m looking at the way we play and I’m thinking, ‘This team has got a great chance’. Everything I’ve seen has made me believe that I made the right decision in coming here.”
At £10.5m, Johnson is the most expensive signing in the transformation of a club that, until Roy Hodgson’s arrival, had become football’s equivalent of the Rolling Stones. Struggling to rediscover the old magic. No satisfaction.
All of which, ironically enough, is how Johnson had begun to feel at Everton before the wily old Hodgson realised Fulham could benefit from another club’s problem. “I will always have good memories of Everton but I have to admit that it had reached the stage where I wasn’t enjoying my football there,” he says. “Moving back south was a factor and always something I wanted to do, but the biggest factor was being happy – and the truth was I didn’t feel happy during the end of my time at Everton.”
It is an unusual story bearing in mind that, in his first season on Merseyside, Johnson won England caps and established himself as a crowd favourite, the pinnacle being two goals in a 3-0 humbling of Liverpool. But Johnson’s time at Everton can be divided into two parts and the second half was a demoralising experience. “I’d like to put the record straight because it’s been said that I fell out with David Moyes. The truth is that we never had one argument. We got on really well and I’ve got a lot of respect for him.
“The problem came down to wanting to play in my best position and the fact I was either out of the team or stuck on the right wing, in a position I didn’t like. David liked to play 4-5-1, which basically meant there were four strikers going for one place. Yak [Yakubu Ayegbeni] was on fire and there was a lack of midfielders at the club, which meant me playing on the right. It wasn’t my position and I was frustrated because I wanted to play through the middle. I was stuck out on the right wing for nine or 10 games and I just think, over time, I lost a bit of confidence and, with that, my form. That’s when I stopped enjoying my football.”
Johnson bit his lip at first. But he could not help think back to his infamous first cap for England (against Holland), when Sven-Goran Eriksson took a player who at the time was the most prolific English scorer in the Premier League, a man who scored 85 goals in 160 games for Crystal Palace, and asked him to try his hand on the right wing.
“There was such an uproar at the time and the irony was that David Moyes was among those who questioned it,” he says. “So it was disappointing when it started to happen at Everton as well. I didn’t moan, I never caused a problem in the dressing room, I never banged on the manager’s door. I kept my head down because I know that footballers are paid an awful lot of money and there’s a responsibility to the fans. But it was hard. I don’t think anyone at Everton sensed I was unhappy because I made sure I wasn’t all doom and gloom around the club but deep down, when I went home, that was when I really felt it.
“In the end I decided I needed to move to get my career back on track. I thought about it all summer. My little boy was starting school in September and I didn’t want to hang around and, come Christmas, have to take him out of his new school after only three months. They [Everton] were short of money and, at the stage, hadn’t brought in any more midfielders, so I was thinking, ‘As soon as we get a couple of injuries, am I going to be stuck out on the right again?’ It was make-or-break time.”
Fulham were a more attractive proposition than his other suitors, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic, because it meant he could return to London, having felt “a bit isolated” in the north-west. “I’ve heard people saying, ‘He’s gone from Everton to Fulham, that’s a backward step, blah, blah, blah’. But I don’t see it like that. I see Fulham as a massive club, one that can achieve great things. They have been in the Premier League for a long time now. The club are established at this level and there’s real quality here, great footballers like Jimmy Bullard, Simon Davies and Danny Murphy. The gaffer has bought in top players like Bobby Zamora and Zoltan Gera and we’ve already beaten Arsenal this season. For the last couple of seasons the club have been looking behind them at the relegation places – but I really think we can look in the opposite direction this season.”
His ambitions are two-fold: first to rediscover the thrill of playing, and scoring, regularly and then to force his way into Fabio Capello’s plans. “I’m ambitious,” he says. “I want to get back into the England squad and play in big tournaments. But I was never going to do it playing on the right wing or sitting on the bench. I need to be playing in my natural position, week in, week out. The first thing for me is producing the goods for Fulham but England is in my mind too.”
He has eight caps to date but has “unfinished business” with the national team. Johnson was among the strikers placed on stand-by by Eriksson in favour of a 17-year-old Theo Walcott for the last World Cup and, at 27, the 2010 tournament in South Africa might be his last chance. “I think we’ve gone past those days when the England squad was made up only of players from the big four clubs,” says Johnson. “To see Jimmy [Bullard] in the England squad shows that it can be done.”
His debut for Fulham was delayed because of an injury that kept him out for four weeks, but Johnson gave an early indication that he can live up to his price tag in the 2-1 defeat of Bolton Wanderers at Craven Cottage last weekend, an individual performance that earned ungrudging acclaim from the losing manager, Gary Megson, and has replenished his confidence going into today’s match against Blackburn Rovers.
“I’m still not as sharp as I’d like to be and my best is definitely still to come. But I am confident I will score goals in this side,” he says. “It was a lot more direct at Everton, whereas the passing game at Fulham suits my style.”
As does playing off a taller strike partner – in Fulham’s case, Zamora. “I came off the pitch after the Bolton game thinking, ‘Bloody hell, what a player!’ I just don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. If Thierry Henry had scored the goal that Bobby scored against Bolton, people would have been talking about it for three or four weeks.”
Moving from Goodison might have been perceived by some people as a downgrade but Johnson, back in his favourite position, is determined to make up for lost time – and you wonder whether Fulham’s gain will be Everton’s loss.