Johnson On Derby Memories & Meeting Evertonian Demands

Referee Graham Poll had already played four minutes of added-time and Everton were leading Liverpool 2-0 when Lee Carsley tried his luck at the Park End with a speculative half-volley.

The midfielder struck it well, but nobody expected Pepe Reina to parry the ball into the air and then make a feeble attempt to catch it as it dropped. Andy Johnson was onto it like a flash and simply by sticking his head towards the loose ball he was able to nod home a third Everton goal.

“That was an amazing day!” Johnson reflects on the 3-0 success in September 2006. “We had a game in midweek against Blackburn Rovers but everyone at the training ground was just talking about the Merseyside derby. I didn’t realise how big a local derby could be until I experienced that build-up. It was incredible, the whole city was going crazy and there is so much focus on the game. The atmosphere on the day was absolutely electric.

“To win in the manner we did was unbelievable. Tim (Cahill) got the opener and then to get the second and third was just a dream for me. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what Pepe Reina was trying to do! That is without doubt one of the big highlights of my career.”

It’s a game that will also linger long and large in the memory of any Evertonian who was fortunate enough to be inside Goodison Park on that sunny day. The derby brace was Johnson’s third and fourth goals of a campaign that was still just four matches old. And it forever cemented him into the affections of the Goodison faithful.

The striker arrived at Goodison Park in the summer of 2006 after starting off at Birmingham City before really making a name for himself at Crystal Palace.

“I was born in Bedford and left home at 16 when I signed for Birmingham City,” says Johnson. “I enjoyed my time there but when we got promoted to the Premier League, the manager was Steve Bruce and he wanted to bring in a striker that was proven at that level. I wasn’t established at the time and, if I am being totally honest, my goals record was fairly poor.

"He wanted to bring in Clinton Morrison from Crystal Palace. Trevor Francis was the Palace manager and he obviously knew me from our time at Birmingham and he said the only way the deal could happen would be if I went the other way.

“It was a sticky situation for me because I had just bought my first house and as a kid I had always dreamed of playing in the Premier League. But after a conversation with Karren Brady at Birmingham, and a few harsh words, it became very clear to me which way I was going!

“She sat me down and went through my stats and I wouldn’t have been training with the first team if I’d stayed. I didn’t understand at the time but as you get older and wiser, I do now. She’s a businesswoman and it turned into a really good move for me. Moving to Palace reset my career.”

That last remark is something of an understatement! In 2005, Johnson was voted into the Crystal Palace all-time Centenary Team, as voted for by Eagles fans. The only other man inducted who was still playing, by the way, was Nigel Martyn.

Palace were in the Championship when Johnson walked through the door and he netted 14 goals in his maiden campaign. It was a better than decent return but there was no indication of what was to follow.

The following season, 2003/04, began badly for the Eagles. Indeed, by the end of November with the team hovering just above the relegation zone, manager Steve Kember was relieved of his duties and Iain Dowie was installed as his replacement. The transformation was remarkable.

From mid-January to mid-February, Palace won five games on the spin and Johnson contributed nine goals, including a hat-trick in a 6-3 win against Stoke City. The south Londoners soared up the table, finished sixth and then duly won the play-offs to earn a return to the promised land of the Premier League.

“We went on a massive surge from 20th all the way up to the play-off places,” Johnson remembers. “We crept into a play-off spot on literally the last game of the season and ended up getting promoted. It was a really good personal season for myself, scoring goals, playing regularly and getting Crystal Palace, and me, into the Premier League, which had been my main goal after leaving Birmingham.”

Johnson took to the top-flight like a duck to water. He plundered 21 league goals, only Thierry Henry scored more, but the rest of his Palace colleagues between them could muster only another 20 and the team suffered an instant relegation back to the Championship.

Johnson was the hottest property in the English game.

“There was a lot of interest in me from other clubs, but [then Palace chairman] Simon Jordan was always good to me, personally and professionally. He told me he couldn’t sell me. He said that if I stayed for a season in the Championship and helped the team get back to the Premier League then it would be fantastic for everyone but he gave me his word that if we didn’t get promotion then he would let me go… at the right price. He was really fair and he’d looked after me so I agreed.”

Johnson certainly kept his side of the bargain. He top-scored again for Palace but the promotion push foundered at the hands of Watford in the play-off semi-final.

“Simon honoured his word, which I knew he would. He knew I had given it my all. Three teams came in for me – Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Everton. Sam Allardyce was the Bolton manager and he called me, and I went to David Moyes’ house, too.

“Sam offered me a big amount of money to join his team and play alongside Nicolas Anelka, but it was never about money for me. I just wanted to play for the biggest football club I could and that was the main reason I joined Everton.”

David Moyes parted with a Club-record fee and Johnson headed north. But despite a hectic pre-season schedule that included games against Bury, Celtic, Columbus Crew, Aberdeen and Athletic Bilbao, the big money man drew a blank.

“I tried so hard to please the punters and I desperately wanted that first goal but it didn’t happen and I was getting frustrated,” admits Johnson. “There was no added pressure on me from anyone else other than myself.”

Thankfully, it all came good on the opening day of the season. Fifteen minutes into the Goodison game against a Watford side that included a certain Ashley Young, Johnson picked up a James Beattie flick-on and opened his Everton account.

Andy Johnson
I just wanted to play for the biggest football club I could and that was the main reason I joined Everton.

The following Saturday, he scored again in a 2-0 win away at Tottenham Hotspur, achieved despite Kevin Kilbane being sent off after 33 minutes.

“It was a massive change, with absolutely no disrespect to Crystal Palace,” said Johnson. “Everton had a much richer history and there was obviously more pressure up here.

“There were so many good players in the squad. We had quality and we had the right mentality with such a good togetherness. Leon Osman was probably one of the most underrated players in the country at the time.

"He was top-class, but the one who really stood out for me was Mikel Arteta. His natural ability was incredible, he always wanted to get on the ball, and he had the passion, too. I always thought he would go into coaching and managing. You can always tell in certain players who have that passion and hunger. Lee Carsley was the same and he’s doing a great job now with England Under-21s.

“Someone else I always speak about is Manuel Fernandes. We had him for only about six months, but he had incredible talent. The fans will remember a great goal he scored at Goodison Park against Manchester United. What he could do with a football in training was just on the next level.”

In his first season at Everton, Johnson top-scored with 12 goals in all competitions and more than played his part in an excellent fifth-placed finish that handed the Blues another tilt at the Europa League.

When he reflects on his time at the Club, the memories of the European nights always bring a smile to his face.  Johnson scored four goals in six Europa League starts and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“I was amazed at how many fans we took to places like Alkmaar and Nurnberg. In Nurnberg, we were looking out of the bedroom windows of the hotel and all we could see was Evertonians. That second leg against Fiorentina when we beat them 2-0 but lost on penalties is up there with the best atmosphere I ever played in. Even thinking about it now, the hairs on the back of my neck stick up. It was just so sad that we couldn’t finish the job.”

Andy Johnson
There were so many good players in the squad. We had quality and we had the right mentality with such a good togetherness.

By his own admission, Johnson would love to be higher than he is on the all-time Everton goalscorers list but he knew what the fans wanted and he never left anything out there.

“Players aren’t going to be amazing every week, they’re not going to play well every week at the top of their game, but the very least they can do is put a shift in. I know that’s what the fans expect, and quite right, too. It’s not always going to go to plan but as long as you work hard for each other and have each other’s back, then the fans will have you.”

Although Johnson didn’t know it at the time, that 16th-minute opening goal against Fiorentina was the last of his Everton career. Moyes had shattered the Club transfer record again to bring in Yakubu from Middlesbrough and as the more natural finisher, the Nigerian would always play before Johnson when only one central striker was deployed.

A move to Fulham came after the end of the 2007/08 season but Johnson left with his head held high – something that was reaffirmed by the terrific reception he was afforded from the Goodison crowd each time he returned.

“I loved it at Everton and made some great friends for life,” he admits. “There was no social media and the players could go out after games, or in midweek if we had the next day off. And everyone would be there. Not just two or three or four, the whole squad would get together. It helped, for sure, because when you went out onto that football pitch you were ready to do battle together.

"And also, players weren’t then so affected by making mistakes because we all knew we were right in it together and we were all so comfortable in our surroundings. The spirit was so good and I had all that at every club I played for. When everyone buys into it, it’s so good.”

By the time he signed for Everton in that summer of 2006, Johnson was already an England international. He did his very first interview for the Club’s official website from his England hotel room in Manchester ahead of a game. It was Sven-Goran Eriksson who handed him his debut, after the Football Association got wind that Johnson was also eligible for Poland due to his ancestry.

“It was the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ and it was a very tough squad to break into," he reflects. "Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Wayne Rooney. I could go on, but I won eight caps and when you consider that some great players can go through their career without playing international football, it’s something I am very proud of.”

Johnson was back at Goodison Park recently to conduct a Question & Answer session with supporters at the end of a tour of the stadium and he was asked who his current favourite Everton player is. He didn’t hesitate.

“Seamus Coleman. He is one player who defines what Everton Football Club is all about. If you have 16 players like him in the dressing room then you’d be fine, no problem.”

He was also asked about his toughest opponents and he singled out John Terry and Claude Makelele at Chelsea along with Rio Ferdinand and Jaap Stam at Manchester United.

“I never scored against them,” Johnson admits.

But when you’ve bagged two in a 3-0 derby win… that’ll do for us!