Andrew Johnson: the tumbling enigma

Andrew Johnson first came to our attention in the 2001 League Cup Final at Cardiff.

The Telegraph’s report tells the story:

GLORY for Liverpool, sympathy for Birmingham City. This was the first English final decided on penalties and rarely has a climax been so cruel.

Trevor Francis cried tears of despair for Andrew Johnson in Cardiff, sobbing on the shoulder of the young Birmingham City striker whose crucial miss handed Liverpool their first trophy in six years. Afterwards he said they were of the `crocodile’ variety, but they were genuine. Of that there was no question.

From the moment Johnson joined this encounter, replacing Dele Adebola at half-time, he terrorised and tormented a Liverpool defence seemingly stunned that a 20-year-old who spends much of his time on the bench of a First Division club should pay them so little respect. He was there to make history in Birmingham’s first final in 38 years, and in the 15th minute of extra time he nearly did.

Stephane Henchoz had already conceded the penalty that allowed Birmingham’s Darren Purse to equalise in the 90th minute and there seemed little doubt that in bringing down Johnson, the French defender had done it again. Johnson thought so, and so too did Francis, but David Elleray doubtless believed Liverpool’s centre-half had taken the ball as well as the man. Even television replays were inconclusive.

Perhaps the Harrow official’s own uncertainty prevented him from pointing to the spot for a second time, but the fact that he did not made it all the more painful when it came to Johnson’s turn to keep Birmingham in the game. It was 5-4 to Liverpool, Johnson had to score, Sander Westerveld saved and victory was Liverpool’s.

So Johnson came on as sub, won a penalty, almost won another, then missed in the penalty shoot-out.  Interviewed after the match, Johnson said:  “I feel as if I have let everyone down. I have to put this business behind me and bounce back. If I’m ever asked to take a penalty again, then you can be sure I will say yes like a shot.” One way another, he would always be associated with penalty kicks.

In 2002 Birmingham wanted Crystal Palace’s Clinton Morrison, and were prepared to pay £5m for him.  Palace manager Trevor Francis – who had moved from Birmingham so knew that club’s players well – wanted either Tommy Mooney or Johnson to be included in the deal. After further negotiation the fee was reduced to £4.5m, with Johnson the chosen makeweight.  After much consideration he agreed to go. After 8 goals in 82 Birmingham games his career needed a kick-start, and this move provided it.

Johnson took a while to get going, having to fight past a partnership of Dele Adebola and Ade Akinbiyi to get his chance, but soon the goals were coming.  Johnson was frighteningly quick in those days, and in a relevant way, too – his slashing runs into the area sometimes looked clumsy, but he had a slipperiness that made it hard for defenders to make clean challenges. (Exact figures are proving hard to come by, but by March 2005, for instance, Palace had been awarded eleven penalties in the Premier League, many of them for fouls on Johnson).

Despite Johnson’s goals (he would end with 74 in 140 Palace games, a phenomenal record in a struggling team), Palace hadn’t been able to establish themselves in the top division, and relegation made Johnson’s departure almost certain.  He stayed for a season in the Championship – a £5.5 million bid from West Ham was rejected in December 2005 – but by May, with Palace not able to gain promotion, bids were accepted from Everton, Bolton and Wigan.

David Moyes got his man:

Everybody knew about Andy and a lot looked at him, and I am not sure what they couldn’t see. All I know is what I saw. He is a hard working player, and the people I asked about him all said he was a fantastic player to have around the club. Every time I came across him he did well. I recall playing against him a couple of times towards the end of my career – and I tell him he never got a kick. I was player-manager at Preston and he was in Birmingham’s reserves and he was always very quick and had great potential. But it changed for him when he went off to Crystal Palace and showed he could score in the Premier League. Maybe it’s hard to see the difference between him and players that the big four clubs spend £10-£15million on. But there are players even further down who are sold for £2million and are no different to Andy at £8.6million. The point is that you need people to come in and hit the ground  running to score goals, and that is what Andy has done. He had a proven track record at his previous clubs and I was happy with that judgement. I do not think that we paid too much for Andy. Clubs like Wigan and Bolton also bid the same amount, £8.6million. If they can offer it as well as us maybe these days it isn’t a lot.

Johnson scored 11 times in 32 league games for Everton in 2006/07, but after that began to struggle.  He was attracting a reputation for diving, and at one point missed two penalties in a single match in the in the UEFA cup. He also found himself back on the wing, a position that didn’t make the most of his talents.

Roy Hodgson saved Fulham from relegation in 2007/08, and in the off-season started to rebuild his side.  He brought in Bobby Zamora from West Ham, and eventually managed to secure Johnson to partner him.

“I have made no secret of my wish to add Andy Johnson to my squad at Fulham. I believe that he has all the qualities needed to assist us in next season’s campaign and I am more than delighted that we have secured his services for the long term. There has been a lot of speculation regarding this transfer during the last week, very little of which has had any foundation. I am just happy to be able to focus on the positive news that Andy Johnson is now a Fulham player, one who we have great hopes for, and I am grateful to the chairman, the board of directors and the chief executive for working tirelessly to make this possible.”

The concerns were medical (rumours abounded that Johnson had failed one) and, for fans, the fee (rumoured to be over £11,000,0000).  Nevertheless, Johnson was Fulham’s first ‘name’ signing for some time, and expectations were fairly high.

Did he deliver? Seven goals in 31 games might be seen as par, given that the team played fairly defensively and rarely committed players to attack when away from home.  Johnson sometimes looked frustrated running those channels, a thankless task that earned him no personal glory but which pulled defenders around and wore them down. The Fulham crowd warmed to him, respecting his efforts and all-action style. But Johnson had all kinds of bother in 2009-10, injured in a Europa League game at the Cottage (the famous ‘banjoed’ incident) and unable to contribute much to Fulham’s most celebrated season.  He saw some time in 2010-11, but only contributed three goals in 24 games (in a much more adventurous side).

Is there anything left? Studies in baseball show that players start losing their speed in their early twenties, and by about age 24 the rate at which they accomplish speed-type things (stolen bases and triples, especially) really starts to diminish. Luckily for baseball players, while their speed is declining they’re learning other elements of the game and until 27/28 or so they become better overall players each season they play. Baseball is not football and we should be wary of making comparisons that suggest it is, but equally it seems reasonable to me that speed in football might follow the same lines. Athletes are athletes, after all.  For a player like Johnson, whose game was built on that overwhelming pace, what happens when the speed leaves?

Things change, that’s for sure.  The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson wrote of Michael Owen:

There are two things at which he excels (or at least excelled): sitting on the shoulder of defenders and timing runs on to through balls, and getting across his marker at the near post to meet crosses. His diminishing pace has affected his ability to do the former, but he remains excellent at the latter

Wilson could be describing Johnson, too. He identifies other reasons why Owen, and players like him struggle now:

  • Better defences: poacher type players thrive when defences make mistakes. Defences make fewer mistakes these days.  I don’t know if this applies or not.  Probably not for the sort of teams Johnson is playing against (Wilson refers to European competition a lot in the article).
  • Deeper defences: defences rarely use a very high off-side line nowadays so it’s harder to slip fast forwards through for one-on-ones.  I suspect this is true, but perhaps not in the way Wilson means.  Fulham have had a very strong home record in Johnson’s time, and this has seen opposing defences pushed back fairly deep. There’s no room behind them for Johnson to run into.  Away from home, when we might have expected this to be different, the team simply hasn’t attacked well enough, unless we ignore the run at the end of the 2008/09 season in which Johnson and Nevland (who was outstanding on the breakaway) led the team to a few nifty away wins.  So I don’t know. I can remember a handful of Nevland breakaways, Diomansy Kamara was good at this, and even Clint Dempsey has scored a couple of times like this.  Why hasn’t Johnson?
  • Universality: Wilson speaks of the modern need for multi-dimensional players. This means going outside the old 4-4-2, notably with the current fashion for battering ram centre-forwards who can also play a bit (Zamora would fit this ideal).  With such a player leading the line a coach doesn’t need to use two players in his forward line, and can instead deploy a player further back or on the flanks.  This is something we’re familiar with at Fulham: while Johnson was injured Roy Hodgson tried Zoltan Gera in a hybrid role, at once playing off Zamora and plugging a gap in midfield. Gera’s success in that competition was a surprise to all of us, but it’s fair to say that had Johnson not been injured Fulham would have persevered with a 4-4-2, and probably not achieved nearly as much.

All of which paints a somewhat troubling picture. Added to this, Johnson’s goals-per-game ratio has been declining for some time:

This crudely mixes teams and divisions, but is at least worthy of the odd raised eyebrow.  Johnson’s goals are not coming nearly as often as they used to.  There were a lot of them, but there aren’t any more.

So what now?  Johnson lacks the touch and guile to drop into a Dalglish/Beardsley type role. He lacks the pace to play his old role.  He perhaps has the instincts to operate as a poacher, but as we have noted, teams don’t use these nearly as much as they used to.  It’s been a fascinating career, going from a throw-in in a deal for Clinton Morrison to an England international in the blink of an eye, so Johnson has nothing to be ashamed of at all.  But the suspicion must remain that his particular skill-set is hard to place in Fulham’s 2011/12 side, a team that will feature the awesome Zamora and that will try to crowd the likes of Dempsey, Dembele, Duff and whoever else Martin Jol comes up with into the team.

9 thoughts on “Andrew Johnson: the tumbling enigma

  1. He does seem to have enough pace (or something) remaining, however, to make a nuisance of himself to defenders. Seemed to me they generally acted uncomfortable when he was around in the new year.

    To put him in context — “enigma” applies also to Dembele (reasons too obvious to need recitation) and in a different sense to Duff and Davies too — which version will turn up on the day: the estimable but fading veteran or the turner back of the clock still witnessed at times this spring?

    On their day, they are all good competition for each other — with AJ not my first pick either. But I can’t view any of them either as nailed on for a starter or as top candidate for shipping out. Which is to say that you could write a similar piece, only the details differing, for every single one of them.

    Will need to see who’s coming in before judging who’s most expendable.

    1. Speaking of Duff, I was watching him in the 2004–05 Chelsea season review DVD yesterday. I think there was a run of 9 games in which he scored the first goal 6 times, most cutting in from the right wing. An amazing player. It also brought home how good Eidur Gudjohnson was, moving from that team to Barcelona. Then to Monaco/Stoke/Fulham….

      Davies is perhaps unfairly tarnished with your enigmatic brush. My view is that when he’s fit he’s as consistent as we’ll see, but that perhaps he hasn’t always been fit. He looked excellent when he came back into contention later on in the season, as did Duff.

      (Point taken on the article thing – I was trying to write a big AJ profile piece for the Review but it wasn’t working to my satisfaction so I abandoned it and put it here!).

  2. I have a lot of time for AJ. I watched pretty much every game last season (admittedly on TV in the wee small hours) and I thought he put in some great games when he came back and I’d like to see him start the season up front with BZ. if he can get 10 goals and allow BZ to get 15 or so with the rest of the team chipping in 30 we’ll be doing well. At the very least let him play in the opening Europa games to prove himself -along with BZ plays in them which I think he should given his need to get in some games. Unless we bring in a young, fast, clever forward as a foil for BZ’s game I believe we should stick with AJ.

    BTW – we are already 7th on the EPL ladder : ) Good start to the season.

  3. I definitely think that AJ has a place in this team, but not as a starter. He seems to be increasingly suited to the Erik Nevland role of late cameo’s and occasional starts, but most importantly offering something we don’t have.

    His physical traits may be on the decline, but I do think he has become a bit more of a rounded player – he still runs the channels, but now instead of simply going for goal himself, he pulls the centre back apart and allows room for one of Dembele/Dempsey/Zamora to ghost into the space created and latch onto the subsequent cutback. He still has poacher’s instincts (see his goal v Wigan in the last minute) but with Dempsey, that load can be shared.

    Ultimately, it boils down to whether or not Jol thinks he can contribute this season or he has a younger player in mind who can offer just as much/more than AJ currently. I guess we will know the answer on September 1st.

      1. Probably because Nevland played in the ‘great escape season’ – I do think his effectiveness on the break decreased over his time at Fulham – was this down to Roy’s more defensive tactics? Was the support just not there for AJ in the seasons we were a defensive behemoth?

  4. I also have a lot of time for AJ and his talent for pulling defenders out of shape and opening space in the penalty area for his teammates. Duff and Dempsey have both reaped huge benefits from this, and if the “assist” stat consisted of more than just the final pass, I think you’d see some impressive numbers there. He never dogs it out there and he played very well last season once finally freed of injury.

    I was especially excited to have him and Zamora fit at the same time, simply because it was nice that we actually had two strikers on the pitch — instead of what seemed liked endless permutations of 4-6-0.

    Of course, with Jol on board, things may change. Roy saw and benefitted from his talents. Hughes, to a lesser degree, did so as well. AJ may be on his way, but I really have enjoyed watching him play.

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