Lifelong Gooner Bradley Johnson has revealed the teenage heart-break he suffered at the hands of his beloved Arsenal – and how, with the love and support of family and friends, he triumphed over such early adversity.
For at 15, the Hackney-born Canary star was a pupil of Liam Brady – the Arsenal legend turned Gunners Academy director; the man responsible for nurturing the likes of Jack Wilshire, Keiran Gibbs and Henri Lansbury and grooming them into first team stars for boss Arsene Wenger.
And as Arsenal prepared to head for Norfolk this weekend and tomorrow’s live, lunch-time Sky clash with Paul Lambert’s men, so Johnson recalled the moment when his Arsenal dream died – and how, for 18 months, his love of football went with it.
“I remember that day – I’ll never forget it,” said Johnson, speaking at Colney this morning ahead of tomorrow’s reunion live on Sky.
“Liam Brady phoned me Dad and I remember my Dad came off the phone and said they weren’t going to sign me. And I just started crying.
“I was a young lad that had been supporting the team and playing for the team and seeing all my close friends getting their contracts and me not getting one, it broke my heart. And I stopped playing football for about a year and a half,” he recalled.
The manner in which he since turned his career round – via the all-too familiar spell in non-league football with Waltham Forest and Cambridge United – speaks volumes for the player’s character. And why he fits the Lambert mould to a ‘T’.
“I’ve got a strong family behind me and a lot of credit goes to my Mum and Dad,” he said, as they picked their son up, dusted him down and sent him on his way again.
Of those 15 players handed Academy scholarships that year, only one is of any note – Wolves midfielder Jamie O’Hara was in that Class of 2002 before switching to the Tottenham Academy. Judged on the basis of highest current league table position, it leaves Johnson as the highest achiever.
“I look back and there’s not one player of my age group that is still at Arsenal now,” he said. “And there’s probably only three or four that have pushed on and made themselves professional footballers.
“Jamie O’Hara was the highest achiever, but I feel like I’ve worked my way back up there now – and, hopefully, have a lot more to achieve. But it is only me and Jamie that are playing Premier League of the 15 boys that got scholarships at the time.”
There appears little ill feeling; few regrets. Mum, Dad, family and friends will all be there this weekend, cheering their boy on to fresh success.
“I don’t feel I have anything to prove,” he said. “I’ve spoken to my coaches at the time and Liam Brady and they’re congratulated me on how well I’m doing.
“I enjoyed my time at Arsenal and I’ll say that I’m an Arsenal supporter – but tomorrow I won’t be.”
Given the importance any opposition team places on knocking Arsenal out of their passing rhythm, should Johnson start tomorrow his disruptive influence in the heart of that Canary midfield could be key to any Norwich success.
He clearly fears no-one – reputation counts for very little as the one-time Gunners’ starlet relishes his new life in the top flight.
“We can’t stand off them – we’ve got to get into their faces,” he said. “And that’s a strong part of my game – I get into people’s faces and don’t make it easy for them. If there’s a ball there to be won, I’m going to win it.”
Which, perhaps, is exactly what the Canaries missed at Villa Park a fortnight ago as Johnson exited all-too early with concussion. He is, he said, fully recovered now.
“I feel fine now – I had the week off with the concussion, but I’ve trained every day this week and I feel fine now,” said Johnson, eager to get that defeat at Villa out of the Canaries’ system – even if he was on the sidelines and seeing stars for much of it.
“But while it’s always nice to have a rest, coming back in after a defeat we always want to get straight back into the game and put it right, so we’re all looking forward to tomorrow.”
Johnson has, of course, already bumped into his former employers – twice, in fact, last season when Leeds took the Gunners to an Elland Road FA Cup replay. They lost that night, but not before someone had bagged United’s goal of the season from some 30-yards distant
“Yeh, I scored a good goal – and one that I won’t forget. And, hopefully, I can do that again tomorrow.”
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