John Johnson on his life in India and time spent at Boro’s academy.

CHAMPION: John Johnson with the I-League trophy

RONNIE Moore once personally thanked then Boro boss Gareth Southgate for allowing him to take one of Middlesbrough’s “brightest prospects,” John Johnson on loan to Tranmere.

Now the 27-year-old defender from Park End is playing his football over 4,000 miles from home.

It was once a very different story for Johnson. At the age of 18, he made his first and only appearance for Boro, coming on as a 54th-minute substitute in a 5-0 Premier League defeat at the Riverside against Chelsea.

A game he describes as “the most inspirational moment of my life”.

But following loan spells in lower divisions he became surplus to requirements at the club and was released to join Northampton Town on a free transfer.

There he went on to make over 100 appearances and was even named The Cobblers captain leading up to the 2011/12 season.

Little did Johnson know that in just over a year’s time he would be packing up and moving to apply his trade in the top division of Indian Football – signing for I-league side Bengaluru and becoming one of the first ever foreign players in the club’s history.

From that point onwards Johnson has never looked back. In the season of 2013/14, he went on to receive an award for the ‘best defender’ in the I-League.

And it doesn’t end there.

The Middlesbrough lad is now a two-time I-League champion following Bengaluru’s success in 2013/14 and more recently 2015/16.

CHAMPION: John Johnson with the I-League trophy

CHAMPION: John Johnson with the I-League trophy

I caught up with him after his latest success.

First of all, India, what’s it like playing football over there? 

“Football-wise it’s quite surprising, the standard is so much better than I expected it to be.

“I’d probably compare it to around League Two or Conference level in England.

“But they have some good players out here, you get some good foreigners from all over the world – South Americans, Spanish and there’s even a couple of African boys.

“The club’s full-time, it’s ran exactly like it was back in the UK. You train every day, you get a day off a week and it’s all full-time training, yeah.

BENGALRU: John Johnson in India

“The stadium holds 40,000 but we average around 14 to 15 thousand fans, some teams can get up to 80,000 – like in the Calcutta derby.

“Other teams in the league can get around 1 or 2,000, so it just depends on what part of the country you’re playing in.

“The fans have been amazing to me as well, they made me feel really welcome and obviously when I first went over it was a bit of a culture shock but I soon got used it.

“But yeah, since day one they’ve been brilliant with me.”

India is a pretty unexpected move, how did that one come about? 

“Basically, I used to play with a lad at Northampton and then when he retired, he went into coaching and became Michael Appleton’s assistant at Blackburn.

“Then I think with all the Indian links at Blackburn he got offered the job at this new club in India.

“And then because I used to play with him he messaged me and asked me if I fancied playing over in India, and that’s how it happened.”

WATCH: Johnson scored for Bengaluru

Josh Walker, another former Boro player, was also at Bengaluru. Did you play any part in getting him over there? 

“Yeah, Me and Josh were playing for Boro at the same time and when I found out he was without a club, I spoke to the manager and put in a good word.

“I told him he was a good player, works hard and I’d played with him before and yeah, Josh came over for two seasons.

“But unfortunately last season he got injured and returned home.”

Now to your Boro debut against Chelsea. When did you find out you were in the squad? 

“Well we trained as normal on the Friday – the day before the game – and there were a couple of injuries and I knew I was in the squad but didn’t know I was on the bench.

“And then when Southgate named the team on the day before I knew it, I was coming on as a substitute just after half-time.

“All I remember is that my heart was racing, I don’t really remember what Southgate said to me but it was something along the lines of we’re 3-0 down go out there and enjoy it, try your best.

BORO DEBUT: John Johnson up against Frank Lampard

“It was a great experience and one I’ll treasure forever, probably the most inspirational moment of my life.

“Although, having said that, it wasn’t the greatest game ever as we got beat 5-0, but it was definitely still a good experience.

What was it like to work under Gareth Southgate? 

“Southgate was always a very good man-manager; he was tactically very aware.

“As a defender, it was always good to have a manager who you’d respected so much in that position as a player – it helped me out a lot, so it was good for me personally.

“He gave me my debut and a couple of other opportunities, he got me involved with the first team squad and took me on a couple of pre-season tours.

“But unfortunately we went down to the Championship, then I got sent out on loan.

“When I came back to Boro Southgate was no longer there and Strachan was the new manager and he didn’t want me.

“So then that’s when I went to Northampton and continued my career in the lower leagues.

“Would I have stayed at the club longer If Southgate never got sacked? That’s something I don’t really know, but I would have liked him to be there when I got back.”

Gareth Southgate

BORO MANAGER: Gareth Southgate

You talked about your loan spells, how important was that experience for you? Should all young players go out on loan? 

“Yes very much so, I definitely think they need to go out on loan.

“I think you need to learn your trade.

“You can play as many academy and reserves games as you like – but there’s no experience like playing with guys out there who are fighting for every penny in those lower leagues.

“It’s a completely different game, it does help you. You do become more of a man, I think.

ON LOAN: John Johnson in action for Tranmere

ON LOAN: John Johnson in action for Tranmere

“And it’s definitely not just on the pitch either, it gives you more life experience.

“You’re away from your family, living alone, playing football in different places and you’re in surroundings that you’re not usually comfortable with.

“It helps you grow up and grow as a player.

“Every young footballer should go out on loan.”

Now to your time at Boro, how did it come about and how would you sum it up? 

“Well I was scouted at the age of about nine, I was playing for Marton Hall Drive at the time. Scouts came and spoke to me, I had trials and then I was invited to the academy.

“When you’re a young lad and you make your debut you genuinely believe you’re going to go on and make over 100 appearances for the club, you have it in your head that you’re half way there.”

“But obviously it wasn’t meant to be, my path went a different way.

WOODGATE: In action against Arsenal in 2006

“I have nothing but respect for the club, it was a fantastic place to be and they looked after me well.

“The coaches were brilliant too, I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for my career, the things I learned at the club as a player and a person, they’ve put me in a good place and set me up nicely.

“If I had my time again I don’t think I’d do anything differently, as long as you’ve tried your best – it is what it is.

“I don’t regret anything at all, it was a great experience and I’ve got some great memories.

“If I was to give any advice to the young lads now it would be to just stick at it, keep working hard and stay patient.

From the Academy is there anyone who never made it and it surprised you? 

“I used to think a lad called Daryl Robson would make it, I played with him a fair bit and he was a cracking player.

“I always thought he might have been someone to play at a really high level and make a decent career out of it, but I think he went into teaching, so it wasn’t to be.

“As for the best I’ve seen in Boro’s first team, it has to be out of Jonathan Woodgate or Mark Viduka.

Mark Viduka (Photo: Getty Images)

“But I’ll go for Viduka because I had to play against him and remember marking him a couple of times in training.

It was just so hard to play against him. A top player.

What does the future hold? Will you ever come back to play in England? 

“Well I’ve just signed a new two-year contract and that keeps me here until I’m 29.

“Then I’ll see after that, I could come back home but I might even try another club in Asia somewhere.

“I’ve had a couple of offers from teams in Thailand and that sounds interesting.

“For now, I’ll take it as it comes.”

What do you make of Boro’s chances in the Premier League? 

“They’re looking very good, I’m very happy with the signings we’ve made.

“Negredo is obviously a massive one and I’m glad we’ve got Ramirez back as well.

“We’ve also strengthened at the back and will most probably get another centre-half in.

“Then we’ve got the experience of Victor Valdes, it doesn’t get much better than that.

“But yeah, the squads shaping up nicely now and probably like every other Boro fan I think we’ll do alright this season.”

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About Josh Frankland (10 Articles)

Sports Journalist. Found watching, talking or writing about Boro. Failing that, some gig venue across the country.

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