Even by his standards, West Ham’s happiest right-back Ben Johnson has an extra wide smile this week. “I’ve always been a smiley”, he says Sky Sportssmiling, of course.
In just a few weeks, Johnson’s career has come full circle. A month ago, he hoped his brilliant performances in the Europa League would give him a chance to prove himself in the Premier League. This Thursday, he was rested for the Hammers’ 2-2 draw with Genk after starting the previous five games in a row.
As is often the case, bad luck elsewhere provided an opportunity for the defender, with both of David Moyes’ other right-backs injured after the last international stop.
Johnson had only started nine Premier League games in his life, and none in a row since July 2020. Five wins, four goalless and one goal later, he went from useful reserve to first-team challenger.
Though Vladimir Coufal was quick to praise his new rival after his return to Belgium midweek, he will basically be concerned about the safety of his place on the squad for the first time since he arrived last October.
In a bubbly West Ham locker room, Johnson may be one of the most affable characters, and his popularity was evident when his teammates joined him to celebrate his goal against Aston Villa last Sunday by recreating a video. of the 21 year old. which had appeared on social media earlier that weekend.
Don’t be fooled. When Moyes will read his starting lineup to face Liverpool on Sunday, live Sky Sport Premier League, no one will be more desperate to hear their name than the born and raised Hammer who has been living a dream for 14 years.
“My mindset has been, I’ve been working for this, since the age of seven,” he says. “All that hard work I’ve done, I don’t want to waste it. What’s the point of putting all this if you have an opportunity and then you don’t take it? You won’t feel good I wanted to show the manager what I can do, the potential I can achieve.
“My goal was my main goal, I think. I don’t know much else, I had decent grades in school but I couldn’t see myself going to university or doing anything other than football.
“Even when my mom or brother asked me what I was going to do, I said it was all I knew. It’s something I’ve been aiming for from the start, I had to work hard for it and I still do, but it’s something I have always done and praise to God I’m here and I have an opportunity “.
Rarely in living memory has it been a better time to be a West Ham player after so long in the doldrums for the past two decades. The club have already qualified from their Europa League group after their best league finish since 1999, and have passed the captain’s armband from one Academy graduate to another.
When Johnson’s parents first officially enrolled him in the Academy of Football in 2009, he had a photo taken with Freddie Sears, the poster boy, who had just broken into the first team at the age of 20. Johnson is already approaching striker’s 14 Premier League starts for the Hammers as this year’s hiring hopes to meet Declan Rice, fresh from his role in England’s run to the Euro 2020 final.
Even with prolonged quarrels between owners and fans and a difficult relationship with their home at London Stadium, it shows how far the club has come since. And more recently, something in the atmosphere in East London has changed. Jesse Lingard couldn’t speak highly enough after an invigorating loan spell last season, and the name was checked. another academy graduate, club captain Mark Noble, for recovering his mentality as much as his performance.
Johnson felt it too. A good foundation can be difficult to find as a young team member; just look at the list of English players who have squandered their potential over the years. The impact of Noble’s father figure on Johnson, as well as the Hammers’ locker room as a whole, only increased his smile even further.
Johnson says, “When I got my chance, to him seeing me doing well, he’s kind of like a proud dad. I feel like a man now, and when I first walked in I felt like a kid, and I was a boy when I first came to train when I was 17. He has seen a lot of players and has always been on the team, he has helped me a lot. He gets along well with my family when they come to matches, and I’m sure he it also does with every other person.
“He’s just a good person, that’s what struck me and having him as the captain of the club, as someone to look up to, see how many games he has played and how much he has done for the club, is something I would like to replicate.”
It makes you wonder what was going wrong all those years before Moyes took the reins. A good dressing room plays such an important role in the success of a team, but it is only the basis on which a manager can work. As Brian Clough once said: “Good managers make good teams. There is no team that makes a manager.”
When Johnson pulls out Moyes without asking for advice, you can feel genuine warmth towards a man who has clearly earned the trust – and respect – of a team that had fought for leadership before his return less than two years ago.
He says: “The day he arrived, something clicked with all the players. We were in a bad situation and it was like ‘if you don’t do what I want you to do, you won’t play’, and no player wants that. he arrived at, he instilled it in us, also to be honest: for us it is honest, for the referees it is honest, for everyone.
“We are a team where everyone gets along, regardless of nationality or language barrier. We have extremely good players, the people on the training ground see it. Other people may just think ‘he’s a standard Premier League player. , he’s fine ‘, but the talent we have in our locker room is a motivation to push so high. When you look at other teams and our team, we are confident to come out and win in every single match. “
Johnson’s last sentence may not be as genuine, but it should. Three points on Sunday would lift West Ham over Liverpool and, after a first sixth place finish this century, show they are back where they feel they belong. “It’s the last game before the international break and we want to come out great,” he says.
There’s not much that can make it past Johnson’s month since his last international break. But victory over his toughest opponent would certainly come close.