Even by his own standards, West Ham’s happiest right-back Ben Johnson has an extra-wide grin this week. “I’ve always been a smiler,” he tells Sky Sports, smiling, naturally.
In a few short weeks, Johnson’s career has gone full circle. A month ago, he was hoping his bright Europa League performances might earn 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 way, misfortune elsewhere presented an opportunity to the defender, with both of David Moyes’ other right-backs injured after the last international break.
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Johnson had only started nine Premier League games in his life, and none consecutively since July 2020. Five wins, four clean sheets and a goal later, he has moved from useful backup to first-team challenger.
Even though Vladimir Coufal was quick to praise his newfound rival after his return in Belgium in midweek, deep down he will be concerned about the security of his place in the team for the first time since he arrived last October.
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In a bubbly West Ham dressing room, Johnson may be one of the most affable characters, and his popularity was evident when his team-mates 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 let that fool you. When Moyes reads his starting line-up to face Liverpool on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Premier League, no-one will be more desperate to hear their name than the born-and-bred Hammer living a dream 14 years in the making.
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“My mindset has been, I’ve worked for this, since the age of seven years old,” he says. “All that hard work I’ve put in, I don’t want to put to waste. What’s the point in putting all that in if you get an opportunity and then don’t take it? You’re not going to feel good. I wanted to show the manager what I can do, the potential I can reach.
“My focus has been my main drive, I think. I don’t know much else, I got decent grades at school but I couldn’t see myself going to university, or doing anything other than football.
“Even when my mum or brother would ask me what I’d do, I said it was all I knew. It’s something I banked on from early, I had to work hard for it and still do, but it’s something I’ve always done and praise God I’m here and have an opportunity.”
Rarely in living memory has there been a better time to be a West Ham player after so long in the doldrums over the last two decades. The club has already qualified from its Europa League group after its highest league finish since 1999, and has passed on the captain’s armband from one academy graduate to another.
When Johnson’s parents first officially enrolled him at the Academy of Football in 2009, he had a picture taken with poster boy Freddie Sears, who had just broken into the first team at the age of 20. Johnson is already closing in on the striker’s 14 Premier League starts for the Hammers while this year’s intake will hope to meet Declan Rice, fresh from his role in England’s run to the Euro 2020 final.
Even with protracted rows between the owners and fans and an uneasy relationship with their London Stadium home, it shows how far the club has come since. And more recently, something in the atmosphere in east London has changed. Jesse Lingard could not speak highly enough of it after a reinvigorating loan spell last season, and name-checked another academy graduate, club captain Mark Noble, for the recovery of his mentality as much as his performances.
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Johnson has felt it too. Good grounding can be hard to come by as a young squad member; just look at the list of English players who have wasted their potential down the years. Father-figure Noble’s impact on Johnson, as well as the Hammers dressing room as a whole, has only added further to his smile.
Johnson says: “When I got my opportunity, for him seeing me do well – he’s a bit like a proud dad. I feel like a man now, and when I first came in I felt like a kid, and I was a boy when I first came over to train at 17. He’s seen so many players and been an ever-present in the squad, he’s helped me so much. He gets on with my family when they come to the games, and I’m sure he does with every other person too.
“He’s just a good person, that’s what stuck out to me and to have him as club captain, as someone to look up to, seeing how many games he’s played and how much he’s done for the club, is something I’d 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 a major part in a team’s success, but it’s only the base for a manager to work from. As Brian Clough once said: “Good managers make good sides. There’s no such thing as a side making a manager.”
When Johnson brings Moyes up without prompting, you can feel a genuine warmth towards a man who has clearly earned the trust – and respect – of a squad that had struggled for direction before his return less than two years ago.
He says: “The day he came in, something just 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 footballer wants that. From the day he arrived, he’s instilled that in us, just being honest as well – to us he’s honest, to referees he’s honest, to everyone.
Ben Johnson speaks to Sky Sports after his goal in West Ham’s 4-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend
“We’re a team where everyone gets on, no matter the nationalities or language barriers. We’ve got extremely good players, people inside the training ground see that. Other people might just think ‘he’s a standard Premier League player, he’s alright’, but the talent we have in our dressing room is a motivation to push so high. When you look at other teams and our team, we’re confident to go out and win in every single game.”
Johnson’s last sentence might not be quite so genuine, but it should. Three points on Sunday would lift West Ham above Liverpool and, after a first top-six 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 go out on a high,” he says.
There’s not much that can top the month Johnson has had since the last international break. But victory against his toughest opponent yet would certainly come close.
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