Brennan Johnson: How Nottingham Forest winger is Wales’ next big hope spearheading World Cup charge

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You have to go back to 1958 for Wales’ last World Cup play-off match when they eliminated Israel, winning 2-0 in both legs and 4-0 on aggregate.

If they beat Austria this Thursday night, live on Sky Sports, just 90 minutes would separate them from a first appearance at a World Cup in 64 long years.

Having Gareth Bale fit for this week’s huge meeting in Cardiff is a timely boost along with Aaron Ramsey’s return to scoring form having notched his first goal in a Rangers shirt last weekend.

Wales
Austria

Thursday 24th March 7:00pm Kick off 7:45pm

But there is much more to Wales than Bale and Ramsey.

Having joined up with his international team-mates from his club commitments with Nottingham Forest, there is a new sheriff in town.

How jewel Johnson got Forest firing

Brennan Johnson has only been heading in one direction since joining Forest’s youth set-up as an eight-year-old.

Having worked under the club’s famed academy manager Gary Brazil, his performances in the Sky Bet Championship have led to increased speculation over his future, with West Ham among the Premier League suitors monitoring his progress.

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Such has been his meteoric rise, the player was even the subject of a reported £18m bid from Brentford in January.

It is a testament to how far he has come that the 20-year-old is firmly seen among the usual suspects key to Wales’ hopes of setting up a World Cup play-off final back in Cardiff in June against either Scotland or Ukraine.

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Joe Ledley, who was part of the team that qualified for Euro 2016, told Sky Sports: “Brennan’s a very exciting young player who is most definitely ready now to make the step up.

“He’s been fantastic for Nottingham Forest and you’ve seen this season what he is capable of doing.

“I think Robert Page had blended him into the squad at the right time. We’ll see if he starts but if he’s on the bench, I’m sure he can come onto the pitch and make an impact.”

The winger has already overcome setbacks during his career, missing out on Euro 2020 selection last summer having failed to make the cut for Wales’ 26-man squad.

Johnson was told by the management why he had just fallen short of selection, and he has responded with a season to remember at Forest, scoring12 goals to help his club surge into the Championship play-off reckoning.

“Obviously, I was disappointed not being in the Euro squad,” said Johnson, who starred and scored against FA Cup holders Leicester in February.

“I spoke to the manager around that time and he explained it. He went for different players. There’s a big squad and a lot of good quality in the team.

“Taking my game to the next level was the kind of the message I got and hopefully I’ve been able to do that.”

Prior to his breakout year at second-tier level, Johnson scored 13 goals on loan at Lincoln last season and helped the club into the League One play-offs. No other teenager in English football bore his tally.

Imps boss Michael Appleton explained to Sky Sports how the move came about having tracked his development through a relationship forged with his father David during his playing days.

“It was an absolute no-brainer for me bringing him into Lincoln,” Appleton said. “He’d had a little bit of exposure in the first team at Forest having made a couple of cameo appearances and I was aware of him from the Wales Under-21s as we had a couple of players at the time who were around their set-up.

“But more importantly, I know his dad very well. Me and David were in the same scholarship year at Manchester United so I’ve known them both for a long time. I was actually at his dad’s wedding many years ago so I know the family well.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Forest so when the opportunity came for a loan move, we made sure we were at the front of the queue. The relationship I had with his family helped us and we were privileged to have him as his rise has always felt only a matter of time.

Image: Johnson in action against USA in November 2020

“I had no doubt when he went back to Forest at the end of the season that he would go on to play in their first team.”

Wales haven’t lost a competitive game in the capital since 2018 and they are unbeaten in their last three matches against Austria, winning 1-0 in the most recent meeting in September 2017 in a World Cup qualifier.

Indeed, they are unbeaten in their last 16 home matches in all competitions – winning 11 whilst only conceding five goals – their longest unbeaten run on home soil in their history.

That run has included 11 clean sheets, but Page will call on the likes of Johnson to carry the attacking thrust needed at the other end.

With striker Kieffer Moore injured, it could well mean Bale being moved to a central role which would allow Johnson to play in his favoured right side – where he has been doing most of his damage this season at Forest.

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Johnson scores for Nottingham Forest

David Beckham was an influence growing up, but Johnson is making a name for himself. Appleton believes the player is only beginning to fulfil his potential.

He added: “I’d be amazed if there’s not more interest from the Premier League in the summer – by three or four clubs, if not more.

“There were a few things which stood out with Brennan. He’s got pace and he’s very direct. Whenever he received the ball, even on his back foot, he’d look to turn and always go forward. So many players these days opt to play it square or go backwards but he always looked to be positive.

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Ahead of the 2022 World Cup play-off semi-final between Wales and Austria, Robert Earnshaw believes The Dragons will never have a better chance of World Cup qualification.

“The biggest compliment I can pay him is that I used him in five different positions. We played him either side of a striker, we played him as a number 9, as a 10 and even seven games where we played him as a No 8 in midfield.

“We knew we had someone who is not only very talented and grounded but also someone who is very adaptable, intelligent and has the right attitude. He was always among the two or three you’d struggle to get off the training pitch.”

Forest will hope it is with them that he reaches the top of the English game.

Page: ‘He hasn’t gone chasing the money’

Image: Johnson has seven caps for his country

The player has also received high praise from the Wales head coach ahead of the Austria showdown after emerging as one of the Championship’s most exciting prospects with six assists this season also to his name.

“Brennan could potentially have had a move in January,” Page said of the winger who enhanced his reputation again on Sunday when Forest were beaten 1-0 by Liverpool in their FA Cup quarter-final.

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“But he decided to stay because he’s at a club where he was going to play and enjoy his football. That speaks volumes about him. He didn’t go chasing the money.

“He’s almost the finished article now and Forest have got a wonderful player on their hands. I’ve been to watch him a few times and he’s playing with freedom. He’s really enjoying his football.”

Having represented England at age-grade level, Johnson – whose mother’s family hail from Rhayader in Powys – switched international allegiance and was capped by Wales Under-19s and Under-21s, for whom he scored three minutes into his debut against Belgium.

He made his first start in September’s goalless friendly against Finland, winning a first-half penalty which Harry Wilson had saved, and was used off the bench as Wales secured a World Cup play-off spot in November.

Page has plenty of attacking options for Thursday’s play-off semi-final against Austria in Cardiff with skipper Bale, Daniel James, Wilson and Johnson all in the mix for starting spots.

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The Wales squad, including Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, trained ahead of their World Cup playoff semi-final against Austria

But Page said: “What pleases me with Brennan is he’s gone out and done the hard yards. He went out to a lower league club and played competitive football from an early age.

“Even up until 12 or 18 months ago there were questions on him and whether he could go all the way. There was a question about his discipline without the ball, so they played him as a central midfielder to make sure he tracked players.

“He’s proved those doubters wrong. The way he’s playing is a credit to him, his dad – who is his agent – and how Forest have developed him.”

Johnson ‘raring to go’ ahead of Austria test

Image: Johnson is enjoying his football under Steve Cooper

Johnson has plenty of competition for a starting spot on Thursday, but he heads into Wales’ biggest World Cup tie in years with the praise of former Forest and Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane ringing in his ears.

Keane, working as a pundit on Forest’s FA Cup quarter-final tie against Liverpool, described him as a “natural footballer”.

“It’s always nice to hear things like that from such good players, especially ones that have played for Forest,” said Johnson, who won his first senior cap against the United States in November 2020.

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Ahead of Wales’ World Cup play-off semi-final against Austria, manager Rob Page says he is pleased the fixture is going ahead. The winners will play either Scotland or Ukraine in the final

“The whole team has been playing well. We’ve been pushing up the league and I’ve been really enjoying my football. Steve Cooper (Forest manager) has given me the confidence to go and express myself in games.

“We all know what a big game it is on Thursday and everyone is raring to go now. We know how big it is for the whole nation, getting to the World Cup will be massive. But I think we’ve just got to stay calm and get the job done.”

There is pressure on the shoulders of Page’s boys but Johnson is taking it in his stride.

Team news

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On-loan Liverpool defender Neco Williams says playing regularly for Fulham has left him in a good place heading into Wales’ World Cup playoff semi-final against Austria

Wales are hopeful Gareth Bale will be fit. The forward was omitted from Real Madrid’s 23-man El Clasico matchday squad against Barcelona on Sunday, with reports in Spain saying the Wales captain was absent due to back pain.

Aaron Ramsey has also joined up with Page’s squad after making his first Scottish Premiership start for Rangers since his January loan move from Juventus.

Ramsey’s lack of match fitness had seen him restricted to a couple of starts in the Scottish Cup and three other appearances from the bench. But he played 84 minutes against Dundee on Sunday and scored his first Rangers goal in a 2-1 victory.

Austria boss Franco Foda has had to make four changes to his squad, with defenders Christopher Trimmel and Philipp Lienhart and midfielders Florian Grillitsch and Dejan Ljubicic dropping out.

Bristol City’s Andreas Weimann returns to the Austria squad for the first time for seven years, with Lens’ former Southampton defender Kevin Danso, Stefan Ilsanker and Alessandro Schopf also called up.

How to follow Wales vs Austria on Sky Sports

Wales vs Austria is live on Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm on Thursday; kick-off 7.45pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app. Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.

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World Cup play-offs live on Sky Sports

Path A

Scotland vs Ukraine – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – Postponed until June

Wales vs Austria – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports Main Event

Path B

Russia vs Poland – Thursday, March 24 (5.00pm kick-off) – Cancelled: Poland given bye

Sweden vs Czech Republic – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports – via red button

  • World Cup – every team who’s qualified
  • World Cup latest news

Path C

Italy vs North Macedonia – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports – via red button

Portugal vs Turkey – Thursday, March 24 (7.45pm kick-off) – live on Sky Sports Premier League

Play-off finals: Tuesday, March 29 – live on Sky Sports

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