In one life, John Johnson will step onto the pitch at the Bet 365 Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a boulder in the way of Stoke City’s attackers as Middlesbrough attempts to scramble away from relegation.
In another, less ideal existence, he has the weekend off from duty at Northampton Town, in the third tier of English professional football.
These are portals through which Johnson could have slipped, if not easily, then via the worn path of the academy graduate, who learns to breathe in the English Premier League’s deoxygenated tank or slips, gradually but hardly disastrously, down the divisions.
But the man who played a single Premier League game for Middlesbrough, and over a century of them for Northampton, will instead travel to Guru Nanak Stadium in the Punjab. Currently convalescing with a fractured rib, he expects to be fit soon, as Bengaluru FC seeks to end a seven-match winless streak against Minerva Punjab FC.
Johnson’s career path to the I-League, one of two professional football leagues in India, is unusual by degrees. The stereotype of the reluctant-to-travel British footballer exists in 2017 because it is true, and exceptions are glaring in their scarcity. There are famous, successful examples: Steve McManaman scored in a Champions League final for Real Madrid; Michael Owen was an asset for the same club; David Beckham brought his sheen to the Bernabeu.
Sometimes, the “boy wonder” looks to move abroad to escape the twin collapsing pillars of pressure and failure. John Bostock, a midfielder with enough promise and dynamism that Tottenham Hotspur fought Crystal Palace to a tribunal over his signature in 2008, is now rebuilding his career aged 25 in the Belgian and French lower leagues.
Perhaps Johnson lies somewhere in between those two poles. “I was out of a contract and it was getting towards June 2013, pre-season time in the U.K. I had one offer from Torquay which wasn’t very good,” he explains.
He chose the Deccan plateau over the English riviera thanks to a connection with Ashley Westwood, who had played alongside him at Northampton before beginning a coaching career that took him to Bangalore via his own links with the Venky family, the Indian owners of Blackburn Rovers.
“I’d never even been to Asia on holiday or anything, so I had absolutely no idea,” he continues. “I went off what people had told me, I did as much research online and spoke to players that had played in Asia before. Some had good things to say, some didn’t so it was kind of a mixed bag. In my head I thought, ‘Expect the worst and whatever it is can only be better.’ But the local players and staff were brilliant.
“It takes you a couple of weeks to adjust and sometimes you’re a long way from home. Sometimes you have days where you feel you’re at the end of the earth. But the people really helped me.”
Johnson is not one of the more famous names to have passed through Indian football in the last few years. Robert Pires and Alessandro del Piero, luminaries of the European scene through the 1990s and early 2000s, turned up at FC Goa and Delhi Dynamos respectively. David Trezeguet, who struck the “golden goal” for France that won Euro 2000, played for Pune City in 2014.
But those spells were short—oddly-shaped addenda to rounded careers. And while the stars shuffled offstage, Johnson remained, an unheralded yet successful part of Indian football’s uneven progress towards recognition.
“At first I just signed for one year and we had a successful year, so I signed on for another, then another two years… and then another two-year deal last summer,” he explains.
“The coach said, ‘Come and see how it is.’ The facilities weren’t great, the standard wasn’t as good but then it vastly improved. Over here in India, and in Asia in general they are putting a lot of focus on football. And as you can see in other countries, it’s growing.”
Lower-league football retains an inescapable romance, a cocktail of sweat, tradition and unstinting loyalty, but for an average salary of £40,000 a year for the third tier of the English game, since the 2014-15 season, it can be a gruelling slog. Perhaps Indian football lacks that deep history; perhaps, for a boy steeped in it, a dizzying array of new locales and conditions was refreshing.
“You can go to Calcutta and Goa and play at four o’clock in the afternoon at 40 degrees and 90 per cent humidity,” Johnson says. “You can go to the northeast of India and you’re playing in the mountains where it can be ten degrees. It’s a bit of a crazy place, incredible some of the places you go and see. You’ve just got to be prepared for everything. I’m getting to see places I never had dreamt of seeing before.”
Places outside of India, too. In 2016, Bengaluru reached the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s secondary pan-continental competition, losing in Doha, Qatar, to al-Quwa al-Jawiya of Iraq. The knockout rounds took Johnson to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. “That’s what’s exciting about it,” he says of the constant diversity. “We get to travel around Asia. Played in the Maldives, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia… we’ve even been across to China for pre-season. We’ve been in all these amazing countries and seen these amazing places.”
For the thrill of traveling, there must be a trade-off. Bangalore is home to a cricket franchise foremost, Royal Challengers—the team of Indian captain and veritable demi-god Virat Kohli. Surely football can never hope to compete?
“I think we average around nine to ten thousand [fans per game,]” Johnson says. “I think the highest attendance we have had was 22,000, which is good. But if you go across to places like Calcutta where they have the big derby, you can get anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 fans.
“Then you can travel to Goa, in our league there can be five hundred people there. It depends on the club. If you go to the northeast, the fans are crazy—25,000 and loud, it can be really enjoyable.
“Cricket will always be number one here, that’s the main sport. But I have spoken to a lot of people within the game and they are seeing a lot more kids playing football. They recognize you walking around the city. People will say to you, ‘Hello Johnson, how’s things?’ When you play the majority in the lower leagues in the U.K., it’s nice. It makes you feel good about yourself and your job again.”
Johnson notes that the Indian Super League (ISL), with its famous names, has helped “publicize” football in India. But to an external observer, the structure appears counterproductive—two leagues competing for audience share and ticket sales, in a country where the game is still pushing its head tentatively from the womb.
“The I-League is where you qualify for the Asian competitions, the more recognized league,” Johnson says. “In a way, the Super League has been fantastic for the average person who maybe didn’t know about football as much in India, because they publicize it very well.”
The I-League and ISL share players—Bengaluru and Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri has appeared for Mumbai City this season—and naturally, there has been talk of a merger.
“Imagine how good it will be if there are 20 teams in the main league and 20 more wanting to come in,” Chhetri told the Hindustan Times in November. “It’ll be a pan-India league then. Why do we only get players from North East or Goa or Kerala? Why don’t we have superstars from, say, Madhya Pradesh. There must be talent there. Ideally I would want much more teams and a bigger league.”
A unified league would also, surely, help the prospects of the national team. India is 130th in FIFA’s world rankings, between Suriname, population 550,000, and Dominican Republic, 10,727,000. It has never qualified for a World Cup and will not be at Russia 2018, having finished bottom of its group in the second round of Asian qualifying, with a solitary victory over Guam.
“They have got the population there but they are starting from scratch,” Johnson says. “I have spoken a lot to our captain [Chhetri] about why they aren’t succeeding. It’s grassroots, the coaching. They are starting getting young coaches over to help, changing the way people think about the game. First of all, I think maybe India has to start competing in Asian competitions against the likes of Australia, Iran, China, Korea and Japan. Then maybe 30 or 40 years down the line they can start thinking about the World Cup. They have to take it step by step but there’s definitely improvements. There’s more soccer academies, more kids playing.”
China’s desire to host (and win) a World Cup has seen it adopt shock tactics of plunging transfer fees and wages into foreign stars, in a huge bid to boost enthusiasm for domestic football in the country, alongside long-term monoliths like 50,000 academies by 2025.
“India is a bit of a way off China,” Johnson says. “I think the focus in India is more on improving local football as well, not just bringing big stars in.
“Obviously in China they are trying to do it in one or two years, to get where they want. Here they are focusing more on the longer-term project. They are trying to do it the right way.”
At 28, he still has time for another spell in English football. Surely he must feel pangs for clumped mud, muscle ointment and frozen pitches?
“I’ve thought about it before, when I had a couple of months off last season. I was training with Luton, last year when John Still was manager. It was nice to be around the lads, the old banter, the English mentality. I thought, you know what, I’ve missed this.
“At the minute I’m signed here, I’m happy, so I will keep on this journey and if so be it I go home, I will look forward to that as well. I always touch base, keep options open and try and stay in contact. Definitely, in the future I will return home.”
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