One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, exceptional season in the Premier League, how they got there, what caused it and why it was never replicated again.
A warning and a favour before we start: please guys, be cool; don’t show this article to Roger Johnson.
Johnson was one of English football’s finest exponents of the Full Metal Jacket style, right-up-in-the-grill military face yell. When he finds out he’s a One Hit Wonder (on the minor technicality of being relegated in his second season); ape doesn’t come close to describing what he’s going to go.
Because with the luxury of hindsight we can relive the towering defender’s career in three distinct episodes. Act One: (2002-2008) the rise through the lower leagues; Act Two: 2009-2010) brilliant for Brum, too good for England; and Act Three: (2011; 2012; 2013); The Relegator Trilogy.
Johnson started his career as a centre-half at Wycombe Wanderers in the old Second Division, where legendary leader Tony Adams could have taught him one or two things about on-field bollockings during his brief managerial reign in 2004.
He showed enough promise to become club captain at Wycombe, before securing a move to the Championship with Dave Jones’s Cardiff in 2006.
The £275 G’s Jones splashed on the improving defender turned out to be a bang tidy bit of business and two years later he reached immortality by scoring in the FA Cup semi-final win against Middlesbrough, taking the Bluebirds all the way to that crazy final against ‘Arry the ‘Knapp’s Pompey. Cardiff finished 12th in the league.
Hello mate, Captain Hindsight here, just wanted to point out that an insane Cup run coupled with some rank naughty League form was a combo Big Rodge would become very familiar with indeed. Carry on.
The following season Cardiff, undistracted by the cup, finished 7th in the Championship, agonisingly close to a playoff place. Johnson had now won Player of the Season twice for the Bluebirds and he was smoking hot property.
Meanwhile, Birmingham City, yoyo-ing more than a Busta Rhymes interlude, were cyclically re-promoted (2002, 2007, 2009) and relegated (2006, 2008) from the top flight. Behind the scenes, the 20-year chairmanship of your Davids Gold and Sullivan was coming to a messy, messy, messy end.
In 2009 the Brum reached the promised land once again, and manager Alex McLeish persuaded the famously stingy Dildo Twins to lavish £5 million (equivalent to 156,250 Rampant Rabbits) on the 26-year-old defender. Roger Johnson’s Premier League dream had finally begun.
McLeish knew a thing or two about defending, having been the rock at the back of an Aberdeen team that won two European and eight domestic cups under Alex Ferguson. I’ll be honest, I thought he was a snooker player, he just has a very ‘indoor sports’ vibe.
In Roger Johnson, he hadn’t just signed a loudmouth. Standing 6 foot 3 and strong in the tackle, Johnson had an assertive, upright style of play which allowed him to adapt brilliantly to the step up in class.
In 2009/2010, Johnson was a human wall. He blocked more shots (51) and made more clearances (441) than any other player in the league, whilst only Zat Knight won more aerial battles. His never-say-die attitude earned him the respect of a rowdy rabble of players; looking at you, Lee Bowyer, don’t try and hide behind Barry Fergusson like that.
He formed a beautiful bromance with fellow centre half, Scott Dann which saw the pair briefly linked with a number of Champions League clubs as well as touted for international honours. Dann’s passing and ability to keep up with runners contrasted well with Johnson’s psychotic compulsion to attack the ball.
Johnson’s barked instructions to his younger partner captured the imaginations of fans and pundits alike, who grew misty eyed for the days of cut-glass haircuts, men called Roger, military organisation and trench warfare.
If Dann or Rodge didn’t thunder in with a last-ditch tackle, between the sticks on-loan Joe Hart was in the form of his early career. The three central pillars of the Blues’ defence may have threatened to engulf the city of Birmingham in a fatberg made of Brylcreem, but the locals took them to heart as they briefly achieved pretty remarkable things.
In their first season back in the Premier League, Birmingham City went on an unbeaten run from October 27th to January 27th, a whopping fifteen games in all competitions.
This miraculous purple patch took in draws with Man City, Liverpool, Man United and an impressive 0-0 with Chelsea, who scored a record 103 League goals that season to finish top dogs.
Birmingham City ended up 9th, their highest for 51 years in the League. The fans nicknamed them ‘The Invincibles,’ which makes me really want to play for Birmingham City. Johnson though seemed utterly in his element and a hard-earned stint at the very top of the game appeared to lie ahead of him.
World Cup Woe
Roger Johnson’s form deserved a place in the England squad, and the space next to John Terry wasn’t exactly nailed down.
It annoyed him that Capello eventually went to South Africa with Ledley King (no knees), Matt Upson (just finished 17th), Jamie Carragher (very much retired) and Michael Dawson (no caps) after Rio Ferdinand’s knee ligaments melted in the tournament’s very first training session.
Purely statistically speaking, the Brum man had outperformed all four men that season and this might be the single instance in his career where’s Johnson’s lack of pace could not legitimately be argued against him.
Whether Capello saw him as one half or a partnership (he and Dann were both tipped for the squad, neither went), or he just played for an unfashionable team - you’ll have to ask the Postman Pat-faced Venetian yourself.
Birmingham had avoided the yo-yo for the first time since 2004, and went into the 2010/2011 season looking to maintain that stability. Things went badly pear shaped, however, with the team’s efforts in front of goal stinking to high heaven.
Averaging less than one goal a game with 37 across the course of the season meant that if you did manage to breach the Blues’ defence, you were pretty much home and dry for the win.
Loan signings Alex Hleb, Obafemi Martins and David Bentley showed as much spark as a broken Zippo, and Craig Gardner ended up top scorer with 10.
Whilst Johnson and co. were certainly not the main reason the Blues went down, it’s clear they hadn’t maintained the standards of their remarkable top flight debut. In the end, McLeish’s men went down having shipped an extra 23% more league goals than the season before.
Hello mate, me again, just wanted to mention that, for a club spending all season hovering just above the drop zone, maybe two miraculous cup runs aren’t the best idea?
Whatever, Birmingham were a different team in the cups. They got to the 6th round of the FA Cup but their Carling Cup win would to cost them dear, as Johnson’s defensive partner Dann picked up a season-ending injury in the Carling Cup semi-final, which Captain Hindsight over here is looking very smug about.
But Birmingham were off to Wembley, where Johnson would set up Nikolai Zigic’s opener against Arsenal, to bring a trophy to St Andrews for the first time since 1963.
If only the season had ended there, with Birmingham sitting pretty in 14th and chugging cold frosty Carlings out of the League Cup. But one point from their last six games sucked them into ‘Survival Sunday’ as one of five teams in with a shot of relegation.
Roger Johnson must have nightmares about that day as Wolves came from 0-3 down to lose 2-3 and clinch safety. It was the day he became a One Hit Wonder.
Certainly something smelly went down in the boardroom that affected things at Birmingham. Carson Yeung’s takeover from the knickermongers was a drawn out torturous process that led to angry fan protests at games.
What I can say for sure is that the Beijing businessman took the Blues down to Chinatown, and Roger Johnson was soon out the door.
At 28, with his 2009/10 league form and 2010’s cup efforts still fresh in the memory, he was being touted for moves to Arsenal, Liverpool or more likely the ‘Knapp’s Tottenham. Still very much in the running for a spot in the England squad, however, he wanted guaranteed first-team football.
A principled man, a stubborn man, Roger never played for a manager that didn’t look like they lived on Sesame Street. So, when Bert & Ernie’s lovechild Mick McCarthy came in with £5 million, Johnson was only too happy to stay in the Prem as the new captain of Wolves. Either that or he really didn’t fancy moving house again.
Did someone say “stay in the Prem?”
2011/2012 was a disaster season for Wolves, and for Rodge. We’re talking Day After Tomorrow proportions. If Birmingham going down on 39 points was heartbreakingly harsh, this time there was no doubting the power of the Curse of the Relegator.
Big Mick got the sack in February after winning just five games. Roger Johnson soon showed up on a Monday morning in a state proper reporters described as “bleary-eyed” and “worse for wear” - i.e. as pissed as your nan’s mattress. Wolves went on to win approximately zero more games and go down rock-bottom with a measly 25 points, 82 goals conceded.
For a man whose game was built on leadership and organisation, it wasn’t a brilliant look. The bottom had fallen out of his Wolves captaincy, and they were double-relegated to League One, gaining poor, benched Roger a brand-new name on the streets.
In a highly bantiferous crossbar challenge from Roger Johnson’s farcical 4-game loan spell at West Ham in 2014, we see a tragic figure, broken by three relegations in a row. He describes himself as a ‘season-ticket holder’; vice captain Mark Noble introduces him as The Relegator.
The Relegator is a fine nickname if you wanna lay busters down with Nate Dogg and Warren G. If you’re trying to be a leader at the back of a rock-solid defence, it’s not great, and it seems the respect for the battle-scars of his early career successes were now long eroded by relegation shame.
Any hope of retribution was brutally put to bed by Yaya Toure in West Ham’s 6-0 loss to Man City. This clip, displaying the lesser spotted 40-yard-backwards-shuffle, will rightly be remembered for the worst piece of defending of all time.
Less than three years on from the year he emerged as a potential heir to John Terry’s throne, Johnson was a walking punchline, the personification of West Ham’s hugely competitive and seemingly never-ending Banter Era.
Ignore the grey box of doom, the video will play when clicked.
Roger Johnson is still just 34, having spent the alleged peak years of his career at Charlton before briefly playing alongsde the motley crew of Didier Zokara, Adrian Mutu, Nicky Shorey and Tuncay for FC Pune in the IPL. He’s now leading the backline at Bromley FC in the Nationwide League South. This season he kept Grant Holt quiet in a 3-0 win against Barrow.