When Eastleigh secured a deal for buccaneering defender Reda Johnson, it is fair to say that many were caught off-guard. The full-blooded performer has long had a scoring knack plenty of strikers would gladly settle for, and three years on from his move to Hampshire, he feels his decision to switch to the Spitfires has been more than vindicated.
In Sheffield Wednesday’s automatic promotion from League One in 2011/12, Reda Johnson played an unforgettable part. As a centre-half converted to left-back, the Marseille native helped the Owls to various vital victories, and he proved a formidable proposition for opposing defenders, too, as he plundered seven goals.
The finishing touch was there on many occasions in the Championship, and he enjoyed two second-tier seasons with Wednesday, captaining the side during the latter of those. The biggest challenge for the former Plymouth Argyle man, however, has undoubtedly been keeping him on the pitch.
Statistics can be misleading at times, though his 2012/13 record of 17 games and six goals could barely capture it more aptly in this case – a defender with an extraordinary goal ratio, but far too few appearances. The big man was loved in the Steel City, a fan favourite in every sense, and there was no shortage of sadness when he departed at the end of his contract in 2014.
With injury disruption wiped from his career, it is hard to imagine he could be playing lower than the Championship now, at 31. Getting into the EFL with Eastleigh is his goal now, nevertheless, and he feels he is at a club doing all they can to help him play regularly.
“Last year was the first for a long time where I managed to do 36 games,” he explained. “It’s been managed with a lot of rest, or sometimes like when you have seven or eight games in a month, trying to not play one or two games, like a 3G (pitch) game.
“When you play on 3G, it’s terrible. I remember some players like (former Wednesday teammate) Anthony Gardner, when we were training in Sheffield on a 4G, we were not training, because you can hurt your back, and if you hurt your back, you can hurt your hamstring, and I was really weak on my hamstring.”
Plenty of non-league clubs through the years have bagged a well-known name or two in their 30s, with former League players often keen to carry on as long as they can, and willing to drop down divisions to do so. Eastleigh, however, signed Reda at 28, and after two seasons in League One with Coventry City, it seemed a startling coup.
The endeavours to get Eastleigh into the top four divisions, though, have been no secret. Reda signed for the Hampshire club during current Sunderland owner Stewart Donald’s tenure, and he recalls why he was convinced to climb on board, and why he still hasn’t jumped ship.
“To be fair, when I left Coventry to go to Eastleigh, people didn’t really understand how I could go from Coventry, where I had a really good side, and drop to that level. You have to remember I was out injured for a year, and I talked with the chairman, who’s now the chairman of Sunderland, and he told me about what he was trying to do.
“To be honest, the challenge was just unbelievable, and there were players like Ryan Cresswell who were going there, so the challenge for the chairman was to go up as soon as possible. We started very, very well the first season, and when Ronnie Moore left, we had just beat Swindon, who were League One, 3-1 away from home (in an FA Cup first round replay).
“They brought Martin Allen in, and Martin was very good with me and very fair, like every manager I had, but we went something like ten games without a win or a point; we were really struggling. The second year, we had a not very good season and Stewart Donald decided to leave for Sunderland.
“I decided to stay, because I still had two more years on my contract, so I just decided to stay, and I enjoy it.”
After successive mid-table finishes, Eastleigh began knocking audibly on the door of League Two again last season. With Andy Hessenthaler leaving to take the reins at Dover in October 2018, it was assistant manager Ben Strevens, an established former Football League name himself, who stepped up.
The ex-Brentford and Barnet forward’s interim spell was made official in early-November, with the Spitfires going on to take the final play-off place. Reda featured in the extra-time win at Wrexham, as well as the 1-1 draw (and subsequent shootout loss) away to Salford City in the semi-final.
They were two steps away last time around, and Reda could very well return to the EFL with his current side, but how much of a deep desire is there to play League football again, and how much is about just enjoying his football, after several disrupted campaigns?
“A lot of people don’t believe me, but I like to have the security. When I signed for Eastleigh, I could have signed for Charlton, Bradford, Shrewsbury, so I had clubs in League One, but I just decided to drop, because I knew the project and the security the chairman was offering me was a lot better than what I could get with those clubs.
“I had some great times here and I signed a new three-year contract that January, so it’s not just about going to play in the Football League, but the right team.”
Reda has worn the armband during his time at the club, and captain Danny Hollands is currently in rich scoring form as they eye a move up the table from 15th in the weeks to come, with teams still very much congested. At 39, manager Ben Strevens is not long removed from the heart of the matchday action himself, and Reda feels that is a significant plus point.
“The difference (to other managers) is that I played with him, so he’s someone who can really understand the players, because Strevs was still playing with us last season. Sometimes, if you’ve been a manager for 20 or 30 years, you can forget some of it.
“He’s very close with the players and he’s also got a very good coach with him, Jason (Bristow), so it’s working really well.”
The match-winner at home to Notts County back on the opening day, Reda wants to be bringing similar noise over the months to come. There is, however, no longer a chirpy Irish winger to help with that side.
“We had Mark Yeates last year, who plays for Fylde now; he was the DJ last season, and a very good DJ, to be honest. Right now, it’s Joe Partington; he just signed from Bristol Rovers.
“Last year, it was a bit of everything; like for the boys who love to go to Ibiza to listen to before the game. I won’t say electro, but it’s a bit of house and everything.
“This season it’s a bit different, so I’m not going to lie, I took my own earphones and I listen to my own music!”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes