Playing every game in back-to-back Premier League seasons, Roger Johnson’s stock was high seven years ago this summer as he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers from Birmingham City. After his ascent up the divisions came well-documented harder times, but in a contemporary twist in the tale for the current Bromley defender, he could become a Wembley winner for a third time this weekend.
‘Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re close.’ Those were the words of England assistant manager Franco Baldini to Roger Johnson as his top-flight form at Birmingham City had the towering defender understandably on the cusp of Fabio Capello’s squad.
The former Cardiff City standout had made a number of the ex-Real Madrid boss’s provisional, 30-man squads for the Three Lions, so the possibility of his name flashing up on that yellow Sky Sports News ticker to signal international recognition seemed not at all implausible. He had rightly earned his place in the conversation, too, as a permanent fixture in the Birmingham team that readapted to the Premier League in buoyant fashion under Alex McLeish.
Blues had come 9th in 2009/10, with Joe Hart in goal making a big impression on loan from Manchester City, and Roger’s central defensive partnership with Scott Dann ably flanked by Liam Ridgewell and Stephen Carr.
“I have to say Birmingham was my best football,” says Roger, who made history as Wycombe’s youngest Football League player when debuting under Lawrie Sanchez at 17. “The success that we had in the Carling Cup and finishing top half in my first season in the Premier League, getting in a couple of England squads, Birmingham was great.”
Even with their terrific showing back in the big time, Blues were not big goal-getters, and after the eleven struck by Cameron Jerome, Lee Bowyer and James McFadden were next on the list in the league with five each. That largely became their undoing the season after, as despite a magnificent underdog triumph against Arsenal in the League Cup, their continued lack of firepower and five fewer wins saw the St Andrew’s club relegated to the Championship at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane on the last day.
Mick McCarthy, though, had earmarked Roger as the ideal candidate to marshal his Wolves defence, and he would wear the captain’s armband. His second multi-million-pound transfer in two years did not herald the shared successes hoped for, as the club suffered successive relegations, and in 2013, Roger was told along with Stephen Ward, Karl Henry and Jamie O’Hara that he could leave the Molineux side.
In the past five years, his voyage has encompassed the Championship, the Premier League once more, and even the Indian Super League, though the stop-start nature of the journey had jaded him somewhat. Simply seeking an uninterrupted return to playing, free from injury and the tribulations that too often muddy the waters of the game, he signed for Bromley in October.
Joining the Vanarama National League club led by former Fulham, Gillingham and Reading midfielder Neil Smith as manager, Roger has taken it all back to basics, making a considerable impact as the Ravens have reached the Buildbase FA Trophy final and just narrowly fell short of the play-offs.
“I was out with an injury for a long period of time, and for one reason or another, it was a big mess, to be honest, with getting fit and then the window being closed and being registered to Charlton,” he explains. “Bromley came up and I just wanted to go and play football.”
“The manager spoke on the phone to me and he kind of sold me the story of Bromley and where they want to go, and I thought ‘yeah, let’s go and enjoy football again.’ I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Like former Millwall captain Alan Dunne at the club, Roger has also been able to get involved in the coaching side. While he makes inroads into an extended future in the game, he has found himself not only revitalised, but heading back to a place where he has felt both despair and delirium.
Joining Cardiff in 2006, he would continue making his name as a commanding performer at the back with a genuine goalscoring touch, despite the jump up two divisions to the Championship. In his three years with the Bluebirds, the Welsh club could not quite mount a strong enough promotion challenge, though they had two Wembley trips in 2008 via the FA Cup.
Dave Jones’ side knocked out Premier League Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium in the quarter-final, as Peter Whittingham curled Cardiff ahead before turning provider for Roger to head home in a 2-0 win. It set up a semi-final under the arch, and with Barnsley beaten 1-0, it left Cardiff as the Championship underdog against Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth in the final.
“I loved Cardiff. The lads and staff, everything was brilliant there.”
Although Kanu’s telling touch put the trophy out of their reach, Roger would be back three years later with Birmingham; his side cast once again in the unfancied role against perceived stronger opponents. Facing an Arsenal team that had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League just 11 days previous, Blues stole ahead through giant Serbian frontman Nikola Zigic’s flicked header, before Robin van Persie equalised going into the break.
As extra-time loomed large, a calamitous breakdown between Gunners keeper Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny let in Obafemi Martins to scoop up one of the most famous moments in Birmingham’s modern history. The 2-1 success that Sunday in front of a mammoth 88,851 was Blues’ first major silverware since 1963 and a dreamland occasion Roger still reserves an unconditional spot for in his affections.
Upon joining Bromley seven months ago, a return to the scene of that famous day could not have truly crossed his mind, yet that is exactly where you will find him this Sunday (20th May) in the Trophy final with Brackley Town, savouring every second and scrapping all the way to make sure he’ll be walking up those steps a winner again.
“I’ve said to the boys a few times it’s creating memories. Being 35 this Saturday just gone, you need to make these memories and don’t let it pass you by.
“We’ve made a memory, for these boys to play at Wembley. Some players play their whole career and never get to play at Wembley, so let’s hope that we can go there and finish the job.”
Alongside the obvious link of returning him to the national stadium, Roger’s Bromley stint has brought back a balance he had been without for some time – regular football amongst a cohesive group pushing for success. While considering his response to the question of where he has been happiest in football, he highlights Bromley as a standalone experience in his career in certain respects.
“It’s totally different. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it at Bromley and just wanted to get back playing again, and Bromley have offered me that.
“I’ve actually enjoyed it and it’s nice to be at the top end of the league fighting it out for something and getting success in the cup instead of scrapping it out in a relegation fight. As far as how happy I’ve been throughout my career, Birmingham was great.
“I loved Cardiff. The lads and staff, everything was brilliant there.
“Even starting out at Wycombe, just getting to that next stage, learning my trade, listening to older heads, and now I’m that older person. It’s all come full circle really from being a 16-year-old.
“I’ve loved every minute of it. Obviously had a couple of disappointments, but that’s football.
“Over 20 years, I can’t complain.”
The desire to move back up the levels is there, but in joining Bromley, Roger linked up with a group ready to benefit from his know-how. Led by chairman and majority shareholder Jerry Dolke, alongside co-owners Robin Stanton-Gleaves and Jon Plassard, the Ravens are a club on an undeniably upward trajectory, having improved their National League final position each season since winning promotion into the fifth tier in 2015.
Admitting while with Cardiff to being ‘probably a bit too chirpy for my own good’ at the start of his career, Roger was said by former teammate Steve Claridge to have the honour of being the only player to have almost made ex-Chairboys boss John Gorman lose his cool! Nevertheless, the Scot made a young Roger his skipper at Adams Park.
Over a decade on, he has learned masses from his invaluable ride in the game, so has Roger seen this Bromley stay as a chance to have an input into the careers of the up-and-coming players in the ranks? Just as importantly, have they been eager to listen?
“Yeah, massively. In my own eyes, I’ve had a decent enough career where I feel I can come across that way, and that’s me anyway, to be honest.
“I’m very vocal and have been my whole career and will never change. I’ve taken bits from throughout my career, bad and good, and tried to put it into a positive with the lads that are there now.
“I’ve tried to put across things that will help them. I’ve also done a lot of coaching, which is a key side of it for me and the road I want to go down.
“The gaffer’s good like that. He lets me and Dunney (Alan Dunne) and Chors (Ben Chorley) voice our opinions, and I’ll put on a few sessions with the defenders, so that side of it I love as well.
“If I can tell them something that’s going to improve them and they listen, then that can only be a good thing. It’s a nice mix of players who’ve played at a good level and then the young lads who are learning their trade.
“As a social thing, yeah everyone gets on, we go out for food, have a drink when we’re allowed, and certainly getting to the final we’ve had a few celebrations along the way.”
Set to appear at Wembley for the first time since 1949, when they beat Romford in the FA Amateur Cup before a crowd of 96,000, Bromley are certainly making the most of the occasion. With the club announcing ticket sales of over 15,000 so far, the Ravens’ first trip to the national stadium in nearly seven decades has taken on an even greater meaning.
The Bromley players and staff have dedicated their Trophy run this season to club president and former chairman Glyn Beverly, who passed away earlier this year, with his photo put up in the changing room as a reminder before their semi-final second leg at Gateshead. A colossus alongside captain Jack Holland in that decisive win in March, Roger says reaching the final was celebrated in fitting fashion after an arduous route for the south east Londoners.
“We’d had a period of being up near Newcastle four times in the space of three weeks. Spennymoor was up there and that got called off, it was a nightmare and I think we had a league game in there as well, so it was a tough, tough period.
“To come away with the win in the semis the way we did, it was great.
“Just to get to Wembley, it’s so big for a club like Bromley, and yeah, we had a right good celebration on the way back with a few hours to kill on the bus!”
“Again, that’s what makes memories, everyone together.”
It all sounds in stark contrast to the aforementioned period at Wolves in which Roger was among the players out in the cold and firmly out of favour with supporters. As a guest on Sky Sports’ Soccer AM in November 2014, he stressed that his only aim was to get playing again, cutting the figure of a person very far from content at merely standing by and not contributing.
With that in mind, did it take time for Roger to recover some of his feeling for football?
“I never fell out of love with the game, and never once in that tough spell at Wolves did I think ‘oh no, I can’t be bothered with this.’ I’m just not that sort of bloke.
“Clearly, I had to stand my own with the way Wolves were treating me and a few of the others, and that was just how it was. I couldn’t just go with what they were trying to do to me.
“It was a very tough period, and it wasn’t a cry for help as such, but yeah I was on Soccer AM and I wanted to play. That was the bottom line, to be honest, I just wanted to get out and play.
“Thankfully, three huge clubs came, starting at (Sheffield) Wednesday, West Ham and going to Charlton, three iconic football clubs. I would never have not stuck with it, but thankfully I did, and played a lot more games since the Wolves saga.”
Linking up with his old Cardiff manager Dave Jones in that Sheffield Wednesday loan in the autumn/winter of 2013, Roger performed well in a team struggling in the Championship, though Jones’ time at Hillsborough had long turned sour and would end that December. Roger’s loan expired a few weeks later and perhaps surprisingly to some, considering his parent club were in League One, he signed for Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United in the Premier League.
Featuring six times for the Hammers on loan, including in crucial league wins against Cardiff, Hull City and Sunderland as the club pulled clear of trouble, Roger made an eye-catching move to Indian club FC Pune City in 2015. Ex-England midfielder David Platt was the manager as he joined an Indian Super League packed with famous names on the pitch and in the dugouts.
Playing in a city of over three million people, teammates included former Chelsea striker Adrian Mutu, one-time Tottenham midfielder Didier Zokora, and ex-Turkey, Stoke and Middlesbrough forward Tuncay Şanlı. Then there were English names like Reading favourite Nicky Shorey, former Everton and Stoke keeper Steve Simonsen, and ex-Derby midfielder James Bailey.
Bromley is far removed from the Maharashtra setting of that adventure, though something new for Roger all the same. It is his first time playing in non-league, for one.
Hitting the target in the 2-0 win at Woking in mid-April, Roger might just fancy his chances this Sunday of reminding one or two of that scoring knack he so often showed once upon a time. With a second wind behind him now, he explains that this season and its arch-shaped final checkpoint most definitely do not signify a personal swansong.
“It’s another game at Wembley, so personally, I’m buzzing off that. If I come away as a loser I’ll be as distraught as I was the day I lost in the FA Cup final with Cardiff.
“I’m clearly going there to win and I’ll cherish that as much as I did when we beat Arsenal in the final. I’ll play as long as my legs will allow me to play.
“I’m not too proud that I’ve been at the top, to come back down. I always said I started at the bottom with Wycombe, did my best to get to the top, and if I have to go back down and still manage to be playing at a good standard, then that’s what I’ll do.
“I love the game too much to walk away from it. I’m not proud.
“If people think ‘oh God, he’s at Bromley, and he’s played in the Premier League,’ that doesn’t bother me. I’m still playing, I’m happy, and if I’d have just quit, I wouldn’t be going to Wembley for a fourth time.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes
Part of this interview also features in our 2018 Road to Wembley digital magazine, produced in association with Buildbase to mark Non-League Finals Day