Solace in Guyana after years of repeated rejection
- A disillusioned Michael Johnson was ready to quit football when a kick up the backside from a friend and a Brendan Rodgers soundbite changed his life
“I raced home,” Michael Johnson says as he recalls his cocktail of emotions after flying through the door of his Nottinghamshire home in June having just been appointed manager of Guyana. He remembers the overriding relief after a challenging conversation several years earlier that pulled on the heartstrings. It was with Pharrell, the eldest of his three boys.
“I always said: ‘If you work hard in life, the one thing I’ll guarantee you is you’ll get your rewards.’ My son said: ‘You’re going out again?’ I said: ‘I’ve got this networking meeting.’ He goes: ‘But you haven’t got a job, have you?’ I said: ‘No, no, but it’s coming.’ Then he said: ‘But Dad, you said that if you keep going and working hard, that you’ll get a job you deserve. Why haven’t you got yours?’
“And you know when you just don’t know what to say?” Johnson’s lips trill as he explains how he walked out, his eyes bubbling. It was six or seven years in the making but Johnson – after Skype interviews with the Guyana Football Federation (GFF) president and technical director – had his reward. “That was the ‘Aaaah, yes!’ moment,” he says. “It was more about me passing that on to my children to say: ‘Look what’s happened to your dad.’ Yes, there were struggles along the way, but if you keep going, you get there.”
Johnson did not apply for the job but was among 10 coaches recommended to the GFF by Jason Roberts, the Concacaf director of development. Johnson beat 200 other applicants to the part-time role as head coach of the South American nation, ranked 179 in the world. Every international break, after getting the train to King’s Cross, the 45-year-old and his staff start the 4,500-mile commute from Gatwick to Georgetown, usually via Barbados.
“Guyana is bigger than England but it only has a population of around 800,000. A lot of it is made up of rainforest, mountains, waterfalls – it’s a beautiful country. There’s indigenous people from the Indian community still living there that use boats to travel, barefoot and hunting.”
Not so long ago Johnson was seriously considering walking away from football – a scary thought especially given his rich CV. Out of work and in a lull five years after retiring as a player in 2009, the former Derby captain was disillusioned, thinking of becoming an HGV driver. “I was watching daytime television, putting on weight and I was looking at other jobs. I had to do something; I was thinking: ‘Maybe I can turn my hand to a bit of driving,’ getting one of those big lorries, going to Folkestone, crossing over into Paris.”
That was until a kick up the backside from a former teammate and a Brendan Rodgers soundbite pricked up his ears. It was 7.30am one spring morning in 2015 when Johnson received a phone call from Darren Moore, his close friend and then a youth coach at West Brom. In the weeks before, they had spoken about attending a League Managers Association seminar at the Hawthorns, where Rodgers was the keynote speaker, but Johnson found himself moping at home. Even now, Johnson is not sure whether he might have had depression.
“I was like: ‘I can’t be bothered, Mooro,’” he says. “He said: ‘Can’t be bothered? Get your arse up here now or I’m driving up.’ It was one of those moments in your life when you put the phone down and go ‘F-it’, so I rolled out of bed and jumped in the shower. You’re in the car, stuck in traffic thinking: ‘What am I doing? This is just another wasted day.’”
On arrival, Johnson perched at the back, detached from the rest of the room as Rodgers ran through coaching drills, before moving on to a mini-survival guide for those out of work. “I’m now putting my hand up, asking questions,” Johnson says. “I said to him: ‘How do you keep yourself going?’ He just said: ‘You’ve been a professional for 20-odd years, why would you let yourself go?’ That’s when he said: ‘When you’re out of work, now is the time to work.’ And I wrote that down. That one strapline changed my whole approach.”
Until then, he was at a loss to understand where he was going and was hurt by endless rejection. He was armed with coaching badges, watching training sessions and networking, but was getting nowhere. Asked how many jobs he applied for, he replies: “I stopped counting on 42. I got five or six responses, I had two interviews and one of those was for a non-league club. How far do you keep going? All of the qualifications are good but it is during that in-between period when you get lost.”
His faith helped him focus but Johnson raises the issue of his comments in 2012, when he stated that homosexuality was “detestable” on the BBC show The Big Questions. “The comments were naive, because I was very young in my Christian walk and very new out of football at the time. I didn’t have the education I now have for my message to come across in the right and proper way. There is no way I would hate or vilify anybody for homosexuality.”
In December 2013 he was appointed a member of the FA’s inclusion advisory board; when the remarks came to light a month later it led to his resignation, though he stressed at the time: “I have since invested a great deal of my time and energies into re-educating myself. As a result, my whole way of thinking has changed.”
Since then, Johnson has built on his Uefa pro licence by enrolling for a master’s in sporting directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as the Uefa masters for international players, a course Gilberto Silva and Luis García are also on.
Johnson is writing a 10,000-word dissertation: “Understanding World Cup winners, European Cup winners, the culture and environment that enabled them to be successful”. A couple of years ago he bumped into Rodgers in the lift at the Kensington Palace hotel in London. “I said to him: ‘You’ve changed my life.’”
For Guyana, whose squad includes 10 England-based players including the Liverpool goalkeeper Kai McKenzie-Lyle and the Dover midfielder Kadell Daniel, qualifying for next summer’s Gold Cup for the first time would be an extraordinary feat. Unbeaten in their two qualifiers so far, they beat the Turks & Caicos Islands 8-0 last month and a win away to French Guiana on Tuesday would be a huge step.
“I’ve been really blessed to leave a footprint on Derby County, helping them to win promotion in 2007, Birmingham City in 2002, Notts County. I’ll always take that with me, but to get the opportunity to do it on a country …” Johnson says, puffing out his cheeks. “It would be life-changing; it would really put Guyanese football on the map. There is so much hope.” (The Guardian)