From: Youth team
Record: Played: 242(36) Scored: 22
To: ??? - Free transfer - September 2003
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: Everything, and a bit more besides
In describing Richard Johnson during most of his eleven-plus years at Vicarage Road, I had cause to use
a great many words, and many of them were used a great many times. He became a favourite subject as well as
a favourite player, someone to return to repeatedly in an attempt to capture better his essence for those
who couldn't be there to see it for themselves. Refining the portrait, noticing the subtle developments
and changes, trying to put the most dramatic moments into black-and-white text on a website. A great
many words. But there's one word that says it all.
It's hard, and not a little heart-breaking, to believe that we were only privileged enough to see and to
applaud his imperious best for two or, at the most, three seasons. Football is often a cruel game, but it
has rarely been more cruel than when striking down Richard Johnson just as he seemed to have the world at
his feet. Had that knee injury not intervened, I would almost certainly have been writing this profile
several years ago, probably during the summer of 2000...and, yeah, I would've felt a little misty-eyed as
he headed off to seek fulfillment of his dreams. But proud too. Damn proud.
Most of my - our - favourite Watford players of recent years have required some explanation. "Well,
there have been much more skillful players, sure, but..." has become a favourite qualification, whether
applied to Steve Palmer, Tommy Mooney, Andy Hessenthaler or, most recently, Paul Robinson. The point is that you don't need that
qualification when you try to explain Richard Johnson. Because, at his peak, he was one of the most
striking, impressive footballers that the club has ever had the fortune, or foresight, to bring through
its ranks. You've got the Playoff Final on video, right?
It wasn't always so. As he broke into the first team, and for more than a short while afterwards, Richard
Johnson was awkward and error-prone, often shoved into the box marked "not good enough" by impatient
supporters. Thinking back, you can find the seeds of all of his most memorable characteristics in those
early performances - the aggression, the competitive edge, the vision (albeit that it was not yet coupled
with consistent accuracy), the ambition, the shooooooting - but in the main, those seeds appeared to be struggling to sprout and
take root. True, there were some spectacular moments, and I can still bring up a mental image of a
savagely-struck ball dipping over the keeper and underneath the crossbar to win an emotional encounter with
Graham Taylor's Wolves. But he might easily have been another of those players from the early
nineties, quickly forgotten as soon as a much better manager created a much better team.
For me, it all changed at the Priestfield Stadium in March 1997. As the Hornets stumbled haplessly towards the end
of a first season in Division Two, they were beaten - and I mean beaten - by a team that was orchestrated
in the most commanding, inspiring manner by Andy Hessenthaler, while Richard Johnson watched from the bench.
And, in paying tribute to the Gills' captain (a theme that's still recurring), I wrote that "we don't have anyone
who can do that". At the time, it was so true. Our midfield was dry and stale, without real leadership or
direction. It needed Andy Hessenthaler. It got Richard Johnson.
I have no idea what thoughts were going through the Australian midfielder's head as he watched events at the
Priestfield from the touchline. For the sake of mythology, though, I'd like to think that he saw what I
saw. Regardless, it was a turning point. For, while the team's performances during the remainder of that season
only became more desperate, Richard Johnson was never the same player again. He seemed to take it as
a challenge, to see the void for the first time, to step decisively, firmly and proudly forward...and he was suddenly full
of such vigour, such desire, such bloody determination that the contrast with those around him was nigh-on
embarrassing on several occasions....
Nobody noticed, pretty much. BSaD even wrote to him to point out that we'd noticed, that his extraordinary
efforts had registered on someone's radar. But, as Graham Taylor took up the reins, new players arrived, and expectation increased, the
general consensus seemed to be that Richard Johnson would be on the fringes of the revamped Watford, pushed
to one side by better players. Me, I had him pencilled in for "Player of the Season"...although I should also point out that, in the same magazine
survey, I predicted that we'd finish seventh. You win some, you lose some - we finished rather higher, of course, but Richard Johnson
was one of the driving forces behind that transformation, perhaps the most vital cohesive element apart from
the manager. At the end of the previous season, he'd been fighting against a strong prevailing wind; now,
it was all going his way.
From there on, so many memories. Fabulous, unforgettable memories of truly staggering moments. As the
season began, Richard Johnson found his range, and the thought of a Watford midfielder gathering the ball,
taking a moment to look up, and sweeping these majestic, inch-perfect passes out to Peter Kennedy on the
left wing still sends a little shiver down my spine. Suddenly, our football had space to breathe and someone
who could control that space, both by patrolling it relentlessly in person and by sending the ball to its
It still took a while to register. For a time, a small but growing cult of devotees spend their Saturday
afternoons muttering "Well in, Johnno!" at thirty second intervals and, in my case, many of the weekdays in
between repeatedly watching a video clip of a goal at Carlisle that simply defied physics. I mean, you can't
pass the ball into the bottom corner from forty yards. You can't. Richard Johnson did, and it's
still one of the greatest goals that I've ever seen. Minimal backlift, perfect timing, and a low, skidding
shot that seemed to pick up pace as it approached its target, leaving a surprised keeper with about half a
second to react to the realisation that he hadn't just clipped a cross into the area. Perfect.
It was inevitable. A couple of months later, the Priestfield again the background. Down to ten men, and a late equaliser
that simply crashed into the top corner from Richard Johnson's boot, sending the supporters on the away terrace
into an absolute frenzy of celebration...and ultimately culminating in a vast, joyous ovation for a new
Watford hero. There's only one Johnno. Shooooooot. No need to argue the case any longer. No need to mutter
it quietly. There's only one Johnno. Sing it from the bloody rooftops.
He didn't look back. Established at the centre of a side that was going places, he found that others were
on the same wavelength, especially Micah Hyde. That midfield partnership - the Hyde-Johnson axis, to use
its most appropriate label - was the basis for all that happened subsequently, the core of the second Graham Taylor
era. They complemented each other perfectly...Johnson's jaw-dropping long passing, Hyde's quicker and sharper
short passing...Hyde's quick feet, Johnson's physical strength...Johnson's defensive trawling, Hyde's darting
forward runs...everything just seemed to fit together, an initial understanding that flourished into one of the
key features of the club's recent history.
The highlights of that period in Richard Johnson's career - and we'll mention that unbloodybelievable goal at Bristol City, a volley struck with such
monumental force that no sane human being would've dared to get in its way, only in passing, which is both ridiculous
and a testament to how much else there is to fit in here - were incomparably thrilling and captivating. Oh, and
we haven't mentioned his contribution to a certain match on 4th October 1997 yet either. Or the moment, during that
famous night at St Andrews, when he thrust his head at the ball, despite being grounded and in line with an
opponent's boot. Or the thunderous consolation goal at Old Trafford. But there was so much more, so much
that might escape us. Tommy Mooney aside, no other Watford player of the last ten or so years has put
so many landmarks on our landscape....
And he should've gone on to pepper a much bigger landscape. True, his season in the Premiership rarely saw
him at his staggering best, partly because of the adjustment required - and I have no doubt that he could've
made that adjustment, given more time - and partly because of intermittent injuries that disrupted his campaign
as they disrupted so many others'. But he was already becoming a part of the Australian side, already starting
to attract attention from elsewhere. It should've happened. It would've happened, I think. Except that he
lost almost three years of his career to a knee injury.
Three vital years that he can never reclaim. Although there were sporadic comebacks - a rare and enjoyable revival
of the Johnson-Hyde axis in an end-of-season win at, yes, the Priestfield springs to mind - there were only
occasional glimpses of the player that we'd loved so much, and the injury reclaimed him all too quickly. While his eventual, and so long overdue, return
to full fitness at the end of the 2002/03 season saw a gradual return to some kind of form, the acclaim was
probably a little exaggerated. Perhaps we just wanted it so much. Or perhaps we'd forgotten just
what a truly great player he was in his prime. Sadly, so sadly, his last two appearances in a Watford
shirt - the final and first games of the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons - saw him cut a frustrated and frustrating
figure, trying so desperately hard - too hard - to play like he knew that he could play.
And perhaps he will play like that again, somewhere. But the current situation at Watford makes it nigh on
impossible to retain players on the off-chance, especially if those players have so much lost time to make
up. Ray Lewington needs results, Richard Johnson needs first team football. The romantic in me screams that the
two things weren't necessarily exclusive, that the merest possibility that Richard Johnson might've made a complete comeback
was worth seizing. But...well, the world doesn't work like that, no matter how much we might want it to. Especially not at the moment.
So, what will I remember most about Richard Johnson? Not the goals, surprisingly. Although the goals
were really quite something. No, I'll retain an image of the sheer, daunting scale of his
game. Of the range of his passing, the scope of his coverage. Of a player who could cover the defence, who
could score from any distance...and, crucially, who could drop anchor in the middle of the pitch and control
the play from there, a general sending missives to his frontline troops. A midfielder of authority,
vision, energy, potency. A midfielder who could dwarf Wembley. And an absolute pleasure to write about.
Back when all of this started, I remember a shot against, I think, Sunderland at Vicarage Road. Some time during
the 1993/94 season, at a rough guess. Well, I say "shot"...but that's really not the right word, any more than "a bit of an
explosion" adequately describes the Big Bang. Struck from, again, thirty-five or forty yards, it sailed
towards goal at an astonishing rate, smashed into the crossbar, and bounced to safety. Just monstrous.
I mean, the whole bloody stadium seemed to vibrate with the impact....
My memory might deceive me, but I seem to recall that the referee had blown his whistle, or the linesman had raised
his flag, or something. That the goal wouldn't have stood. Which was just ludicrous, the idea that an
ordinary human being enforcing ordinary technical rules could attempt to stand in the way of something so
utterly, terrifyingly extraordinary. That a whistle could stop a tornado.
Somehow, Richard Johnson was stopped. But not before he'd shaken a few buildings, torn up a few trees, thrown
a few cars around. And not before he'd given me some memories that I'll take to my grave.
That word again, to finish...