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Gone but not forgotten:
Richard Johnson
Position: Midfielder
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 farthest reaches.

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...


Ian Grant