Football: Johnson's rise shows no barrier is too high for the Setback Kid

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The Independent Online
REJECTED BY Luton Town, rebuffed by Birmingham City and threatened by relegation with Crystal Palace - Andrew Johnson's rise to the brink of an England debut against the Netherlands in tomorrow's Villa Park friendly is a classic case of resilience in the face of setbacks.

Johnson, who turns 24 the day after the game, has made a career out of proving people wrong. Now his aim is to repeat the feat by performing well enough against Marco van Basten's Dutch side to avoid emulating those strikers, like Michael Ricketts, Chris Sutton and Francis Jeffers, who received a call from Sven Goran Eriksson after a scoring burst in the Premiership only to be discarded after a solitary cap.

On the practice pitch at Ashby de la Zouch in the mist-shrouded Leicester countryside, Johnson cut a tentative figure yesterday as he trained with the England squad for the first time. The touch that has helped him become the top English marksman in the elite division - his 15 goals include one at Aston Villa - let him down more than once. One ball squirmed beneath his boot during a eight-a-side match, and only in the final seconds did he find the net.

"I was nervous to start off with," Johnson admitted after removing his bobble hat to reveal an unmistakable likeness to David Beckham. "It's like when you join a new club. But once I got going, I was fine. I feel on top of the world. It's hard to believe this is happening, especially with my coming from a team fighting against relegation."

The prospect of a cap for Johnson - an England Under-20 international - appears all the more implausible given his tortuous route to the top. Born in Bedford, he was told by Luton that he was too small. Barry Fry, the then-Birmingham manager who lives in Bedford, saw his scorching pace rather than his stature (he now stands 5ft 9in) and signed him as a schoolboy.

Johnson, universally known as "AJ", blossomed under the tutelage of Birmingham's next manager, Trevor Francis. In 2001, he announced his arrival as a player with the potential to trouble the best defences against Liverpool in the League Cup final in Cardiff. Denied an obvious penalty after he was brought down by Stephane Henchoz, he then missed the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out.

Steve Bruce evidently thought less highly of Johnson, often deploying him on the right of midfield. In August 2002, he was allowed to rejoin Francis at Palace as a pounds 725,000-rated makeweight in Birmingham's pounds 4.25m purchase of Clinton Morrison.

"If I'd stayed, I'd have just been behind him in the pecking order, as I always seemed to be with Geoff Horsfield and Marcelo," he said. "Sometimes, you have to take a step backwards to go forward again. You always believe in your own ability, but you need a run of games, playing regularly in the first team as the main striker. The confidence stems from that."

Bruce does not figure alongside Francis and his successor as Palace manager, Iain Dowie, when Johnson cites the major influences on a self-confessed Arsenal fan who grew up wanting to be Ian Wright. "It's all been down to hard work: getting on the training field on days off, working on strengths and weaknesses. Trevor had a massive impact on my game, but Iain Dowie has taken it on and improved it further."

Nevertheless, Johnson was concerned that Palace's promotion to the Premiership might make it more difficult for him to do what comes naturally. "I had my doubts about the number of chances we'd make," he confessed. "I thought maybe I'd get one per game. In fact, we've made an unbelievable number. I could have had 18 or 19 goals by now." An England call-up was "the last thing on my mind" when the season started.

Indeed, Johnson might have been better advised to try his luck with Poland, for whom he qualifies on his mother's side. Translating his club form to an international context will be difficult, as will establishing a presence in an attacking set-up that includes such stars of the game as Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe. "The Setback Kid" insists, however that he is "not just here for the ride".