ANDREW JOHNSON was still in nappies when Bruce Grobbelaar won the first of his six League Championships with Liverpool 16 years ago. Now, as the latest speedy teenager to be saddled with the `new Michael Owen' epithet prepares to be thrown into Birmingham's injury-stricken attack for his first league start, the clown prince of goalkeepers is wondering whether his 742nd senior appearance was his last.
Grobbelaar won more major trophies in his Anfield career, which started precisely 30 days after Johnson was born in 1981, than these two clubs in their entire histories put together. And, even nudging 41 years of age, the Bury stand-in suggested, on his one-day sabbatical from Ryman League duty, that he is still a highly capable goalkeeper. But on Saturday he was merely deputising for the Republic of Ireland's reserve custodian Dean Kiely, and he cannot find regular work in the Nationwide League.
Johnson, by contrast, looks about to enjoy more first-class employment than expected. Dele Adebola was injured while colliding with Grobbelaar in scoring Birmingham's winner, his sixth of the season and the first Bury have conceded in 574 minutes of doughty League action. Adebola then hobbled away to a congested treatment table to give Johnson his home debut.
Now Trevor Francis, himself once the teenage prodigy of St Andrew's, is considering unleashing the England Under-18 call-up on Stockport County tomorrow night. "Young Andrew (echoes of the teenager eulogies favoured by coaches these days) had a very good second half, with his pace and movement," said the Birmingham manager. "I have a problem now, as I may be without my three top goalscorers if Dele's calf doesn't respond. But, if I have to start with Andrew, I will be quite happy to do so."
Johnson has been likened to Owen by Birmingham's director of youth Brian Eastick, and against Bury he showed good touch, pace and, in bringing the save of the match from an overworked Grobbelaar, a powerful shot. But this was his second bit-part appearance. Afterwards, the 5ft 4in former Luton schoolboy was quizzed about his similarities to Owen. Please... give the lad a break. Let the comparisons wait until he has done something.
Grobbelaar, meanwhile, is not the new anybody: he is simply the old Grobbelaar. Unfamiliar team-mates ahead of him huffed and puffed, then eventually kicked and elbowed to try and get back into a shapeless game, and were fortunate only Andy Woodward was sent off, after he tripped Steve Robinson. The Zimbabwean veteran, who currently earns pounds 200 a game with Chesham United, was meanwhile in sharp form.
"I haven't lost my agility and when you get to my age the first 10 yards is in your head. I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good as I ever was," he said, with a conviction suggesting zen-like wisdom. "It's better playing in front of big crowds, because with the small crowds you can hear what they are saying.
"I'm still hungry and I hope I've done myself justice today. If I don't get back into the League this way, I might try management." If Kiely is required by Ireland again next month, Grobbelaar might well be available. If Johnson is still involved for Birmingham, then his early promise will be worth evaluating.
Goal: Adebola (19) 1-0.
Birmingham City: Bennett; Rowett, Ablett, M Johnson, Grainger; Robinson, Marsden (Holland, 77), O'Connor, Hughes (Purse, 83); Adebola (A Johnson, h-t), Forster.
Bury: Grobbelaar; Woodward, Lucketti, Redmond, Swailes, Barrick; Foster (Matthews, 28), Daws (Patterson, 83), Johnrose; D'Jaffo (Ellis, 81), Preece.
Referee: F Stretton (West Bridgford).
Bookings: Bury: Barrick. Sending off: Bury: Woodward.
Man of the match: Grobbelaar.