Interview: Failure? No such word in Johnson's dictionary

Triumph in the face of adversity would be printed on every page, however, for the often rejected England and Crystal Palace striker. He meets Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

When the most prolific English striker in the Premiership considers the list of leading goal-scorers this season, he finds it hard not to be tough on himself. Andy Johnson tends to look beyond the fact that he has scored 18 goals in a team that is only four points off the relegation places. He shrugs off the argument that he is a new arrival at English football's highest level and he accepts with a sigh that he is only second to Thierry Henry, a goalscorer in a team built to provide him with chances.

Instead, Crystal Palace's leading man lets his mind drift back to the two penalties he missed against Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic in the first half of the season. He wonders how much nearer they would have taken him to the top spot, and how much closer to safety it would have moved Palace. Then he factors in a couple he should have scored from open play and he reminds himself that in August he set a target of 15 goals - which has gone up to 20 now. By the end of the season he might be disappointed it he doesn't have 25.

Perhaps it is the cropped haircut, or his quiet determination, that makes you think Johnson is older than 24. He has had to scramble up from the First Division to the Premiership twice with two different clubs. He has endured sceptical youth team coaches and plenty of schoolboy trials and, even when he lines up at Selhurst Park this afternoon against Manchester United, he will not yet be ready to take any of it for granted. So it is not the goals he thinks about, but the chances that got away.

"Rather than looking at my record and admiring it, I think I could be on 20 because I missed two penalties and with those three or four other good chances I could be on 24," he says. And then he pauses and takes stock of the opposition. "Then again Henry could be on about 45 the amount of chances he gets," he says. "At the end of the season it will mean a lot more to me whatever the total if we manage to stay up."

For a long time, Andy Johnson was famous for missing the crucial penalty for Birmingham in the 2001 Worthington Cup final against Liverpool, but on Beckenham High Street, where we meet, they know him for something else. It's the 32 goals he scored in Palace's promotion season last year and the two successive hat-tricks he got in the campaign before - one of which was against their arch rivals, Brighton. They liked that in Croydon. But since 9 February, and England's friendly against the Netherlands, south London has had its very own international striker.

Johnson admits that the half an hour he played for England at Villa Park does mean that now "in Croydon or Bromley a few more people who aren't into football recognise you" - which, you have to concede, is a kind of fame. But he is very serious about his new profile and adamant that it has not changed his relationship with his team-mates. It is something he stresses a lot and his point of reference is "the boys" at Palace's training ground. "I am the same person who went to join up with England on the Monday and the same person who came back on Thursday," he says. "I am the same man - you can ask the boys."

The story of his call-up by Sven Goran Eriksson still has the feel of an adventure story to it because he found out from watching television, and only learned later that "if you have been involved with the squad before you get a text because then they've got your phone number." It was "nerve-racking" he admits, like "joining a new club" but he reminded himself that he had played against many of his new team-mates before and had earned his place among them.

"I just told myself to go there and do what I have already been doing," he says. "Just to be myself. But I just didn't want it to pass me by and then not be able to remember what happened. I felt like I coped OK. Yeah, you always look at the first touch in training. I think Steven Gerrard rapped one into me and it bounced off my shin and I thought, 'Oh my God'. But I got to the pace of it and it was fine. I enjoyed it, scored a goal and my confidence was up."

The match itself was already in decline by the time Johnson crossed the touchline as a replacement for Wayne Rooney with 29 minutes left. The 4-3-3 formation that Eriksson had tested was failing badly and the game was dissolving into a soporific goalless draw. Johnson's introduction looked like the nudge that the game needed until it became clear that he would play on the right wing instead of in attack. The England coach could scarcely have guessed he would take such criticism for playing a debutant out of position.

For many it symbolised another empty England friendly, but for Johnson it was very different. "Of course it was a good experience," he says. "I think playing for England would be a positive experience for any player. Whether it is in goal or on the right or anywhere.

"Mr Eriksson said to me before the game, 'Have you played on the right before?' I said, 'Yes, it was a long time ago' and he said, 'Could you do a job there?' and I said, 'Of course'. I was happy to oblige. It was a great honour to get on the pitch and get my first cap. For the last three years people have seen me play as the lone striker and they expected me to come on up front. With it being a friendly maybe people expected me to play up front even more. But Mr Eriksson has to do what he thinks is best for England. He wanted to try me out on the right and that wasn't a problem."

That is case closed for Johnson as far as that match is concerned. He is eager to play for his country again and he shakes his head when the unfortunate case of Michael Ricketts, a one-cap wonder now rebuilding his career at Stoke City, is mentioned. "It's something I don't want to happen," Johnson says. "It's in my hands now. I have my first cap and it is down to me now to keep doing what I have been doing for the last five months in the Premiership."

Johnson was already scoring goals for Crystal Palace when Iain Dowie arrived in December 2003 but he still counts the changes implemented by this impressive young manager as fundamental to his career. From four places off the bottom of what was then the First Division the shift in the club's culture, Johnson says, has been profound. There is a rigorous new regime under the fitness coach, John Harbin, that includes boxing and swimming, and Dowie's new policy of taking injured players on long walks around the golf club to keep them involved.

"He's had a massive effect," Johnson says. "He has brought such high standards to the club and every player at the club respects him. He has so much determination and enthusiasm. He is the first one at the training ground at seven o'clock and the last one to leave. He will get the boys in on their day off, one week it will be strikers, another defenders, and he will work on you technically.

"On Saturday mornings when all the boys who are fit are ready for a game, he will take the boys who are injured for a walk over the golf course. We go swimming and do boxing as well - we just hit the bag, not each other. At first it was a big shock to us and some thought, 'What are we doing?' but I know that I am the fittest and strongest I have been all my career."

When Johnson signed a new contract that has more than four years to run, he did so in the knowledge that Dowie, too, would be staying at Palace. The striker has become a precious commodity - a goalscoring Englishman - and although he said he did not "pester" his manager about his plans to agree a new deal, he waited until Dowie committed his own future in September. "I did want him to sign because he is the man I want to work under," he says.

Johnson has not always found his clubs so willing to fight to keep him. Bedford-born, he was rejected by Luton Town at the age of 11. "They said I wasn't big enough to be a striker but I can't believe you can gauge that at 11," he says. "I think it was a polite way of saying I wasn't good enough at that age." The very next week he was scouted playing for Bedfordshire schools by the then Birmingham City manager, Barry Fry, and spent three years travelling up to play in the west Midlands.

He was the last of his Birmingham generation to be offered a YTS deal - "there were two games to go before the deadline and I scored two goals. They asked me then if I wanted to sign"- and in September 1998 he made his debut at 17 against Bury in Birmingham's first team. He admits that at times at Birmingham he thought he had made it, especially when they earned promotion to the Premiership in 2002. Indeed, he had no idea that he would not be going with them until later that summer.

"You work for four or five years to get in the Premiership, to get where you want to be and that season is when you are told that you have to leave because the manager [Steve Bruce] wants Clinton Morrison," he says. "At the time it was quite heartbreaking. We played a pre-season friendly the week before and I came on as a sub and scored. I thought, 'Yeah I'm flying here, going into the Premiership,' and then the next game the gaffer pulled me and said, 'You're not putting your boots on today'.

"I was like, 'What?' and he said, 'There's a deal been sorted - we want Clinton and they want you'. It just happened at the game. He must have sorted the deal out before. I had to look at my career and ask whether I was realistically going to play first team football at Birmingham. He wanted Clinton no matter what and he would have got him whether I went or not."

He has scored three times against Birmingham this season and, as the £750,000 component in the £4.25m deal that took Morrison to St Andrews, has easily eclipsed his rival striker since the summer of 2002. He won, and converted two penalties against Bruce's Birmingham last week and kept his celebrations to a minimum. He smiles when he is reminded that Bruce accused him of going down too easily in the box but he is utterly serious on the question of how much it would mean to stay up.

"Everything. Everyone wants to play in the Premiership," he says. "No disrespect but no one wants to go back down because it's such a hard league to get out of. I am certainly ambitious. It means so much to me personally and I am sure it does to the boys.

"My ultimate ambition is to play for England and stay in the Premiership with Palace. But it happens. West Ham went down last year and Jermain Defoe spent the first half of the season in the First Division. It's a hard question. No one wants to go down. Trust me, no one wants to go down. And if we get a few more wins we will be fine."

Today Manchester United and then Chelsea in two weeks' time, Andy Johnson is finally in the kind of company he deserves and his goals could yet have an enormous say in the destiny of the Premiership title. "We could break some hearts," he says, "but we are more bothered about points because we need them as much as they do."