'Shy guy' Johnson can shout to the top

Birmingham look for their 10th clean sheet today and their confident centre-half is eyeing an England call-up
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The Independent Football

Roger Johnson arrived at Birmingham City without a Premier League appearance, let alone an international cap. He was soon barking instructions in practice games and voicing opinions in the dressing-room. His new team-mates nicknamed him "Shyness".

"I'm a confident person," Johnson says. "I've always been a shouter at every club I've been at. There are times when I shouldn't say anything, but that's how I am. There should be 11 leaders out there. You don't have to take the armband to be a captain. Everybody can speak and shout, help each other out. It's not everyone's game but it's a big part of mine."

If the performances had failed to match up to the rhetoric, both the newcomer and the manager who paid Cardiff £5m for him, Alex McLeish, could have looked foolish. At St Andrew's today, in a derby against a Wolves team who pipped them for last season's Championship title, Birmingham will be striving for their 10th Premier League clean sheet.

Widely tipped for relegation, they stand in the top half of the table and are in the last 16 of the FA Cup after a 15-match unbeaten run which ended at Chelsea 10 days ago. And if injury or lost form create a vacancy in England's centre-back department, then Johnson, with Gary Cahill and Michael Dawson, could be in with a shout in more ways than one.

"It's nice even that people are talking about it," the 26-year-old says. "[Fabio Capello] picks in-form players and I feel as if I've been doing OK. A couple of injuries and you never know. If it comes around it would be brilliant, but I think it might be a bit late for me this time."

As a lifelong Chelsea fan, Johnson makes no secret of having drawn on John Terry's defensive qualities for inspiration. He says of Terry: "It's none of my business what he does outside football. I like him as a player."

Since completing his rise from the fourth tier, where he made his debut for Wycombe Wanderers a week after turning 17, Johnson has come under the influence of another centre-half who captained his country. McLeish backed his judgement by pairing him with another player without Premier League experience, Scott Dann from Coventry City, and while Joe Hart has captured the headlines, his high-rise guardians have proved a revelation.

"It was brave of the gaffer to put us in together at this level. He'd have been shot down if we'd shipped three or four goals every week. At Cardiff we had Scottish lads who had played under him and they said positive things about him. He's like me, says what he thinks. He spent good money on me so he expected me to do a job. He has tweaked things in my game but playing at this level is the quickest way to learn. Every game is massive."

Johnson admits that Birmingham's progress has surprised even insiders. "I don't think anyone expected results to be so good. The gaffer did well with his signings last summer. He brought in some decent players and we've gelled. You can see how tight we are."

An incident in the 0-0 draw with Manchester City illustrated Birmingham's spirit. Johnson was badly winded when the ball hit him in the stomach and tried to clamber to his feet to catch his breath. Stephen Carr, the captain, remembered Johnson had ended up in a hospital high-intensity unit after a vicious blow to the windpipe by Crystal Palace's Claude Davis last April and thought his interests would be better served by pushing him back down. The wounded party can now call the episode "comical".

Birmingham's collective resilience will come under scrutiny against struggling Wolves. "The draw against Spurs showed we could bounce back after we lost our unbeaten record at Chelsea. Now we want to get back to winning ways. A couple more wins will take us to the 40-point mark and we should know that we're safe whatever happens. We've been in the top half a while and we're determined to finish there."

Birmingham versus Wolves, 1.30pm today, Sky Sports 1