The Roman Abramovich era has made a substantial number of footballers rich young men and Glen Johnson can claim to have been the first. His particular Chelsea adventure was not a happy one, however, and rather than risk a similar outcome by returning there, he has indulged a childhood "soft spot" and headed north for the first time in his career, lured by the promise of regular football at Liverpool helping to secure his England place in a World Cup year.
When Chelsea paid West Ham £6m in July 2003 for an 18-year-old right-back, it was clear that the Abramovich era was going to be something completely different. By the start of the season a month later, Claudio Ranieri had spent another £104m and English football had changed forever. Johnson played in half the League games and made an England debut too, but Jose Mourinho's arrival 12 months later, followed by that of Paulo Ferreira, a £13m full-back, was bad news for him.
He remains bitter about it to this day. "I never got a chance and that can be demoralising," Johnson says. "I think I've proved a point because obviously Mourinho didn't believe in me and didn't think I was capable of doing what I did last season with Portsmouth. But people make mistakes. It gives me a little smile, though, that he never gave me a chance and yet here I am, a Liverpool player."
Ferreira's arrival was a particular blow. "He told me when he signed Paulo from Porto that it wouldn't be the end for me. But there was a lot of stuff he told me that wasn't true. There was a period when we had two games before meeting Barcelona in the Champions' League. Mourinho sat down with me with about five witnesses and said: 'If you play well in the first game you are going to keep the shirt.' I went out and got man of the match. So the next game came around and I am not even in the squad. What else could I have done? That is when I knew that I had to leave.
"I can't even remember what was my lowest point, to be honest, because there were so many. Every day I remember speaking to my mates and it was like I was getting paid to play football and playing football was the thing I did least. I was going into training and no matter how good I played I knew I wasn't going to play games. So where is the desire going to come from me? And there was no explanation. That kills you as a profes- sional footballer."
It was a dispiriting experience, which hampered his international prospects too, bringing only two further caps in the next two and a half years. Making one League appearance every three months in the 2005-06 season convinced him it was time to move on. A season-long loan at Portsmouth was followed by a permanent transfer.
The change was the making of him, for there was a belief in some quarters that having too much too young had affected his attitude too; an embarrassing episode involving the removal of a toilet seat from a B&Q store hardly spoke of a new maturity.
"Sixty to 70 per cent of people thought I would go to Portsmouth, fade away and never do anything," he now says. "A lot of players would have had an outburst or said something they would regret. I didn't. I was just thrown in at the deep end, but I think this helped turn me into the man I am now."
The footballer he is now has turned out to be England's best bet as a right-back, starting the last six internationals of the season and making four goals in the final game, against Andorra at Wembley.
Additionally, and unexpectedly, he proved a more than capable midfield player for Portsmouth, scoring the goal of the season on Match of the Day with a stunning volley at home to Hull City.
"I've proved a few critics wrong but I don't think I've made it in any way. I don't want to rest on my laurels," Johnson said at his unveiling on Thursday as a Liverpool player. He has cost them £17m, proving the fourth most expensive full-back in history behind such footballing glitterati as Daniel Alves, Lilian Thuram and Sergio Ramos.
It is a lot to live up to, which he is nevertheless better equipped to do than as a teenager whose head was turned by Chelsea.Reuse content