FORMER MANCHESTER UNITED TRAINEE JEMAL JOHNSON TALKS ABOUT HIS CAREER AND LIFE IN AMERICA

Jemal Johnson currently plays for North American Soccer League side, Jacksonville Armada.

The former Manchester United trainee can operate as a winger or striker.

Johnson has played in three different countries during his career.

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Jemal Johnson

Jemal Johnson started his career in the Manchetser United youth set-up after moving to England from America at the age of five.

In a bid for first team football the forward moved to former Premier League winners Blackburn Rovers. Following his graduation from the club’s youth academy, Johnson made his first team debut against Cardiff City in the 2005 FA Cup Third Round.

During his time at Ewood Park the talented forward was sent out on loan to Preston North End and League two side Darlington.

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Jemal Johnson during his time at Blackburn.

After failing to establish himself as a first team player at Blackburn, Johnson signed for Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2006. The American born forward was sent on loan to Leeds United in 2007 in a bid to get first team football. On his return to the Molineux, Johnson was placed on the club’s transfer list.

In 2007, former England captain, Paul Ince invited Johnson to his house for talks about a possible deal with MK Dons. The former Blackburn youngster signed a two-year contract with Milton Keynes shortly after.

During the player’s first season with the club, Johnson helped guide MK Dons to the 2007/08 Johnstone’s Football League Trophy Final. The Dons beat Grimsby Town 2-0 at Wembley to lift the trophy.

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Jemal Johnson

Paul Ince offered Johnson a new two-year deal in July 2009 as his contract had expired a few months prior. Johnson lost his place in the first team and was sent out on loan again, this time to Stockport County.

Following a lack of first team appearances the forward went on trial with a number of sides including DC United and Kansas City but neither decided to sign the player.

The former Wolves player was released by mutual consent in January 2011.

Johnson was quickly snapped up by Bulgarian side, Lokomotiv Sofia later that month. The forward only spent six months in Bulgaria but he managed to help Sofia qualify for the Europa League after a fourth place finish.

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Jemal Johnson had a brief spell with Lokomotiv Sofia

Following a brief spell with Southend, Johnson dropped down to Non-league in February 2012 when he signed for Dover Athletic until the end of the season.

He impressed Nicky Forster during his time at the club but Johnson was not offered a new contract at the end of the 2011/12 season allowing him to join Conference National side Tamworth in September 2012.

After building his fitness back up during his spell in Non-league, the American born forward returned to his homeland when he signed for North American Soccer League side, Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

After impressing Giovanni Savarese, Johnson was offered to play for the rebirth of historic side, New York Cosmos. Unfortunately, the forward suffered a serious knee injury which ruled him out for nearly an entire season. The following season saw Johnson become a regular starter for Cosmos as he regularly featured in the side’s attack force.

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Jemal Johnson

In December 2014, Johnson made the journey to Florida where he was invited to trials with Jacksonville Armada. After impressing in his first week with the club, the former Manchester United youngster was offered a contract ahead of the 2015 season.

Johnson has impressed Armada’s following so far after scoring the fastest NASL goal with a record of 12 seconds.

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Jemal Johnson holds the record for the fastest NASL goal.

 

You started your career as a youth player with Manchester United before moving to Blackburn. What made you make this switch?

Growing up with a club like Manchester United was fantastic for me as it was great to be in that type of environment. I learnt a lot of things from the club and the management staff. It was a great club to be at.

When I was starting to come of age it came with a lot of character and personality changes. The pressure of being in such an environment, and at the biggest club in Manchester came with a lot of trouble.

There were some certain things I couldn’t deal with at the time and one thing lead to another. I was actually put in a position where I had to leave the club to play at another place. I chose Blackburn because their development scheme was one of the best in England at the time and it was an easy decision for me.

There were a lot of players that went there on trial after being released from Manchester United. It was a place where they said I could get first team experience and thankfully that happened to me on a number of occasions.

You replaced Paul Dickov in an FA Cup fixture against Cardiff City, how did you find it replacing such a talented player?

My first experience with the first team was coming on for Paul Dickov. He taught me a lot of things whilst I was growing up. We were similar players, as we both wanted to score lots of goals. He was a good player for me to look up to and coming on for him was amazing for me because I was replacing someone with that sort of stature. It was a good first game for me. I got to open up my legs and show a bit of pace. There wasn’t that many fans from Blackburn there so if you played bad it wasn’t somewhere you would be under pressure as it was an away game.

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Paul Dickov

During your time at Blackburn you spent a number of spells out on loan. How have loans helped you develop as a player?

For me, loan spells were the making of me. If I didn’t have the opportunity to play first team games, I would have just been playing reserve team football, which everybody knows in England that at that level there are the players coming back from injury who don’t want to be there but on the other hand there are the young players who will be at your ankles as they want to achieve something.

It was good for me to experience live crowds whilst playing at Darlington when I was 19 years old. This gave me the feeling that my dream was still possible. It was a fantastic experience for me to be able to grow as a player.

I really enjoyed my loan spell at Preston, I was five minutes away from training and games. This got me noticed in the local area and gave me a feeling that I was part of something. Blackburn came to watch me play where I scored a great goal against Hull.

What was it like playing under Mick McCarthy at Wolves?

My time at Wolves was something of a rollercoaster ride. I started fantastically well when I scored on my debut.

When you’ve got a coach like Mick McCarthy, he expects a lot out of every player in his squad. It doesn’t matter if you are a starter or if you are someone on the fringe of things. Everyone is expected to bring 100 to 110%. It’s a lot of pressure to be under as he’s managed and played at the highest level. When you have a coach like that you have to listen to the advice he is giving you.

I don’t think I took full advantage of the opportunities I was given there. If I was to go back now with my current mindset I feel I would grab the opportunity with both hands. Mick is the type of manager who will push a player but he will also break you if you don’t have the right attitude.

I am thankful for the opportunity I had at Wolves. I feel like I would have liked things to go differently but I do have one of my greatest footballing memories from my time with Wolves. It was Monday or Tuesday night football when I scored live on TV against Sunderland, with all of my friends watching. All my friends still talk about it with me to this day.

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Mick McCarthy

How can you describe playing at Wembley for MK Dons?

In a career of ups and downs I think my time at MK Dons was my most exciting, and rewarding time when playing football. That experience of playing and winning at Wembley in front of around 60,000 people was amazing.

You don’t get many opportunities to play at Wembley. There are players who have been in the game 10/15 years who have never experienced winning something at Wembley but I can happily say that on that day with that team we made history.

Is this where you enjoyed your football the most?

I think Milton Keynes was where I enjoyed my football the most. When I was at Wolves I got an opportunity from Paul Ince, who called me the day before deadline day and asked me to come down to his house.

I went down to his house at 9.30am on the dot and he had the big drive way with the Bentley which made me think to myself, wow this is amazing. I couldn’t believe I was there.

He literally told me everything a footballer wants to hear. He said I was a great player and I could be part of something which could be big. It was a good decision for me at the time because I had fallen out of favor at Wolves.

You can never turn your back on a coach who has played at that type of level. He’s captained England, played for Manchester United, Liverpool and also Inter Milan. I was even star-struck seeing him in the flesh.

He was a great person to work under. His attitude, and his character was something you could look up to and he definitely played a huge part in my football career.

I am thankful for the time I spent at Milton Keynes, not just with Paul but with the fans, the players and the owner. It was a family club and I haven’t always had my family around me during my career so it was great to have that love on a day to day basis.

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Jemal Johnson

During your time at the Stadium MK you had trials with a number of MLS sides. Was it always your dream to move back to America?

I did have a couple of trials with some MLS teams. Coming home to my family in America was something I always had in my mind but for me I thought it was a little bit early to go back to America. I think that had a major impact on how I performed when I came over here.

I feel I was out of shape for one. I went over there in the summer and I wasn’t in shape, I wasn’t fully committed to what I was doing at that point. It was all bad timing.

I went to DC United and Kansas City. They both had brilliant set ups. They also had great players but I think it was a little early for me to make the jump into a position where I would be playing in America instead of England.

England is somewhere for me where it is the best place to play at the highest level with the type of fans there are.

Now it is perfect timing for me to play in America as football is the same as England. This is because the fans are fanatics. 10 years ago it would not have been the same.

In 2011 you moved to Bulgaria to play for Lokomotiv Sofia. How different was Bulgarian football to English?

My move to Lokomotiv Sofia was a little bit different to say the least. It was a good experience with the type of lifestyle there is. I lived in the capital which is a beautiful city. It’s for the extremely rich with no middle ground.

The people were really nice but the state of football was corrupt in a way. There is a lot of betting and gambling on the matches in Bulgaria. People weren’t getting their wages paid on time but it was an interesting experience for me.

I could have left a lot sooner than I did after signing a two-year deal. I only stayed there for six months but in this time we ended up finishing in fourth place which allowed us to qualify for a Europa League place. The following year the club was liquidized with all the money problems. It was difficult for the club’s president and his businesses. He sold army tanks and military weapons to different countries. This was crazy for me to be sat in the same room as AK47’s.

This was the type of people we had to deal with but it was a different experience for me. I enjoyed my football there but outside of football the business side of things was completely different.

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Jemal Johnson

On your return to England you signed for Southend before dropping down to Non-League. What made you make this decision for your career?

I was offered a number of contracts at different teams in a higher division but the contract offer from Southend gave me the opportunity to play football. Sadly this didn’t turn out the way I planned it to.

When you grow older you have to make decisions but some go against you, however they can also benefit you at the same time. I am still thankful for the time I had at Southend. It was an experience for me to play there but outside of football I made a lot of bad mistakes, but I remained positive when looking back at a time like that.

I worked hard and a lot of people remember me for good reasons. I was at a team who didn’t struggle but we did under achieve with the quality of players we had in the team.

I made the decision to leave this situation and drop down to Non-League which was something I needed to do to repair the situation I had outside of football.

I went to the likes of Dover and Tamworth on a month to month basis, this was just to get first team football and it also allowed me to be around my friends at the same time, this was important for me.

You had a brief spell with Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2013. How did you find your return to America?

This was the first team I signed for in America. Before Fort Lauderdale I was at Tampa for pre-season. Financially I got a number of offers from clubs, which would have been better for me but it’s not always about the money.

Players need to think about the life they are going to be living and the people you are going to be surrounded by. Fort Lauderdale had some great people at the club, before this I had already agreed to sign for New York Cosmos in the summer, so this allowed me to keep fit and get games.

In June 2013 you signed for New York Cosmos. How proud are you to have played for the rebirth of such a historic club?

It paid off for me when I was at Fort Lauderdale as I was able to join New York Cosmos and be a part of such a great club where the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé have played.

Now I look back and I can say I have met Pelé a couple of times, I’ve also had a number of conversations with him. I am thankful for this great opportunity. It is amazing to have played for New York Cosmos and they gave me the opportunity to go to places like Dubai and play against teams from different cultures. This allowed me to see how different teams prepare for games.

Travelling first class/business class to places like that for work doesn’t come around many times in your life.

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Club legend, Pelé.

You currently play for Jacksonville Armada FC. How have you settled into the club?

I left New York after 18 months where I suffered an injury in my first month which was pretty devastating. I was only able to play a handful of minutes in the Championship winning season. This was upsetting but being able to play and experience lifting a trophy in a different country was an amazing feeling.

Being able to train and get over a knee injury was a great thing for me. I worked so hard to get to a position after having many setbacks. Because the seasons are so short here I nearly missed a whole season which was disappointing but this was something I needed to get over. It was a small obstacle but I did it.

I came down to Florida and fell in love with the city instantly. I worked with someone to get me here. The club treated me really well and ever since the first day that I came to the club, I remember they asked for my kit sizes. When you go on trial in England they just give you a kit they have left around. In America it was like you had someone with a hand around your shoulder. It felt like a place where I wanted to be.

I signed for Jacksonville and in my first game I scored a couple of goals. I ended up signing a contract the following week which got the deal done. I had a fantastic first season although the position on the table didn’t reflect that. It was our first year and we are expecting to do good things this season, although we don’t like to say it.

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Kaka (left) shakes hands with Andrea Pirlo (right)

We had our first pre-season game against Philadelphia Union and we have another one this week against players like Kaká when we play Orlando City. This is something we are all looking forward to.

I missed the first pre-season game with a slight knee injury but I am back to full fitness and hopefully this week I’ll get some minutes under my belt. This is something which is really exciting for me as I get to play against someone like Kaká. There’s not many times in your career you get to say that.

Your teammate Nico Zaldana has played for a number of high profile youth academy sides including Ajax, Feyenoord and Espanyol. How much potential does the young midfielder have?

We have a few young players and Nico has played at a lot of really big teams. He’s been on trial at Ajax and Espanyol. I feel he has a lot of potential but he suffered a serious injury where he had to have surgery. Hopefully he will get himself fit again in 2016 which will allow him to break his way into the first team.

It’s always difficult to get yourself back and keep your mind set on where you want to be. He’s a young player and with being young it should enable him to push through and get himself back into shape ready for the new challenge.

Being in a situation where you’ve had the type of background as Ajax and Feyenoord means you have a lot of pressure against you. People have a lot of high expectations. I have actually personally spoken to him about this. What do you do with the pressure? Do you let it get to you or do you live up to the expectations? I pray that he will do that and push himself to get back to the position we want him to be at the club. He’s got loads of potential and can definitely make his mark.

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Nico Zaldana

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

I am dedicating the next few years to Jacksonville. I am working hard every day and trying to be professional which is something I like to live by. I coach at a high school team during the winter. Episcopal School of Jacksonville is a private school and it is considered to be one of the top three schools in Florida. This was something I enjoyed doing, connecting with different people and being apart of the community is something I have always wanted to do.

It is something I wanted to do with this community and Florida is obviously a beautiful place to live. Jacksonville is everything to me, I’m looking at getting my own house down here to settle down.

In the future after football I feel coaching and working with kids from underprivileged backgrounds is something I want to do. I think that this is something I have come out of myself, where I lived in New Jersey as a kid was a difficult place to grow up. I was only there for around five years but my Grandma lived there her whole life.

I feel I can help these types of people because of my background and it is something I have done in small doses throughout my career. We go to see different schools and you can see that the children come from different areas. The kids need a little care and consideration when you are talking to them and maybe I could be the right person to guide them in a good direction.

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Jemal Johnson (right)

 

 

Proof read by Alan Johnson, Adam Keal and Alex Crowther.

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