WELLINGTON Phoenix midfielder Richard Johnson will retire from all football at the conclusion of his contract with the New Zealand-based Hyundai A-League club in June.
A member of the Phoenix for their inaugural Hyundai A-League season in 2007/08, Johnson-s decision to give up all football has been forced by an ongoing knee problem which requires surgery.
It is a cruel blow for the inspirational 34-year-old, who calls time on an 18-year professional career that saw him play at the highest level with Watford in the English Premier League and for Australia on three occasions.
“I had trouble with my knee all through the season and basically I-ve been told I have to stop playing if I want to have any sort of life after football,” Johnson said. “It-s a bit gutting for me, really. I would have liked to have continued playing. Football is all I-ve ever known and all I-ve ever wanted to do and I-ve spent nearly 18 years as a pro. But the decision-s been made for me, I guess, and now I-m looking forward to the next phase in my life.”
A huge part of that next phase will be the arrival of his first child – a son – in May.
“I-m sure he-ll keep me busy but I will be sad to say goodbye to football.”
Johnson pursued his dream of becoming a professional footballer by heading to England at the tender age of 16.
“My old man said to me at the time that if I really wanted to be a professional then I should go to the United Kingdom. I think that if I sat down and thought about it I probably wouldn-t have gone. All my family was still in Australia and it was tough that first year being away from home.
“When I left Australia it was 31-degrees, when I landed at Heathrow it was in the middle of a blizzard and I thought ‘What have I done?-
“But luckily enough it worked out well for me and I-ve had a great career. Playing in the Premier League with Watford was a huge thrill and I was fortunate to play around 300 games for them during the 12 years I was there.
“I might have played a lot more if not for a few bad injuries that kept me out for a couple of seasons but I had a great time there.
“All I wanted to be was a professional footballer and to actually get over there and achieve that first-off was the biggest thing for me. Then, as my career went on, I played games at Wembley in front of huge crowds, played at Anfield, ran on at Old Trafford and even scored there too. There are just so many good memories – it blows me away.”
Johnson-s troubles with injury eventually saw him released by Watford and he began something of a nomadic existence that saw him turn out for clubs including Stoke, Queens Park Rangers and Milton Keynes.
The he got a call about a new professional football competition starting in Australia. Before long he was on a plane bound for Australia to join the Newcastle Jets in the Hyundai A-League for the 2005/06 season.
“I was one of the last to sign for the Jets in that first year. Money-wise it wasn-t the best move for me but I-d had enough of England by that time and I wanted to come home.”
Johnson played two seasons for the Jets before hooking up with the New Zealand Knights in 2006/07. The Knights were a disaster but Johnson made a valuable connection with caretaker coach Ricki Herbert, who helmed the ill-fated Auckland club for its final five games as the franchise imploded.
“The Knights weren-t run properly and it wasn-t viable. It was shame it went pear-shaped but fortunately I had established a good relationship with Ricki when he came in at the tailend of the 2006/07 season. When the Phoenix were getting under way Ricki said to me that if he got the job coaching the Phoenix he-d bring me with him.”
Things were looking rosy for Johnson until a drink-driving conviction threatened to derail his career and his life.
“Thankfully Ricki and (Phoenix owner) Terry Serepisos stuck by me. It would have been lot easier for them to have left me alone because they didn-t need bad publicity like that when they were trying to get the club going.
“So I-ll be eternally grateful to them for sticking by me.”
Johnson played 21 games for the Phoenix in two seasons, his determination and experience key to the success of the club.
“I-ve had a ball. That first year especially was amazing – the city was absolutely buzzing, the crowds were incredible. It-s a great city to live in and my wife and I will stay here for a while. The baby-s due in May, he-ll be born in New Zealand, have an Aussie passport and a British one – so he-ll have plenty of options!”
In terms of options for himself, Johnson-s leaving those open too.
“I suppose I have to start thinking about things now. Not playing football is going to leave a huge hole in my life but I-ll take some time out to enjoy the birth of my son and then take it from there.
“I just want to take a break from football for a while. It-s been my life for so long and I just want to step away for a bit. As a professional sportsman you tend to have everything done for you and you tend to lose touch a bit with the outside world, so I need to have a bit of a reality-check.”
A popular figure with Phoenix fans, Johnson hopes he repaid them with his contribution to the club.
“I would have liked to have been a bit more of an influence on the pitch but I think I did okay when I played. The fans have been great to me, so has the city and so have the guys I played with.
“There-s something really special going on here with the Phoenix and I-m so lucky to have been part of it.”
Herbert said Johnson would be sorely missed.
“He-s a great guy and a wonderful footballer. His contribution to the club on so many levels has been outstanding and we were fortunate and privileged to have Richard with us for two seasons.
“As a person he-s grown along with the club and he should rightly feel very proud of everything he-s achieved here.”
Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata also paid tribute.
“His leadership and experience has been critical to the club. He-s been a consummate professional and has worked hard on and off the pitch to make the club a success. Much of what we have achieved these two seasons can be attributed to Richard and we trust he-ll be successful in any career he decides to pursue in the future.”