While Mark Noble edges nearer retirement with every passing day and Declan Rice continues his journey towards becoming the greatest box-to-box midfielder to have ever walked the planet (this isn’t even tongue in cheek; he WILL be the greatest), there’s another product of the Academy of Football consistently impressing in claret and blue.
Ben Johnson has had a slow but steady first couple of seasons in David Moyes’ first-team. Having joined the Academy at seven-years-old and regularly impressing through the ranks, Johnson was handed his first-team debut by Manuel Pellegrini against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in February 2019.
He started at left-back, despite being a right-back. No one expected much of him given the circumstances, but he impressed and many expected him to continue to be involved at first-team level. However, the following season, which was heavily disrupted by a relegation battle, Pellegrini’s sacking, Moyes’ return and a global pandemic, Johnson was limited to just three league appearances.
But it was last season when he began to shine and show everyone why Pellegrini put all his trust in him, out of position at the Etihad two years earlier. Johnson made 20 first-team appearances throughout last season as he deputised for the superb Vladimir Coufal, and he hasn’t looked back.
Versatile at the back
While right-back is his natural position, having previously been a right-winger in the early stages of his youth development, Johnson was also often asked to fill in on the left. When asked to do so, it was clear he wasn’t as effective, but he never, ever failed to put a good shift in. He always gave it everything.
This term, the youngster has already made 26 first-team appearances – 24 starts – and has managed to usurp Coufal as Moyes’ first-choice right-back, albeit via a torrid run of injuries for his Czech teammate. He has now made over 50 first-team appearances and will no doubt make it 50 in the Premier League during the early stages of next season.
That’s some feat for a 22-year-old who was introduced to this level in arguably the hardest of circumstances – at the Etihad Stadium, in defence and out of position. It’s worth remembering that we only lost that game 1-0, by the way.
This is a player who we should be incredibly proud to call one of our own. While many youngsters over the last few years have been given first team opportunities before either being let go or deciding not to bother sticking around (looking at you, Jeremy Ngakia), Johnson has knuckled down, forced his way into Moyes’ plans and deservedly become not only a fan favourite, but recently one of the most reliable names in the starting XI.
Reaching new heights
Rice’s rise will continue to steal headlines, and rightly so, but while there’s no suggesting Johnson will go on to reach the same heights, the fact he has climbed the claret and blue ladder in the manner in which he has and ended up looking at home in huge Europa League clashes against the likes of Sevilla, and put in minimum 7/10 performances against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, just shows how good he is now and hints at how good he can become in the years to follow.
What’s more, he’s one of us. Proper West Ham. He’s been here so long he lives and breathes the club. Since the age of seven he’s been living all of our dreams combined and now we’re lucky enough to witness him become a top Premier League player in our famous colours. He has the right attitude, work-ethic and talent to follow in the footsteps of some of the club’s most famed Academy products.
If there’s one player we should be looking for the club to tie down on a big, long-term contract this summer, it’s Ben Johnson (obviously as well as Rice, but we know that’s probably not going to happen). Because when you get a player like him coming through, you cannot take him for granted.