Soul saver

The England goalkeeper longs for happier times after a tumultuous year

SAM JOHNSTONE is hoping for a happy and successful 2022 after a year of family turmoil which put the goalkeeper’s on-pitch efforts into perspective.

A tumultuous 2021 saw 28-year-old Johnstone mix incredible highs — making his England debut and being part of the squad that reached the final of the European Championship — with acute disappointment, enduring relegation from the Premier League with West Brom.

But all that paled into insignificance when set against his brother Ryan’s battle with acute myeloid leukaemia, a cancer which affects white blood cells, news of which Johnstone received on the eve of England’s Euros’ campaign.

‘The next day I was disappearing for six weeks,’ Johnstone tells Metro. ‘We found out the day before I went off and that was obviously hard.

‘We kept it to ourselves as a family but there is nothing more important than your health and your family’s health, and you only realise that when something like this happens.’

The West Brom No.1, and now his country’s chief back-up to Jordan Pickford, was about to go and take part in a pulsating tournament in which England played all but one game at Wembley Stadium and came within three scuffed penalties of becoming European champions.

But the Johnstone family rallied and in November Sam was able to reveal on social media elder brother Ryan, 32, had been given the all-clear after chemotherapy treatment. Johnstone and another of his brothers were tested to see if they were a match for bone marrow if needed. Sam was awaiting his results when Ryan was given the good news.

Pride of Lions: Johnstone on England duty (above) and with international rivals Ramsdale and Pickford (below)

‘Luckily it was caught early enough, hopefully,’ Johnstone adds. ‘He didn’t need a bone marrow transplant in the end but me and my brother were tested for a match. Hopefully that’s it for him.’

The off-field anguish was the backdrop to a summer in which Johnstone reached the ultimate, donning the gloves for his country for the first time in a Euro 2020 warm-up fixture against Romania at Middlesbrough. The Three Lions won 1-0 as Johnstone kept a clean sheet.

He did not feature during the Euros with Pickford an ever-present in the run to the Wembley final, where his team-mates lost 3-2 to Italy on spot-kicks, but Johnstone was back between the sticks for both World Cup qualifiers with Andorra in the autumn.

He may be plying his trade in the second tier now with the Baggies but a spot in Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad for Qatar this year is on the horizon, by which stage Johnstone may well be back in the top flight.

‘It’s something everyone dreams of and thankfully I have stayed in the squad since, despite playing in the Championship,’ he says.

‘The World Cup would be a great thing to be involved in and it’s great working with Jordan Pickford each time I’ve been away with England.

‘It was a buzz just to go [with the squad for the first time] in March and then to play against Romania was such a buzz. I learn off Jordan and we push each other and have a laugh.’

Pickford may be Southgate’s chosen man between the sticks, even if he sometimes comes in for criticism, but could Johnstone even displace the Everton goalkeeper?

‘Everyone knows he’s No.1 but as well as me you’ve also got Nick Pope, Dean Henderson, Aaron Ramsdale... all very good goalkeepers, and everyone wants to be No.1,’ Johnstone replies.

‘I’m grateful to Gareth and he’s been very loyal, still picking me after relegation, and we have had little chats.

‘I owe him a lot for what he has done for me — it would have been easy for him to not pick me.’

Mentor: De Gea remains in touch with his former United team-mate

West Brom are fourth in the Championship, four points off second-placed Blackburn, ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup third-round tie at home to Premier League Brighton, although it is the first of a three-game ban Johnstone will serve for a red card for his part in a brawl after the final whistle in last Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Cardiff. Surely if Albion fail to win promotion, he will be snapped up by a Premier League club.

His own manager Valerien Ismael has described the stopper as the best player in his squad.

West Brom aim to keep him this month, with the transfer window open, and any move appears to be an issue for the summer. Johnstone kept his head down when transfer speculation was flying last year.

He recalls: ‘There was a lot of talk in the summer. It (a transfer) just didn’t happen and we are focused on doing our best to get promoted back up this year. That is the only aim.

‘I see the speculation and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s out of my control but I want to be back playing in the Premier League.’

Looking up: Johnstone wants to lead West Brom back to the Premier League

In four seasons at The Hawthorns, Johnstone has played under a variety of managers with contrasting styles. From Darren Moore to Slaven Bilic, through Sam Allardyce last term to Ismael this campaign.

Allardyce is renowned for shoring up a team’s defence — though for the first time in his career he could not keep a club up — while Ismael prefers so-called ‘Val-ball’, a high-pressing style.

‘I’ve experienced everything,’ he adds. ‘Darren Moore and (his coach) Graeme Jones wanted us to play out from the back, and I think that made me a better keeper with my feet, and Slaven Bilic was very good, very relaxed.

‘We made our own decisions on the pitch. Big Sam came in and we went from one extreme to another but I thought he was great and would have kept us up if he’d had longer with us. I’m adaptable. We play a high line now.’

Keepers used to be known as rather eccentric but the winds of change have swept through football, even when it comes to its glovemen. Professionalism has taken custodians down a different route and Johnstone believes many want to blend into the background amid the glare of social media.

‘Football’s changing, you’re athletes now and lots of people are judging you,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you can’t be yourself and that side is slowly coming out of the game because you are always in the public eye.

‘It’s a sad thing. As a footballer, you try and keep a low profile, get on with your job. I’m careful, I’ve grown up at Manchester United where you are very aware of that and you’re exposed to it early on.’

Johnstone went out on loan ten times when he was a United youngster, never making a first-team appearance for his boyhood club before leaving for West Brom for £6.5million in 2018.

He recalls: ‘I was 18 when I first went out on loan and it was the biggest eye-opener for me. It’s men’s football, more pressure to win, fans in the ground... it couldn’t have been more different to what I was used to.

‘The loan system is great and it served me well. I got promoted with my hometown club Preston and reached a Championship play-off final with Villa. But coming in from United, there was always an expectation on you to do well. I think I coped.

‘United as a kid isn’t the real world but growing up there was great.’

Nowadays Johnstone is one of the best English goalkeepers around, with rumours of a switch to West Ham that just won’t go away. He has been linked with a host of other clubs too.

He credits Edwin van der Sar and David de Gea for helping him learn on the job at United.

‘Edwin was at the club when I was first there and I worked with David de Gea every day. He still messages me and I look up to him,’ he adds.

Soon Johnstone could be at the very top himself and, with off-field worries hopefully behind him, the goalkeeper is fully focused on scaling the heights.

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