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Soul behind the goals - Home at the Avenue for Oli Johnson

Bradford (Park Avenue)

He featured as high as the Championship, has been the match-winner in front of almost 25,000, and had the odd Champions League winner as his manager. It is true, though, to suggest that Bradford (Park Avenue) has been the place where the pieces have seemed to fit the most for Oli Johnson.

The ability that convinced Stockport County to propel him into professional football from Nostell Miners Welfare has been in full flow at times during his four-year association with BPA, for which he feels in no doubt the management team of Mark Bower and Danny Boshell can take considerable credit. Back in his native West Yorkshire, the former Norwich City forward opted to pass on options from elsewhere this summer, as Bower looks to oversee a climb up the National League North in his first full season back in charge.

Now 32, Johnson reflects here with a mixed bag of insight - from stadium to festival field, and plenty more besides...


You agreed a new deal with the club earlier this month and you've said before about the connection you have with Mark Bower and Danny Boshell. Does it just feel right to stay for next season, where you're all back on board from the start this time?

I’d say so, yeah. I’ve said before I’ve got a degree of loyalty to Mark Bower and Danny Boshell; in previous years they’ve stood by me when they could have quite easily overlooked me for other players, with certain little injury problems I’ve had. I’ve not missed a ton of games but I’ve got certain chronic injuries that I’ve had to manage, and they allow me to do that. I also really enjoyed playing under them. They’re a really good pair of coaches and man-managers, and I feel like they can get the best out of me really. Just being able to stabilise and have a better crack at it than last season as well. It was really quite a turbulent time; went through three managers and 60-odd players last season. It’d be nice to get a stronger and more settled squad together. We’ve got a small budget and we’ll be working with a small squad, but we’ve got a good core of players together, and a lot of us have played together before, so hopefully that’ll work in our favour.

How does that managing of injuries work in practice for you? So you've played a game, then what comes next to make sure you’re right for next time?

Obviously we’re a part-time club, so we train twice a week, and it’s just a case of if I need to sit out training or do a bit of gym work, work with the physio, or even just do like a light session on the Tuesday. At times I’ll do that and I’ll train Thursday and play Saturday. There’s a lot of times where I’ve not needed to do that and I can manage it in my own time and still train twice a week. There’s no real pressure to have to train, because they trust me to be fit on a Saturday/Tuesday, and I like to think I repay them by keeping myself fit and looking after myself.

It seems a lifetime since the 2019/20 (regular) season stopped. What has the situation been for you since March? Is strength and conditioning/personal training something you're involved in away from playing?

Yeah, I work as a personal trainer, and I’ve got a qualification in strength and conditioning, which is quite handy for just looking after myself. I’ve been doing my own little bits, still been working a bit as well. I like to think I’ve stayed really disciplined and kept myself fit for when we’re allowed to resume; I’ve had my fair share of beers and red wine over the last few months but I’ve gone out and kept my fitness levels up as well! The older I’ve got, I’ve become more disciplined and known how to look after myself. To be honest, I feel as good as I’ve felt for quite a long time; I think a bit of rest has helped as well.

Music's come to the forefront for you in recent years as well. Starting with Glastonbury, have you been a bit of a regular there?

Yeah, I have been until the last couple of years when I couldn’t get tickets! Not too happy about that. I’ve been three times over the years; I was never really into that kind of thing but it was when I had a bit of time away from football with an injury. So when I was supposed to be going back for pre-season, I was going to Glastonbury! So I kind of got the bug from the first time I went. I was never really into festivals but it’s just one of them places once you go. A few that stick out were Arcade Fire, Black Keys; I quite like my bands but also old-school hip-hop, De La Soul, Jurassic 5. Even Lionel Richie on a Sunday afternoon, that was a good one; you always get your legends on the Sunday afternoon. One I’d never have imagined ever enjoying was Dolly Parton; I think that was the biggest crowd ever at the Pyramid Stage. You couldn’t even get near it; you were closer to a different stage than the one she was actually on. But there’s been loads. I’d really got into my music around that point, and when I came back to play, it’s something that’s stuck with me. So I like my festivals, like my gigs.

Research says you're pretty handy on the karaoke as well...

I like to think I am anyway, whether I actually am I'm not so sure!

What are your specialities you usually go for?

I always go for a little Motown number, or soul; there’s one song I always sing and it’s ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ by Sam Cooke. So for some reason, when I’ve had a few beers, I always think I’m a bit handy on karaoke. I look back and think ‘yeah, not really’. I’ve not been on there for a while but I’ll be on there again.

In a totally separate - and probably much more terrifying - setting, have you had to sing for initiation when you've joined clubs?

I’ve done it a couple of times but not for years; maybe because I’ve always signed for Bradford the last few years! I think the last time was when I signed for York for a brief period and I sang ‘Lifted’ by Lighthouse Family.

Is it correct you're from Wakefield, and did you have a team you supported growing up?

Yeah, obviously being from Wakefield, I supported Arsenal! It’s a long, long time ago when I started supporting them; I think about ‘94/’95 time. I always say they were mid-table when I started supporting them, and George Graham was manager, so it’s a long time ago. I was about seven years old and I remember really liking Ian Wright; he was one of them strikers, with his passion and charisma on the field. I remember getting the replica shirt for my birthday and I think I just picked it out; I just liked the shirt. When I left school and before I started playing seriously, I joined a Yorkshire Arsenal supporters’ club, so I managed to get to a lot of games; FA Cup finals and Champions League games. It was only when I got the trial at Stockport that I thought ‘I’m gonna have to concentrate on my own football here!’

Yorkshire born and raised but you also have Nigerian background on your dad's side. Was that heritage and culture an active part of life growing up or more distant?

It was fairly active. My grandma’s still around and she moved over here in her early-20s, but she’s very sort of Nigerian in her ways. My dad came here really young, so not so much; he’d play football, go to the pub, that kind of thing. It’s something that when I was really young I grew up with, but as I got a bit older, less so. I’ve never been there, which is something I should think about doing at some stage of my life, to see my heritage for itself. Wakefield was never multi-cultural growing up at all; I was the only black or mixed-race lad in my year at school. I grew up in a very white village as well. I always think it’s good to remember your heritage and your roots; obviously with what’s going on at the minute it’s a bit more at the forefront of people’s minds. It’s made me want to really educate myself as much as possible about my upbringing, and my privilege as well, because I’ve not experienced much racism. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities in life; I don’t think I’ve been held back by the colour of my skin, but my family members have been. It’s made me remember how fortunate I’ve been to have the life I’ve had really.

You've had a good selection of managers in the game so far, who's seemed to hit the mark in terms of what you need from them to get the best out of you?

Coming into the professional game when I was younger, I’d say I needed a bit of an arm around the shoulder. Coming from non-league, I’ve mentioned before I lacked a bit of self-belief; extreme way of putting it but you feel like a bit of a fraud, to be honest. Jim Gannon, he’s very meticulous, attention to detail, unbelievable coach. He did get on at the players if they didn’t do things how he wanted, but with me, I feel he gave me a little bit more leeway. I got my fair share of bollockings but generally I think he was aware that was the approach I needed. It gave me a platform to go and play and be confident. Another one, Paul Lambert; he was unbelievable. Man-management, not just me but the whole squad. He didn’t do a lot of coaching but he was another who went out of his way to encourage me, because I went there at 22 but I’d only been professional for 15 months. I played for Chris Wilder for a bit. You wouldn’t think so now but at the time he was quite regimented in how the team played; it was more of a rigid 4-4-2. I didn’t really have the same man-management off him but I was a bit more confident then as a player anyway. Obviously Mark Bower; I’ve played for him for probably six years now. He’s really quite a relaxed manager, really easy to get on with, he’s not a ranter or raver, and players have always responded to that. Sometimes it can be a bit false with managers shouting and bawling; if it’s not your character or personality you can see it a mile off and lads just don’t respond. He just speaks to us on a level, speaks to us like men. I really warmed to him from the start.

For feeling in your best condition, best form, your happiest on and off the pitch, where comes to mind from your time in football up to now?

It’s definitely not as a professional footballer, I know that. I went through a lengthy period of not really enjoying it as much as I should. It took me until I signed for Yeovil until I thought ‘yeah, I’m here on merit.’ So I never really enjoyed football as much as I should have done, because I put a lot of pressure on myself, lacked a bit of self-belief at times, I think purely because of where I came from with my footballing background. Playing Sunday league until 20, I think it was a bit ingrained in me that ‘you’re a non-league player, you’re a pub player.’ I really started enjoying my football when I went on loan to Yeovil. Going on loan from a bigger club in Norwich, I felt like ‘I’m dropping down here, I’m actually good enough for this.’ I enjoyed it for a period at Oxford as well. I had a really successful spell with Guiseley and I enjoyed that. To answer your question, it would be a season at Bradford (Park Avenue) where everything just clicked into place, and I managed to get through a full season without missing a game through injury. We got to the play-offs and had a really memorable campaign, winning our last six games to sneak in, and beating some really good teams like Harrogate, Brackley on the way in. The team spirit was incredible, there wasn’t a bad egg in the changing room. I was happy on the pitch, I was happy off it. There’s been times where I haven’t been, mainly as a result of dropping out of the professional game and not knowing what path I wanna take in life, work-wise. I spent 18 months out of the game, so that was a bit of a tough time. Came out of a long-term relationship, which was kind of down to coming out of professional football and the stresses of that. Everything kind of clicked into place when I signed for Bradford.

Does anyone come to mind as an example of teammates you've felt that extra understanding with on the pitch? Where it all just flows and you seem to know exactly where each other will be in certain moments?

Adam Boyes. He’s just left Spennymoor (recently joined Marske United) and I first played with him at Guisley, and at first, we were both vying for the same place. I ended up getting in the team out wide and straight away we had a real understanding on the pitch. Sometimes I’d play up front with him, sometimes out wide, but he’s a dream to play with because he works so hard and he lays on so many chances for others. We both ended up at Park Ave, with Mark Bower. We just had this sort of telepathy really and knew where each other would be.

You've obviously spoken plenty about your time at Norwich. A big club but so far away from everything location-wise, how did you find that side of it, so far from home at a young age?

I really liked it down there. It’s an isolated city, which is great for your team spirit because all the lads live down there. I had a little flat right near the ground; it was that close that it took longer to drive. I used to just walk to the games, which was probably a bit bizarre for fans. I’d just be walking with a load of Norwich fans, trying to blend in. They’d be like ‘is that Johnson?’ ‘Well yeah, I’m just going to the game, like; there’s no point me driving!’ It was quite normal for me to do that because I’d like to think I’m a quite down to earth, humble lad.

For people who've especially brightened the dressing room with their personality, or just been generally off the wall, loose cannons, who are some that come to mind from your time in the game?

I preferred the weirdos to the loose cannons. There were some funny ones, like Johnny Mullins sticks out at Stockport. I like people who are funny, bit weird, but not like disrespectful. Like on nights out, I’m not a big fan of people slide-tackling people! It’s funny but it’s a bit like ‘come on.’ Just going through people at clubs, Matty Gill at Norwich, he’s probably one of the funniest I’ve met. Going into non-league, Adam Nowakowski I’d probably class as my best mate in football really at this point; strangest guy you’ll ever meet! He’ll wear like the club merchandise and buy stuff out of the club shop, like a Bradford (Park Avenue) cap, and wear it on match days. I don’t even think he’s trying to be funny; he’s like a big kid. A great lad to have around, really well regarded at Bradford. We'd be on the coach to the game, listening to the music on the speaker, and he'd shout 'lads, let's put something really depressing on. Let's get really low, save our energy. Then when we get to the ground we'll get the tunes on and we'll be buzzing for it.' Just daft stuff like that. I've driven to an away game before and gone direct, and he's put some classical music on like Mozart or something. Just an odd person but you'd be hard pressed to find a bad word said about him.

Billy Priestley, he’s one who gets a shout as well. I know he’s good mates with G-Stop (Gary Stopforth); I’ve never played with G-Stop but I’ve sat and had a beer with him in the bar after. They’re just like the top lads you meet in non-league. It’s one thing that makes you want to keep playing, just having the craic, in the changing rooms with the lads, having a beer after. It’s priceless really.

Finally, away from playing, work, music we've mentioned, what else do you enjoy these days?

I’ve gone coaching kids at Ossett Town; that was my first club as a seven-year-old, so it's nice to do, and to give a bit back, I suppose. Just started playing golf; that’s what lockdown’s done to me! Other than that, just simple pleasures; I just like a few beers on a Sunday afternoon. I quite like reading, a bit of a yoga. I try and look after my mind as well quite a lot. Quite a curious person, just wanting to learn; I got to 30 and just had this curiosity and wanted to learn as much as possible. Life’s a hundred mile an hour when you’re younger and it passes you by. Next thing you know, football-wise, you’re coming to the end of your career.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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