Making history, scoring at Anfield and getting promoted - Johnson on his time at Town
Suffolk boy Gavin Johnson earned himself a place in the Ipswich Town history books as the club’s first-ever Premier League goalscorer. MICHAEL STEWARD spoke to him about that, and much more.
Ask any Ipswich Town fan about Gavin Johnson’s time in a blue and white shirt and you’ll likely hear at least one of three things.
Most will remember THAT header at Anfield, many will recall him becoming the club’s first Premiership goalscorer, while some might mention his equaliser against Oxford which secured a return to the top-flight in 1992.
All three moments are fondly remembered by Town fans, and just as warmly by the man himself, who spent six years at Portman Road as a cultured left-sided full-back or midfielder.
But it’s the goal in a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa – his own slice of club history – on the first day of the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93 which he ranks highest.
“We should have beat them that day really,” he said.
“I was fortunate enough that the ball popped out to me about 25 yards out and I got a nice little right-foot half-volley, which is probably the favourite goal of my whole career.
“I never ever hit a ball as sweet as that again, certainly not with my right foot.”
Rewind about ten years and 12-year-old Gavin Johnson is starring for William Browns in youth football alongside the likes of Richard Hall, who went on to play for Southampton and West Ham, Adrian Pennock, of Bournemouth and Gillingham fame, and Stephen Lankester – dad of current Town star Jack.
But the Old Newton schoolboy’s lucky break wasn’t too far away.
“As is often the case, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.
“My dad used to go to school with the groundsman, Winston Chapman, and he got me a trial.
“I started off going once a week on a block trial basis, then they said, ‘We’ll keep you for a little bit longer’ and it went on until I got to 14 and signed schoolboy forms.”
The talented teenager would continue to turn out for Old Newton’s lower sides in adult football alongside his Town duties right up to the age of 16 when he signed as an apprentice.
His debut came two years later. Peter Trevivian, who managed the youth team during Johnson’s first year on YTS (Youth Training Scheme) forms, had moved into the first-team set-up with boss John Duncan. On the back of three straight defeats, the 18-year-old was thrown in at left-back under Portman Road’s Tuesday night lights against Barnsley on February 21, 1989.
“It wasn’t a particularly great time for the club. I think they wanted to chuck someone in – like a local lad – to get the feel-good factor going again,” he said.
“I was a promising player I suppose but I think they just tried to freshen things up, get the fans onside again and fortunately we beat Barnsley 2-0 that night.
“The first-team had a decent squad, but I don’t think the football they were playing was quite what the supporters wanted compared with previous years.
“I played a few more games that season, not too many, but it got me started out on the road.”
That road would lead behind the Iron Curtain in July 1989 for a pre-season tour, following the arrival of Soviet international Sergei Baltacha earlier in the year.
“It was great to go over there and see Russia, quite an eye-opener, but for football reasons, it wasn’t the best preparation for the season. We didn’t eat a lot,” he said.
“My mum packed me up a suitcase full of food, a few tins and chocolate bars so I did actually get to eat a bit of something. We realised after that how lucky we were.”
Three second-tier finishes of ninth, sixth and seventh saw Duncan sacked by Ipswich in May 1990 and he was swiftly replaced by John Lyall.
The former West Ham boss would play a major role in shaping the young Town star’s career.
“He was an unbelievable manager, he was the best manager I ever played under by a long way,” he said.
“He knew everything about football you possibly could. He could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but his knowledge of the game was second to none.
“So long as he had a cup of tea and a fag on, he would talk football all day long. He was a real gent, and he really helped my career move forward, big time.
“Looking back, John played a big part in my development, but it can’t be understated about the role my dad played, along with Peter Trevivian, Bryan Klug, Brian Owen, and Charlie Woods.
“They were some real tough characters. Very good coaches and very knowledgeable, but you knew exactly where you stood with them, there was no holding back.
“It was the same with John.
“If you were in the changing room after the game and you’d lost, you knew you were going to get it both barrels.
“You just had to sit there and take it. They probably don’t do it so much nowadays, but it certainly helped me. I know you don’t like to hear it at the time, but it improved me.”
Lyall saw success in his second season in charge of the Blues, leading the club to the Second Division title in 1991-92.
“John came in, and he was a breath of fresh air to the whole club,” he said.
“We had a lot of work to do. The crowds at the start of that season were probably nine or 10,000 and there wasn’t a lot of optimism about. It took a little while to get going, 3-0 up at Bristol Rovers on the first day of the season and we’re thinking ‘yes’ and ended up drawing 3-3, which was a bit of a sickener.
“But gradually we got going and the style of play was good. We didn’t have any world-beaters in the squad, but we were a very good team.
“We had a good mix, 18, 19, 20-year-olds and some older heads to help us on the way.
“It was a fantastic season. I played in front of Neil Thompson most of the time, I did a lot of covering for him when he went forward and struggled to get back!
“But it worked well, myself on one side and Steve Whitton on the other side. We knew exactly what we were doing and once you get on a roll, it’s hard to stop.”
The FA Cup also provided much excitement for Town fans that season, with the club pulled out of the hat to face Liverpool at home in the fifth round.
“It was 0-0 at home on Sunday lunchtime live on television. The wind spoilt the game, but we almost had them that day. We hit the woodwork but it wasn’t quite to be,” he said.
“Then we went up to Anfield for the replay and we gave it a really good go. We matched them for almost 120 minutes.
“The goal keeps flashing up on social media every now and again and it still gives me goose bumps, a tingle down the back of my neck. It was a great ball from Steve (Whitton) and I attacked it at the far post and got a good connection.
“It was probably the worst goal celebration ever, but I was just caught up in the moment in front of thousands of Town fans. It was a real buzz.”
More celebrations were to follow after his equaliser at the Manor Ground against Oxford in April 1992 – cancelling out a certain Jim Magilton’s goal – which sealed a return to the top-flight for the first time since 1986.
“I got on the end of a Steve Whitton free-kick that day and got the equaliser but that was a fantastic day and evening of celebrations,” he said.
“We got back to the club and we all went back to Alan Brazil’s pub, The Black Adder. The place was heaving with Town fans and we had a proper good sing song with everyone.”
Promotion to the Premier League saw the Blues riding high in the first-half of the season before falling away after Christmas to finish 16th.
“The manager had made one or two signings, but it was pretty much the same squad who won the league,” Johnson said.
“We started off great, we drifted a bit which happens quite often to teams. But over the season, there were some fantastic times, visiting all the big grounds, matching them quite often. There was a real buzz about the place at the time.”
The club narrowly escaped the drop the following season, but relegation would come in 1994/95, capped with the record-breaking 9-0 thumping at Manchester United.
The team-sheet did not include the name Johnson that day.
“As much as I would have liked to have been playing at Old Trafford, that game was a good bullet to dodge,” he admits.
“I was injured and couldn’t go up. I was watching Old Newton play and I remember the Vidiprinter kept flashing up that Andy Cole had scored again. Warky still swears he never got a touch of the ball though!”
Leaving Ipswich in 1995, successful spells were enjoyed at Wigan and Northampton, with league titles, as well as more than 150 appearances for Colchester.
He finished his professional career at Oxford United, under Jim Smith, but it ended in play-off penalty heartbreak.
“Jim was similar to John (Lyall). A real gentleman, proper old school. You knew exactly where you stood with him.
“We had a good squad in the Conference, we should have won it, but we lost in the play-off semi-finals on penalties.
“My last kick in professional football was a penalty and I scored it.
“I’d never played at Wembley and that was going to be my last chance of getting there, and we missed out unfortunately.”
With the desire to still play showing no signs of diminishing, Suffolk’s non-league scene came calling. Stints at Bury Town, Walsham-le-Willows and Needham Market followed.
“Going into non-league, I got lucky really. Richard Wilkins was the manager at Bury, who I had been at Colchester with, and I had three great seasons there,” he said.
“We won the Zamaretto League with more than 100 points, and there were some good players there and some good characters who I’m still in contact with.
“I enjoyed them all. They are a great bunch of people over at Walsham – and Needham worked out really well under Danny Laws.”
The 49-year-old father-of-three can still be found on a football pitch today, turning out for Stowupland Falcons Veterans as well as coaching his daughter’s team.
“There’s a few more aches and pains these days but I still enjoy it, that’s the main thing I suppose.”
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