DJ: I loved the Blues

WEMBLEY, May 29, 2000. The spring showers which had turned the hallowed turf into a quagmire held off as sparkling sunlight descended on the famous twin towers.

Josh Warwick

WEMBLEY, May 29, 2000. The spring showers which had turned the hallowed turf into a quagmire held off as sparkling sunlight descended on the famous twin towers.

Ipswich Town, roared on by 35,000 Blues fans, had suffered three years of play-off heartbreak - but all would be forgotten after a pulsating 90 minutes at one of football's most famous cathedrals.

Former Blues goal poacher David Johnson remembers the occasion well.

“It was a great, great day,” said the 32-year-old.

“I remember all the lads were buzzing. It was a beautiful day and all of our families were there.

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“After the semi-final we knew we could beat Barnsley. We were so confident. We never once thought we were going to lose - and so it proved.”

Getting to Wembley had been a huge achievement after the draining war with a physical Bolton side.

Johnson said: “The season, as usual, had ended in nail-biting fashion. We had beaten Walsall on the final day but we missed out on automatic promotion because Man City had won so it was the play-offs again.

“The play-off games were fantastic - two of the best matches you could hope for, although I was c**p in both of them!

“I got injured at the away leg in Bolton and was taken to hospital when we were 2-0 down. My shoulder was in absolute agony but when I found out we had drawn and Marcus had got both I was jumping all over the place thinking: 'This is fantastic, this is it.'

“In the second leg Jim Magilton scored a hat-trick and after the game he walked around town with a Jim'll Fix It medallion around his neck. It was hilarious.

“We always seemed to play big and strong teams in the play-off games - Charlton, Sheffield United and of course Bolton. When we got them in the fourth play-off semi, I was thinking about Fish and Bergson - these guys were beasts. So when they were getting sent off in the second leg, I couldn't stop laughing.

“The Bolton match was incredible - and afterwards, it already felt like we had been promoted.”

Johnson's injury problems - he was suffering with a calf strain and a shoulder knock - meant he was unable to train in the week leading up to Wembley.

He had hoped adrenaline and gritty determination would see him through the biggest match of his career, but midway through the first half, and with Town trailing 1-0, his ailments caught up with him.

“I hadn't trained properly throughout the week and I knew I was struggling but I thought if I could get through the first 15 minutes I would be OK.

“I came off at 1-0 down and so, for most of the game, I was sat there like any other fan thinking if we don't go up this year, we never will.

“The game was just unreal and the atmosphere in the dressing room after was fantastic.

“It was the best trip home ever, too. We had beer and champagne and I remember George Burley stood on one of the tables on the team bus and it smashed. But the best thing was seeing all the fans on the bridges above the A12.”

Johnson had scored goals for fun in football's second tier, but the jump into the Premier League was not as lucrative. After drawing a blank in Town's opening five games, the former Bury striker found himself consigned to fleeting substitute appearances.

“I was frustrated,” he admits. “I had played nearly every game for three or four years and suddenly I was on the bench. I hadn't had that since I was 16.

“George didn't think me and Marcus Stewart could play up front together, which felt strange because we were such good mates.

“I played against Aston Villa at home and I came up against Ehiogu and Southgate, who were excellent and I didn't get a sniff. After that I was always on the bench.

“It was hard. I was out of the team and Marcus was doing so well. The manager told me there was always a place at the club for me but he said things were going well so I was third choice.

“I had no grumbles about it - I just felt I needed a goal to get me going. In fact, my only regret is that I didn't score in the Premier League.

“But despite my frustration, leaving was strange. I always thought I would be at Ipswich for the rest of my career.”

Recently-relegated Nottingham Forest showed an interest in Johnson with then boss David Platt eventually tabling a �3million bid to take him to the City Ground.

Suddenly, the joy and jubilation at initially achieving the dream of promotion felt like a world away.

“Forest were a big club and I decided to go,” he said. “Looking back, I should really have stayed at least until the end of the season.

“I had a fantastic time at Ipswich. It was so hard to leave. But it was never about the money, it was just frustration at not playing.

“I came to Forest halfway through the season and I wasn't fit. There was a lot of expectation on me, but it was hard at first. I ended up going on loan to a few clubs. But when I came back a year later, I was on fire.”

On fire, indeed. Johnson's goals - including a staggering 29 in one season - propelled Forest to the brink of promotion. But it was the dreaded play-offs which would prove his nemesis once again. Defeat to Sheffield United consigned Forest to another season in Division One - and with the City Ground coffers running dry, the club's best chance of re-establishing itself as a top-flight outfit had passed.

Big clubs sniffed around Johnson, but a combination of loyalty and injury kept him in the East Midlands.

“I could have gone back to the Premier League but I stayed because I loved the club,” he said. “I had a good rapport with the fans and I was happy at Forest.”

So happy that after injury cut his career short, he and his family remained in Nottingham.

“The club was great to me after I retired, helping me to get my coaching badges. Now we are settled here and my son looks like he is going to join the Forest academy.

“But Ipswich will always be very special to me.”

Johnson, who makes regular visits to Suffolk, currently works for sports retailer Umbro, recruiting up-and-coming talents to wear the company's products.

Among the players he has signed up are Town's David Wright and Tommy Smith.

But it is another Umbro client - young striker Connor Wickham - who Johnson singled out for special praise.

“You have a great player on your hands there,” he said.

“He's going to be fantastic - I'm sure he'll be the next big name to come through the academy.”

Praise indeed, Connor.