EXCLUSIVE: ‘We all thought we’d win the Europa League… now we must get back in it’: Ben Johnson opens up on West Ham’s European adventure, his sadness over Mark Noble’s retirement and his new ‘sweeper’ role
- Youngster Ben Johnson is a typical product of the West Ham academy system
- He told Sportsmail he will carry on the habits he picked up since joining at seven
- Johnson has also admitted the squad feel they have more to give this campaign
- The Hammers were knocked out of the Europa League, but want to qualify again
- Ahead of Mark Noble’s imminent retirement, Johnson opened up on his sadness
One of the most revealing photos of the season shows West Ham captain Mark Noble after David Moyes’s team had won at Lyon in the Europa League quarter-final last month.
Noble had played just the final 13 minutes but the picture shows him wearing a towel and flip flops, sweeping up the mess in the away dressing room. It is, by all accounts, a regular habit and, as Noble prepares to play his last home game before retirement on Sunday, the baton is about to be passed to someone else.
‘I am actually in the background of that photo and it looks like I am refusing to help,’ laughs West Ham right back Ben Johnson.
Ben Johnson is a typical product of West Ham’s academy system, and is set for a bright future
‘I got hammered by my mates but I have actually mucked in all this season. He does it every game but he wasn’t at Brentford the week before that and I was about to get on the coach when I could suddenly see his face in my mind. So I turned round and did it.
‘If he isn’t there, then who is gonna do it? Coming from the academy and knowing he has put so much time and effort into me, the least I can do is carry it on. What he has done for me and my family has been wonderful.’
Johnson, 22, is a typical product of the academy system. Young and talented but also personable and with an ability to see bigger pictures.
He has become a permanent fixture in Moyes’s team this season and may well be a future West Ham captain.
Speaking to Sportsmail, he has vowed to build on the habits he has picked up since joining
For now, he will concentrate on building on the habits he has picked up since joining the club at the age of seven.
‘People may think I have just woken up at 22 and played in front of 60,000 but I haven’t,’ he tells Sportsmail.
‘It’s been years of hard graft and I am only at the start line. People in life come and go, don’t they? They give you information and some of it sticks with you and some of it gets your back up. But you learn what to do with it. That’s the beauty of life.
‘There is actually a lot of respect for people within football. Wherever we go to play, we have been given a decent dressing room with everything we need. The opposition club have set it up for us and it’s tidy so we have to leave it how it was when we walked in. You learn that at a club like this.’
The Hammers crashed out of the Europa League, but Johnson is targeting an instant return
When Noble takes his leave after the Premier League game against Manchester City and the trip to Brighton that follows, a little piece of West Ham will be gone for good.
Sunday will be a special day in east London but West Ham also have important points to play for.
This was an interview that could have been taking place ahead of a Europa League final next week and even though West Ham fell to Frankfurt in the semi-finals, there is a feeling at the club that this must one day be seen as a time when a journey was just beginning.
Next season, for example, the London Stadium’s capacity will be increased to 62,500 and Moyes is expected to add depth to his squad.
Johnson and his team-mates – seventh in the Premier League – would dearly like to move up a spot and into the Europa League places.
Despite insisting they are overachieving this season, the youngster says they can do more
‘This season we have exceeded our targets but we feel we had more to give,’ reflects Johnson.
‘It just hasn’t worked out. We were in the top-four fight but had Europa League seemingly every Thursday and games on Sunday, which is exacting, and we dropped off.
‘We all thought we were gonna win the Europa League but we have something to play for to get back in it.
‘It’s a big incentive. All the boys want European football again and that would turn a good season into a fantastic one.
Johnson insists he has moved on from disappointment, with the campaign’s finale on his mind
‘Our aim is the Europa League again, then the Champions League. We have the squad to do it.’
Johnson cried in the dressing room in Frankfurt but says he has already moved on.
He also has recent disappointments in proper perspective. It is, after all, a little over six years since he sat with his mum, Sharon, in the office of former West Ham academy head Terry Westley, fearing he was about to be released.
‘My confidence wasn’t the greatest at 14 or 15,’ he says.
‘All my mates were playing up an age level and I never did. I thought I wasn’t favoured.
He is from a sporting family, and enjoys a good relationship with Hammers boss David Moyes
‘My confidence came back just in time when I was in the Under 16s but I still thought it was too late.
‘My fate was out of my hands and I remember driving in with my mum that day feeling really uncertain.
‘Luckily it was good news. They put their faith in me.’
Johnson comes from a sporting family. Ledley King, once of Tottenham, and former Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers full back Paul Parker are second cousins. Both have been on hand over the years to offer guidance but these days the key relationship is the one he enjoys with West Ham boss Moyes.
Johnson hailed Moyes for helping him to become ‘better’ and lending him more confidence
‘He has helped me become a better defender but also he doesn’t feel the need to speak to me all the time and I think that gives me confidence to know he trusts me,’ adds Johnson.
‘That’s how I want it to be. I am here to work. It’s a profession, a business.
‘There are times when he will give me confidence but other times he needs to keep me on my toes. I relish that, just like when he first came in.
‘Back then I was trying to persuade him I was good enough to be in his side. That is still how I feel today.’
There may also be an England senior call-up before too long, with Johnson catching the eye
Johnson’s season statistics show that he is winning that particular battle.
Despite the wealth of talent in his position, there may also be an England senior call-up before too long.
Before any of that, however, West Ham need to get Sunday out of the way.
They have already beaten Liverpool and Chelsea at home this season but Manchester City arrive in seemingly unstoppable form and it is not an occasion for anyone in claret and blue to take a misty eye off the ball.
‘Yeah, there will be different forces opposing each other,’ smiles Johnson.
‘We are fighting for that European place and City are fighting for the league. Add in the fact it’s Noble’s final home game and it’s a big one, isn’t it?
Mark Noble (left) will retire at the end of the season, and Johnson has expressed his sadness
‘It hasn’t really sunk in that he’s going and won’t do until is not there for pre-season.
‘It will be strange and sad. What he has done for the club is phenomenal and to lose that character will be a big miss.
‘But we have players to step up and maybe it could be a job for me too.
‘I am not that young any more and need to do that. I need to keep moving forward.’
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