The Manchester United academy prides itself on the fact that if a player doesn’t make it at the club, they stand every chance of going on to make it somewhere else and being successful not just in football, but in life. Eddie Johnson is a prime example of this and readily admits that the values he learnt at the club as a young player helped him throughout his career and prepared him for life after he finished playing.
Johnson signed for the club as a teenager, choosing United over his boyhood club Everton: “I was at Crewe and was offered schoolboy forms there but I ended up going to look round a few clubs including Liverpool, Everton and United. I spent a week with United and I think that was the only choice I was going to make, they treated me well and obviously with the history of it I just knew I wanted to sign, even though I was an Everton fan.”
Eddie progressed through the ranks at United and was part of the side that won the FA Youth Cup in 2003, a team that also included the likes of Phil Bardsley, Chris Eagles and Kieran Richardson: “It was fantastic and a competition that the club take very seriously. I had been on the bench the year before with the older group and then obviously we got our chance.
“Luckily we had a fantastic team that year and we were the first group to win it for a few years. It’s a big competition to win because many people go through their career and don’t win anything at all, so it was a great honour.
“I still remember the goal I scored in the final against Middlesbrough, it’s hard to forget that one. The ball came straight through from a goal kick from Luke Steele and I just brought it down, got it out of my feet and put it past the goalkeeper from about 20 yards.
“I think that you can tell that that team was looked at pretty closely by the first team manager and coaches. Obviously I only made one appearance but the likes of Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley made a few. Other like David Jones have gone on to make good careers for themselves and there’s not many that didn’t.”
Eddie was rewarded for his performances in the Youth Cup with a place on the first team bench for a League Cup game against Leeds United at Elland Road on the 28th October 2003, coming on for Darren Fletcher in the closing stages of extra time with the game very much in the balance: “Strangely, I wasn’t nervous, I don’t know whether that was a bit naïve but the boss was suspended for the game and was watching from the stands. I came on late and it was a great atmosphere even with it being a cup tie because Leeds were still a strong team then.
“It was great to make my debut and it’s something that no one can take away from me because it was an honour to play for the first team. We won the game which was a bonus, Eric Djemba-Djemba got the winner, he volleyed it into the ground and it bounced over the goalkeeper.
“I think the manager was just pleased we got through the tie because it was a tough one going into extra time. It’s something I’ll never forget I just don’t remember too much after I came on, I do remember warming up down the sideline and getting plenty of grief from the Leeds fans. I went back later in my career with other teams but it wasn’t anything like when United go to Elland Road.”
Of his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, Eddie has nothing but respect for the man who gave him a chance in the United first team: “He’s got to be the best, without him saying anything the man just commands respect and you don’t want to let him down. I’m currently reading his new book and it’s no surprise that he was as successful as he was, he just had an aura about him even amongst the first team players.
“He knew everything about you, if he was stood on the touchline watching training or came to watch one of the youth team games you raised your game another ten percent. He carried a little bit of fear as well but I think he got the balance just right, you knew that you could go to him if you needed to.”
Eddie also has fond memories of the senior players at Old Trafford at the time: “They were brilliant, Giggsy was great for the young lads and it was the same with Gary Neville. I remember he used give me a bit of stick and at the time I used to dread seeing him around the training ground but as the years have gone by you realise why he was doing it, he was trying to bring out the best in you and that’s why I think he’s gone on to be so successful now with England.
“Roy Keane was intense in training but if you needed to ask anything he was always there. I remember having a chat with him about whether I should go out on loan or go on that year’s pre-season tour and he spent quarter of an hour chatting with me about the pros and cons of it. I ended up going out on loan to Coventry, he thought it would be better to do pre-season with the team I was going to be with that year and it was probably the right decision.”
After going out on loan to Royal Antwerp, Coventry and Crewe Eddie left the club in the summer of 2006 in search of regular first team football. He joined Bradford City before later going on to play for Chester and in America for Austin Aztex and Portland Timbers where he ended his playing days: “My opportunities were obviously restricted and I didn’t want to sit around in the reserves for too long. I just wanted to kick-start my career, I’d seen a few players who’d stuck around at United a bit too long.
“I would have loved to have played a few more games at United and had a career there but sometimes things don’t work out and it started me off on a good footing. Everything I learnt at United I took along with me, I was back there a couple of weeks ago watching some of the younger lads train and I spoke to them about making sure you pick up as much knowledge as you can, whether you end up playing for United or going somewhere else.
“You get a good grounding and I think that’s something that the boss instilled at the club and I hope it continues in the future because it set me up. There’s a lot you can learn from the club which you can take on in later life and I try to pass that on now.”
Now 31, Eddie is now the under-20s manager at Dundee and is also involved with the first team squad: “It’s going well, I took over just after the club got back into the Scottish Premiership, Paul Hartley brought me in. I’m one of the first team coaches as well so I’m around the squad on matchdays, it’s a great opportunity for me and I’ve learnt a lot.
“It’s definitely different from playing, the days are longer but I take a lot from what I learnt at United into my job now, whether I realise I’m doing it or not. The education I got at United has set me up for the rest of my career.”