With the surprising news of Jeremy Ngakia’s intent to move on from East London, it’s time for Ben Johnson to leave behind this season’s injury woes and remind supporters why he is so highly regarded within the club.
West Ham supporters are keenly aware that football is a game of “what have you done for me lately.” After all, Manuel Pellegrini and Marko Arnautovic were both the toast of the East End at different points in time, only to see themselves run out of town a few months later. Similarly, Ben Johnson seems to have become a forgotten man due to Ngakia’s recent emergence at right-back.
When Johnson was announced on the team sheet at left-back against Manchester City in February 2019, it was such a shock to most West Ham supporters that there was a scramble to gather information on the young academy product. It emerged from ITK’s that Johnson had massive potential but usually set up as a right-back and the already slim expectations of getting a result that day seemed to shrink.
Roughly 63 minutes later (including 55 of them spent with Riyad Mahrez in his pocket) and it quickly became apparent that the club had another academy product on their hands with the potential to make an impact on the first team. Unlike the situation with Ngakia, the club displayed how highly regarded he was by quickly negotiating a deal that would keep Johnson at the club until at least 2022.
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Expectations were high for Johnson entering this season from both the club and supporters and Sam Inkersole from Football London declared him as the breakout star of the preseason. Unfortunately, recurring hamstring injuries have derailed nearly the entirety of his campaign. With Ryan Fredericks struggling to stay in the squad due to injuries and suspension, there would have been plenty of opportunities for Johnson to have made his own impact on the first team.
This left the door open for Jeremy Ngakia, and the fellow youngster seized his opportunity at the same time as the Hammers team performances began to improve, leaving Johnson as an afterthought for many, except for the hierarchy within the club.
When healthy the past season, Johnson was rated above Ngakia in the under 23 set-up and often wore the captain’s armband indicating his leadership skills and the respect that Ricky Martin, Dmitri Halajko and his peers have for him. Former Academy boss Terry Westley compares his professionalism to another first-team star: “It’s the academy’s job to make sure that the lads come out as gentlemen – look at Declan Rice as an example – we want quality players and quality men. Ben Johnson ticks all the boxes.”
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This type of professionalism at such a young age could be due to guidance from his impressive footballing family. Both his Uncle Paul Parker and his cousin Ledley King were England internationals, have a wealth of experience in England’s top flight and are excellent role models for the youngster.
There are further intangibles as Johnson is a West Ham man, born in nearby Waltham Forest and has been with the club since the age of 7. According to ExWHUemployee, he was even a ball boy at Upton Park for a number of years during his time in the youth team and will represent the club with passion because he is one of our own.
Of course, all the intangibles in the world don’t matter if you don’t have the ability on the pitch. But Johnson can flat out play, with pace to burn, solid vision, exceptional passing and crossing ability as well as the ability to play both sides of the backline.
In the under 23’s last match against Derby County before football was shut down, Johnson assisted on all three West Ham goals as the squad drew 3-3. In his first-team debut, his lockdown of Mahrez forced a frustrated Pep Guardiola to bring on Raheem Sterling on what was surely going to be a day off for the star man.
While it was a disappointment for West Ham not to lock up Academy product Jeremy Ngakia, West Ham supporters should be excited about the prospect of Ben Johnson having the opportunity to stake his claim on the right-back position for the foreseeable future. He has the leadership skills, professionalism and desire that are so important in a young player’s development.
If he can avoid the nagging injuries that have set him back this year, Johnson has all the intangibles and ability to become a cornerstone for the club going forward and supporters will be quickly reminded why the local boy has been so highly regarded at every level he has performed at.