Back problems see Damien Johnson quit international scene
Damien Johnson was the quiet man of the Northern Ireland squad for over 10 years.
Rarely, if ever, did he refuse an interview request, but if Johnson could find a way to slip quietly away from Windsor Park past the press he would do it.
He preferred to do his talking on the pitch and he did that 56 times before announcing his international retirement yesterday.
When he felt something needed to be said though, he wasn’t slow in speaking out. And such is the esteem in which he was held by team-mates, when Johnson spoke everyone listened.
Former international manager Lawrie Sanchez was forced to listen after one particular training session during the Caribbean tour six years ago. The joist of Johnson’s angst was that he felt the training facilities weren’t up to scratch and he let the boss know.
Having been part of a change in fortunes on the pitch — after enduring the 1,298 goal-less minutes under Sammy McIlroy — Johnson has seen things get better off the pitch as well and believes current manager Nigel Worthington has had a major impact on how things are done nowadays.
“Sammy McIlroy was a passionate man and someone who was desperate to do well for Northern Ireland,” said Johnson.
“A lot of things weren’t right though, which weren’t his fault.
“I remember once we had to climb through a fence onto a training pitch that was pretty poor.
“The Irish FA knew that things had to be sharpened up and that the preparation had to be better for the players to give us the best chance on the pitch.
“In the Caribbean the facilities were sub-standard and I wanted to know the reasons why we’d been taken out there.
“Some of the places we trained were downright dangerous and if our clubs had known they wouldn’t have been happy at all.
“Thankfully things have changed and it’s largely down to Nigel Worthington. He has worked at the highest level in England and he knows what players need on and off the pitch to be competitive and things are much more professional now than they were in the past.”
The end of Johnson’s international career is somewhat premature. He is only 31-years-old and would appear to have plenty left to offer, but his reasons are understandable.
“It’s been a massive decision for me, a very tough one and one that I’ve mulled over for a long time,” said Johnson.
“I had a lot of trouble with my back and hamstrings over the course of a couple of years and how I manage myself involves a lot of gym work.
“I have to do a specific strengthening and stretching programme and I’ve got a routine where I spend almost an hour in the gym before and after training each day. I have to do some work in the evenings as well.
“When I added everything together I knew that at some point it was going to be very difficult to combine all that with playing for Northern Ireland, so retiring from international football is the right thing to do. I’d a couple of conversations with my mum and dad, who don’t get over to see me very often, so it was good to come home for the internationals.
“They loved coming to the games, I would get 25 tickets for each match and although they will miss it — like I will — they understand the reasons.
“I remember my debut quite clearly and it was a very special day for me. Since then every cap has been a bonus.
“There have been great nights at Windsor Park, like when we beat England — and that’s obviously a memorable night — but the real highlight has been the last four or five years as a Northern Ireland player.”
Worthington said: “Northern Ireland is losing a very experienced player and a truly excellent professional, but I fully understand how Damien feels at this stage in his career and I fully respect his decision.”
Northern Ireland squad v Montenegro (August 11): Taylor (Birmingham), Tuffey (Inverness), Carson (Sunderland), J Evans (Man Utd), Craigan (Motherwell), McGivern (Man City), McAuley (Ipswich), Hughes (Fulham), Little (Rangers), Baird (Fulham), McCann (Peterborough), Brunt (WBA), Gorman (Wolves), C Evans (Man Utd), Norwood (Man Utd), Davis (Rangers), Clingan (Coventry), Healy (Sunderland), Feeney (Oldham), Lafferty (Rangers), M Paterson (Burnley), R Patterson (Plymouth).