Belfast Telegraph

Damien Johnson is relishing his return to the Northern Ireland set-up

By Stuart McKinley

Life has changed a lot lately for Damien Johnson in a short space of time - but you won't hear him complaining.

Instead, the former Northern Ireland international couldn't be happier that new experiences are coming his way.

And even though it's four months away, he can't wait for September to come around.

That's when he will work with the Northern Ireland under-21s for the first time, having been appointed to the coaching team under Jim Magilton.

Kevin Horlock will remain part of the set-up to form a trio that is very familiar with each other, having played together in the Northern Ireland midfield a number of times under Sammy McIlroy in the early 2000s before first Magilton and then Horlock retired from the international scene.

Injury problems led Johnson to call time on his career in the green shirt five years ago and as he puts it, the 36-year-old "can't wait to put on the Northern Ireland tracksuit again".

"I can't tell you how pleased I am to be back involved with the Irish FA," said Johnson.

"It's only a few months ago that I met Michael O'Neill and he asked me to monitor things around the north-west of England for him.

"I've been to a few games at different levels, keeping an eye on players and I've enjoyed it.

"When the opportunity to come back into the international set-up and work with the under-21s came along, I jumped at it.

"I've missed being involved at that level and I am really looking forward to helping younger players during what is an important stage in their careers."

The Northern Ireland appointment isn't the only new role that Johnson has landed.

After 18 months coaching various teams in Everton's Academy, he went back to his old club Blackburn Rovers last month.

Johnson, who spent five years at Ewood Park after joining the club as a 16-year-old, is now the lead coach of the club's under-14s, having retired in 2013.

"I finished playing two years ago at Fleetwood, but mentally I was probably retired six months before that," he said.

"I'd been on loan at Huddersfield and Simon Grayson wanted me to stay, but the opportunity came up at Fleetwood, with the prospect of some coaching, but the manager changed after a few months and I didn't figure in his plans.

"My career kind of fizzled out after that and if I am honest I lost a wee bit of hunger as well.

"I'd battled back from a cruciate injury at 31 and it was hard to come back."

As a player, Johnson played in Europe before making his Premier League debut for Blackburn.

As a coach, however, he is happy to start at a low level and work his way up over the next few years.

"I knew Alan Irvine and at the time I finished playing he was running the Academy at Everton," said Johnson.

"I didn't have a great deal of coaching experience at the time and it was an opportunity to get some contact time with young players. It was part-time for a while and then became full-time.

"When Blackburn appointed Eric Kinder as the new Academy Manager he got in touch with me.

"It was the club where I started, I live in the area and I know the club and it was a great opportunity for me.

"A lot of the people who were there back then are still here, so it just feels like going home.

"Some coaches look for an opportunity to go in at the top and for some of them it works out.

"For others it goes wrong and they find it hard to get back in after that.

"I'm happy to be where I am at the minute and to gain experience and move up the levels as I go along.

"That's the way I want to do things and I'll see what happens down the line."

As far as achievements are concerned, at this stage at least he isn't judging success on trophies.

"We had a 17-year-old from the Academy on the bench for the first team in the last couple of games of the season and in a set-up like Blackburn, where there isn't a lot of money around, that is where the Academy coaches get their satisfaction," he said.

Belfast Telegraph


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