Footballers' Lives with Chris Johns: 'I was thinking if I don't get into university I have no football, no career and I'm scuppered'
In the latest edition of our popular series, Coleraine keeper Chris Johns discusses the transition from English football to full-time education and his ambitions of returning across the water.
Q. What are your early childhood memories?
A. We lived in England for a while when my dad, Paddy Johns, was playing rugby for Saracens. I was all rugby back then, right up until my last year in primary school. I was a baby when we went and I was there until I was about four. I remember being in pubs after games and I've seen some videos of our times there, but I don't remember very much.
Q. Your dad being who he is, was there a big sporting emphasis on your family when you were growing up?
A. We have a barn at home which dad filled with all kinds of sporting equipment and he'd just let me pick up whatever I wanted and play whatever I wanted to play. There was no pressure to go down any particular avenue. We'd a badminton court in there, we played a bit of tennis. We'd roller blades with hockey sticks, cricket stumps, football, so it was sport all round.
Q. When did you start to play competitive sport?
A. I played at Lurgan Rugby Club right through primary school and I loved rugby - I still do even though I don't keep in touch with it as much. I always thought that rugby would be my path, after my dad.
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Q. You say your dad didn't put you under any pressure but, having played at the highest level of his sport, how much of an influence has he been?
A. As a son you don't listen to your parents as much as you should. I know that. Even though he has reached that level, you've always got that bit of you where you want to do things your own way. I have picked up on a few things. He is one for routine and habits and, as much as I don't listen to him on a lot of other things, I would try to create good routines and habits. He's smarter than I give him credit for and the older I get, the more I listen.
Q. Do you think if you had gone on to play rugby there would have been more pressure on you being Paddy Johns' son?
A. I don't know. I don't really listen to too many people and it wouldn't have bothered me.
Q. Is there one thing in particular you have taken from him?
A. He has a mind of steel and pain wasn't a thing to him. He'd tell me about when he was at Saracens and training every time he put his left foot to the ground it felt like knives were being shoved into his knee. He just wanted to play and I don't know how he put that to the back of his mind, but he is very strong mentally and I try to copy that. When I was in England, that sort of mind-set might have been to my detriment because I played through things that I shouldn't have. Now that I am back home and playing part-time, I look after my body a good bit more.
Q. When did you first play football?
A. I'd played football at lunch time with my friends, but I had never played competitively until the school team when I was nine. I didn't play club football until I was secondary school age. The school team didn't have a goalkeeper and I had a couple of growing pains, Osgood Schlatter's in my knees and Sever's disease in my heels. Any time I ran for the next couple of weeks I couldn't do anything, so I got chucked into goals - which I hated. By the end of the year, we won the Primary Schools' Cup and I got scouted for Lisburn Youth and football took over.
Q. How did things progress for you from there?
A. We had a really good team at Lisburn Youth. James Singleton was playing and he was brilliant at that age. I don't know how he didn't get a chance across the water. He was one of our better players and lots of the players in the team seemed to be getting trials at different places and he was the only one who didn't, which was really strange. He was brilliant. We were cleaning up in leagues and cups. It was either us or Linfield. I wasn't really getting much to do at Lisburn Youth so, when I was 14, I moved to Dungannon. They weren't quite as good a team and there was more for me to do so it felt like it was a good decision at that time just to be busier in matches. It's not a bad thing for a young goalkeeper. You might be playing in winning teams, but you could just be standing there. You are in the game, but you're not getting game experience, you're not seeing play develop in front of your box and getting to see things that goalkeepers in teams who aren't so good would be. It was the right thing to do at that stage.
Q. When did the interest from across the water start?
A. I was 13 or 14 and I was going across to Rangers quite a bit. A Sunderland scout was at a lot of our games too and I went over there a couple of times. Coventry City, Manchester City and Middlesbrough were interested and then Southampton saw me in the Victory Shield against Wales. I went over for a trial game not long after and then I got offered a deal, which was mad.
Q. Did you have offers from any other clubs?
A. Middlesbrough offered me a two-year scholarship and Rangers offered me a three-year deal. Celtic came in just after that. I think they might have heard that Rangers had offered me something, but I had never been over at Celtic. My dad kept most of it away from me and said that Southampton had offered a four-year deal and that was probably the best one to go for.
Q. What the experience like going over there at 16?
A. It was really good. I was put in with a host family and I was really lucky, I couldn't have asked for any better a family. They were brilliant and I really enjoyed living there. Training was top class too. It was great being around a professional set up.
Q. How did things progress on the pitch?
A. I played for the under-18s the first year or two and was in the under-21 squad every so often. Then I played for the under-21s when I was fit in the last couple of years. I travelled a couple of times with the first team. There were injuries and I was drafted in as third choice. I was in for three games, two at home and one away.
Q. What was that first-team experience like for you?
A. It was really cool. It was bit surreal, having pre-match, being in tunnels and feeling nervous even though you're not going to be anywhere near playing. It was a nice experience. I suppose it prepared me for later on. That's the one thing I can take from it.
Q. Tell us about the injuries that you played through at Southampton?
A. The year or two before I went to England, I was training quite hard every day at different sports. I was quite into badminton back then and I was playing for my school and the regional development squad. That involved a couple of training sessions a week and I'd football training too, whether it be with a club team and then County Down and there was a Manchester United school that I was in as well. Friday night would have been really hard training with the badminton squad and my legs would have been done. Saturday I would have had a game and Sunday I trained really hard with Robert Gilliland, a goalkeeper coach, the best coach ever. My body was taking a lot of hits and by the time I got to England pre-season was deadly and I think for two years my body just never had time to recover. It felt like I could give so much more, but there was nothing in my legs and my body just felt done. I kept picking up niggles and I thought I had to keep training. I got a lot of back spasms throughout my four years there and a few bad hip issues that I trained through, which wasn't smart. I never felt right over there and it took two or three years after I came back for my body to start feeling refreshed and normal and figure out how to train properly to get the best out of it. I was completely red-lining, but you don't realise that when you are young.
Q. Was that a contributing factor to you not progressing all the way through?
A. Maybe. I had a bad couple of injuries the last year. I had surgeries on my hand and my arm and I didn't play in the last year I was there. After I got released, I went into a really hard pre-season at a couple of teams just trying to get trials at different places - Peterborough, Colchester and a couple of teams in Scotland. I got offered a year at Colchester, but I decided to get a degree behind me because I could end up getting an injury and being in the same spot a year later which wouldn't be ideal. I thought I would come back, rest up and see if something happens later down the line.
Q. Mauricio Pochettino was at Southampton when you were there, did you have many dealings with him?
A. I trained with the first team a few times when he was there. All the players loved him. Everyone loved playing for him and he got the team so fit that year. The youth players would have watched all the home first-team games and the pressing he had the team doing was unbelievable.
Q. Did you know that things were coming to an end at Southampton?
A. Yes, and that meant I was able to deal with it easier. Grant McCann was the manager at Peterborough when I went on trial and I got injured again with my hip. I thought that I could end up in no-man's land and needed to get something behind me. I cut the trial short and said I was going to head home and do my A Levels. Grant was really nice and he wished me well. I had just sent the forms off to do my A Levels when Colchester rang and said they wanted to offer me a one-year deal to play for the under-23s and if anything happened to the first-team goalkeeper I would be in there. I was so close to going.
Q. What happened from there?
A. I was trying to get a club back here, but it was towards the end of August and everyone had their goalkeepers signed. Bangor was the only team without a goalkeeper and Garth Scates got in touch and took me there. Michael Doherty had a knee injury at Coleraine and for two or three months he couldn't take goal kicks because if it. He had centre-halfs taking the goal kicks and I think he just needed some time out, which gave me the chance to play and I signed for Coleraine in the January. I was really excited about it when I first signed. It was going to be a chance to play proper men's football for the first time. Especially after the previous summer when I was lost a bit and didn't know where I was going with football. I didn't even play all that well for Bangor. Just out of the blue, Coleraine said they wanted me to come up for a training session and that night Oran said he wanted me to sign. I was very lucky.
Q. Would you say you were at a real crossroads that previous summer?
A. Yes, it was horrible. Everything came crashing down and I was going back to school.
Q. Where did you see yourself going with football at that stage?
A. In the back of my head I always thought that in the distance I might get a chance again, but I didn't feel like that at the time. I don't think I would have been one of those players who comes back from England and disappears from the game. Hopefully I would have figured it out eventually if the Coleraine chance hadn't come up, but I could have been.
Q. How was the adjustment coming home and back into full-time education at 21?
A. It was hard to motivate myself every so often, but I eventually got through. I went to Armagh Tech. I was there five days a week for two years and a 45 minute drive there and back each day. I got a B and two Cs, which was nowhere near what I needed to get into university. I needed three Bs, but because I was a sports person I could get in with two Bs and a C - but I still didn't get that. I was waiting for a full week to hear back from admissions to see if I'd got in. I was just sitting in my room and thinking 'if I don't get into university I have no football, no career path and I'm absolutely scuppered.' That was a weird week, but I somehow got in. I was mad mentally. It was an empty feeling and quite weird.
Q. You're studying chemical engineering at Queen's. What made you want to do that?
A. I knew chemical engineers got paid well - and I was OK at maths and science at school, so I put those two together and thought that was where I would go. It's a difficult course. I had a bit of a panic come Christmas time in my first year and was thinking that I wasn't going to get through. Second year was a good bit smoother and I got into the Masters programme. This year has been difficult. There's a massive group project that just takes over your life. I'm in the process of that.
Q. What might the future hold for you?
A. I get my BA at the end of this year and I will see how I feel then if I can get my head together and do the Masters. My contract at Coleraine ends at the end of this season too which I sort of planned that way to see if there were opportunities across the water with football. Being a free agent, it would be easier to get a club, but if nothing comes up I'll hopefully stay and do the Masters and see what happens at the end of that and if not go to work.
Q. So you haven't given up on full-time football?
A. No, that's Plan A. I am only 24 and I'm planning to play until I am 45. I can assess things as I go along and you always have longer term goals in my head.
Q. We can put you in a time machine and give you the opportunity to go back and play two games over again - one to change the outcome of the game to lead to something better and one that you experienced a high that you would love to savour again.
A. I would play last season's Europa League play-off game against Cliftonville again. That was painful. We were well on top for a lot of the first half and then I made a poor kick out and Joe Gormley scored which made it 2-1. James McLaughlin scored a hat-trick and there is no way we should have lost that game because we played very well. We conceded three goals that were preventable and they got a penalty in the 90th minute. That was unbelievable. Josh Carson got kicked on the back of the leg and they got a penalty. It's a game that should never have got away from us and it could have kept Rodney McAree in a job.
Winning the Irish Cup in 2018 was brilliant, but the semi-final the year before when we beat Glenavon at Ballymena Showgrounds was an unbelievable day. There was a lot of hype before the game, there was a lot of pressure and Coleraine hadn't been in a final for a few years. The nerves before the game were incredible and we played really well. It was a back and forth game and I really enjoyed that game. We went into the final and we just fell flat.
Date of birth: May 13, 1995
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Southampton, Bangor.
Coleraine record: 177 appearances