How football forgot David Johnson, Liverpool’s goalscoring hero before Ian Rush

How football forgot David Johnson, Liverpool’s goalscoring hero before Ian Rush

David Johnson was a boyhood Liverpool fan, but it was the Everton manager, Harry Catterick, who sat up and took notice of the talent that was bubbling to the surface. Having slipped the Anfield net, a persistent Bill Shankly made several attempts to prise the young striker away from Goodison Park, at a time when the Liverpool manager was ushering out the legends of the side he had built to win two First Division titles and the club’s first FA Cup in the mid-1960s.  

Reasoning that, with Joe Royle being the focal point at Everton, Johnson would struggle to fashion a way into the Everton side on a regular basis, Shankly had felt it was worth posing the repetitive question over the availability of the promising striker. The mischievous message was that Johnson’s best interests would be better served by being at Anfield. 

While Shankly ultimately didn’t get the man he wanted, his prophecy about the frustrations Johnson would encounter at Goodison were largely proved correct. Scoring on his debut, aged 19, in January 1971, Everton were reigning league champions, yet they were labouring in their defence of the title. When Johnson was introduced to the first team picture, they were still chasing glory in both the European Cup and FA Cup. 

Despite making a goalscoring start to his Everton career, Johnson had to wait over a month for his second appearance. Brought into the side to face Brian Clough’s Derby in the fifth round of the FA Cup, he scored the only goal of the game to send Everton into the quarter-finals.  

The tectonic plates of Merseyside football shifted in March 1971; a four-day span when Everton lost in the European Cup quarter-final second leg against Panathinaikos, while Liverpool were defeating the Bayern Munich of Franz Beckenbauer in quarter-finals of the last edition of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. 

On the Saturday afternoon, beyond both club’s European exertions, Johnson watched on helplessly from the sidelines as Liverpool came back from a goal down to beat Everton 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final. 

This Everton side was widely deemed to be the finished article. Generated by the midfield unit which was called the “School of Science”, they were blessed by the presence of four members of England’s 1970 World Cup squad in Alan Ball, Tommy Wright, Brian Labone and Keith Newton. In goal, Gordon West was also meant to travel as Gordon Banks’ primary back-up but opted to stay at home instead. 

With a heavily restructured squad, the Liverpool side was on the eve of greatness and Johnson would probably have prospered at Anfield at that time, as Shankly envisaged. Viewed retrospectively, it was a Liverpool team packed with legendary names, but for a majority of the line-up, their glories were ahead of them, rather than behind. 

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When Ball put Everton ahead early in the game at Old Trafford, it looked like it was going to be a bridge too soon for the emerging Liverpool, but second-half goals from Alun Evans and Brian Hall changed not only the outcome of the match, but arguably the entire direction that both clubs took for the remainder of the decade. 

Although Liverpool returned from Wembley without the FA Cup, a speech Shankly made on the balcony of Liverpool Town Hall, before an estimated quarter of a million fans who took to the streets to welcome their fallen heroes home, acted as a catalyst for renewed success and the foundations that Bob Paisley was able to build a European dynasty upon. 

As Shankly told a rapt audience of his vision to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility, even bringing the imagery of Chairman Mao into his vivid oratory, Johnson was one of those stood, transfixed in awe. An Everton first team player, hooked on the words of the Liverpool manager.  

Having won only one further game during the 1970/71 season, the wheels dramatically fell off for Everton and it gave Johnson his chance to stake a stronger claim to a place in Catterick’s plans for 1971/72. Scoring winning goals against Manchester United and Liverpool, in the first Merseyside derby of the season, Johnson continued to make progress. In a difficult campaign collectively, Johnson ended it as Everton’s top scorer. 

It still didn’t stop Johnson being on the outside looking in once more at the beginning of the 1972/73 season, however, and while he did work his way back into the side after Everton struggled for form, he was surprisingly sold to Bobby Robson’s Ipswich at the end of October, in a part-exchange deal that took Rod Belfitt in the opposite direction. 

Considering how stubborn Catterick had been when it came to Shankly’s interest in the striker, the deal with Ipswich was entirely left-field, coming just 48 hours after Everton had played them. Shankly was soon testing Robson’s strength of will to keep hold of his new acquisition. 

Bobbing around mid-table when he joined Ipswich, Johnson was arguably the ingredient that changed the Portman Road outfit from a side nervously glancing over its shoulder to one that qualified for Europe on a regular basis and started to threaten major honours. Domestic consistency was coupled with some great European nights in an Ipswich shirt. The success that eventually came to the club in the late 1970s and early-1980s could easily have arrived in the mid-1970s. 

Teaming up with Trevor Whymark, the two hit it off from the very beginning. Linking effortlessly, they helped propel Ipswich to an impressive fourth-place finish in 1972/73, claiming with it UEFA Cup qualification. Finding they harboured a natural swing for European football, Ipswich dispatched Real Madrid in round one, the Serie A champions to be, Lazio, in round two, and in round three, a Twente side that not only featured an Ipswich legend of the future in the shape of Frans Thijssen, but one that would go on to reach the 1975 UEFA Cup final.

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Given these exploits, it was a shock that Ipswich fell in the quarter-finals to Lokomotiv Leipzig. The chance of an all-English semi-final against Tottenham was lost.

During Johnson’s time at Portman Road, Ipswich never finished any lower than sixth in the league, and in 1975 they narrowly lost an FA Cup semi-final replay to West Ham, when Ipswich had largely been the better team. 

Having overcome Wolves, the holders Liverpool, Aston Villa and Leeds at the fourth time of asking in the quarter-finals, Ipswich were the favourites to lift the FA Cup by the time they reached the last four. There was genuine sympathy for them when they were beaten by West Ham in their Stamford Bridge replay. 

It was a stronger Ipswich that Johnson departed in the summer of 1976 to the one he joined in the autumn of 1972. It had been a mutually beneficial relationship, however, and Johnson won an England call-up while at Portman Road when the national team was under the polarising stewardship of Don Revie. 

Amid everything, interest in the services of Johnson were being registered by the traditionally bigger clubs. Tottenham made a bid for his signature in 1976. Unsettled at Ipswich, he would still turn the move down, yearning instead to return to the north-west. So, when Liverpool came back in for him, it was the perfect move – or so it seemed. 

At Liverpool he struggled to fit into the side initially. Kevin Keegan had come to an agreement with the Liverpool management that he would leave the club in the summer of 1977, and although he wasn’t brought in as a direct replacement for him, the signing of Johnson was designed to appear that the Anfield side were prepared for the departure of their iconic striker.

John Toshack was still at the club, while the added emergence of David Fairclough meant that competition for a place alongside Keegan was tough. On occasion, Paisley would opt for a fifth midfielder; in these circumstances, Steve Heighway would play the role of a deeper-lying link-man between the midfield and attack. 

Liverpool won the league title and the European Cup in 1977, falling just short in the FA Cup final, narrowly missing out on the treble. Johnson started the FA Cup final, Paisley feeling his hand was forced in his team selection. Setting out to avoid a replay that wouldn’t have taken place until 21 June, the Liverpool manager went against his instinct and lost the FA Cup final on the back of it. 

Johnson was replaced midway through the second half at Wembley by Ian Callaghan. The 11 that departed the Wembley pitch started in Rome against Borussia Mönchengladbach, which meant Johnson watched on from the bench as Liverpool won the European Cup. 

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After his first season at Liverpool, one of both joy and frustration, 1977/78 was when those finely balanced emotional opposites tilted dramatically towards frustration. Form and fitness eluded Johnson, just at the point when a regular place in the Liverpool line-up was his for the taking. 

The departure of Keegan to Hamburg and the continuing decline in Toshack’s fortunes should’ve paved the way for Johnson to become Liverpool’s focal point. He had essentially been signed as Toshack’s long-term successor. The arrival of Kenny Dalglish on the eve of the 1977/78 season and the insistence of Fairclough not to be ignored altered the landscape, however. 

Johnson spent most of the season on the fringes. While Shankly had felt that Johnson would’ve been better served being at Anfield in the early 1970s, the striker would have arguably been better served being at Goodison rather than Anfield during much of his first two seasons in a Liverpool shirt, especially given that the blue side of Stanley Park relied so heavily upon the goals of Bob Latchford. Johnson would have been the ideal foil to Latchford in many ways.  

Towards the spring of 1978, the first inklings of an Anfield resurrection for Johnson began to germinate. Climbing from the bench at the Rheinstadion against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the first leg of the European Cup semi-final, Johnson scored a crucial away goal with only two minutes of the game remaining. 

Despite Rainer Bonhof scoring a minute later to give Die Fohlen at 2-1 lead to take into the second leg, Johnson’s away goal was a psychological blow to the reigning Bundesliga champions. Liverpool swept to a commanding 3-0 victory at Anfield a fortnight later, by which time Johnson had succumbed to an injury that ended his season, subsequently missing out on playing an active role in another European Cup final, this time at Wembley, against Club Brugge. 

Johnson’s goalscoring cameo at the Rheinstadion had won him a place in the starting line-up for the next two league games, the second of which was the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. He scored the only goal of the game, just as he had for Everton in the autumn of 1971, making him the first player to score for both Liverpool and Everton in the derby. Ironically, Everton had failed to win a derby since Johnson had scored that winner.

Just as he was picking up momentum, a knee injury struck. The summer of 1978 was spent considering his future at Liverpool, but those goals at the Rheinstadion and Goodison had given Paisley food for thought. Still on the outside looking in as the 1978/79 season started, as soon as he was called upon. Johnson picked up where he had left off, before his 1977/78 season came to a premature end.

When Tottenham arrived at Anfield at the beginning of September, Johnson was named as a substitute. He entered the fray unexpectedly early when Emlyn Hughes was injured, going on to score twice in the late-summer sunshine on the iconic day that Liverpool ran out 7-0 winners against the newly-promoted London outfit, one which contained the Argentine World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, along with the burgeoning talent of Glenn Hoddle and the precocious Peter Taylor. 

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At a point in time when Fairclough had declared he’d rather play a full match for the reserves than still idle as an unused substitute for the first team, fortune favoured Johnson that day – and he took full advantage of the situation. 

It would still take a further month and an early exit from the European Cup at the hands of a new foe in the shape of Nottingham Forest, however, before Johnson was presented with the chance to stake a claim alongside Dalglish in the Liverpool forward line. When that chance did come, at Carrow Road against Norwich City in early-October, Johnson took it with both hands, scoring Liverpool’s third goal in a commanding 4-1 victory.

From that point on, Johnson hit the richest vein of his career, scoring 58 goals in three seasons and linking telepathically with Dalglish in a manner that widely went forgotten outside the confines of Anfield after the emergence of Ian Rush. 

Between October 1978 and May 1981, Johnson was one of the most prolific strikers in Europe. As Hughes and Heighway drifted from Paisley’s line-up during the 1978/79 season, Johnson became the final component of an 11 which still trips off the tongue of Liverpool fans of a certain vintage: Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, Phil Thompson, Ray Kennedy, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, Jimmy Case, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness and Johnson.

The 1978/79 version of Liverpool is regarded by many of the club’s followers to be the greatest of the lot  -and Johnson was an integral part of it. In a 42-game league campaign they lost a mere four times, conceding just 16 goals and scoring 85. Unbeaten at Anfield, they dropped a point on home soil on only two occasions, conceding in view of the Kop just four times. With 68 points collected – in a season which was within the two points for a win era – under the current system, it would have equated to 98 points. 

Johnson had his most productive return of goals the following season and he would even make a return to the England side, included by Ron Greenwood in his squad for the 1980 European Championship, starting their opening game against Belgium in Turin, England’s first in the finals of a major competition for a decade. In the build-up to the tournament, he scored twice at Wembley against a Diego Maradona-powered Argentina. 

A versatile striker, Johnson could be both bludgeoning and deft. Intelligent in his link-up play and dangerous with his back to goal, there were several skills that Johnson possessed that were adopted by his successor in the Liverpool number 9 shirt, a certain Ian Rush.

Another title was won in 1980, with Johnson on the scoresheet as Liverpool clinched the prize at home to Aston Villa in style. The goals continued to flow in 1980/81, but Johnson was one of a collection of players who suffered from injuries that season. When he missed the 1981 League Cup final replay, his replacement was Rush, and the clock had unwittingly begun to tick on Johnson’s time at Anfield. 

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There were still peaks to climb, however, and in Paris in May 1981, Johnson finally took to the pitch in a European Cup final. It is Johnson you can see, centre to goal, as Alan Kennedy charged into the Real Madrid penalty area at an angle. Arms spread, he was urging for a square ball and the chance to win the game for Liverpool, but Kennedy planted it, rather unexpectedly, past Agustín Rodríguez. 

Stunned for a split-second, Johnson was the first player in red to Kennedy, who had run off to celebrate in front of the massed ranks of Liverpool supporters at the Parc des Princes. He wrapped his arms around Kennedy and lifted his teammate to the delirious crowd. 

Paris marked the beginning of the end for several of those names who had formed the iconic 1978/79 title-winning team. Clemence departed that summer for Spurs, Case left for Brighton, and, before the year was out, Ray Kennedy had been sold to Swansea. Within a year of Kennedy’s exit, both Johnson and McDermott had also gone, amidst sweeping changes made by Paisley designed to re-energise a side that had laboured in the league for almost 18 months by their gargantuan standards. 

Johnson began the 1981/82 season still in possession of the Liverpool number 9 shirt, but in October 1981, Rush finally started to live up to the goalscoring potential he was suspected of possessing. A loss at home to Manchester United, when Johnson had returned in place of the Welshman – Paisley having opted for Johnson’s experience ahead of Rush’s exuberance – proved to be the tipping point and Rush was now the man in possession.

Johnson would return to the outside looking in once again, making cameo appearances from the bench. He would score his last goal in a Liverpool shirt in January 1982, in the League Cup away at Barnsley. 

Before departing Anfield, from where he would return to Everton once more, Johnson did enough to warrant one last league winners medal at the end of the 1981/82 campaign, as a new Liverpool side lifted themselves from 12th on Boxing Day to claim the title in May. He also climbed from the bench at Wembley a couple of months earlier to help Liverpool retain the League Cup against Spurs.

Beyond Anfield, Johnson returned to Everton as Howard Kendall aimed to harness his experience and guide his band of talented youngsters. He only managed to show fleeting glimpses of the predatory striker of old. and he was on the receiving end of his former teammates when Liverpool went to Goodison and won 5-0. 

Within a year of that game. Johnson had departed Goodison once more, nomadically taking in games for Barnsley, Manchester City, Tulsa Roughnecks, Preston and Barrow, where he was the player-manager for a short time. The last ball Johnson kicked in anger was swung for the Naxxar Lions in Malta. 

Within the blizzard of goals that Rush scored for Liverpool, Johnson’s achievements for his boyhood club criminally melted from the consciousness of many football fans. His input into what is arguably the greatest Liverpool team of the lot should. however. never be forgotten.  

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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