Boyhood Kopite David Johnson turned down Liverpool to join Everton as a youngster but eventually fulfilled his dream of wearing the famous red shirt and carved himself a unique place in Merseyside football folklore.
For every football supporter who grows up on Merseyside, the dream of scoring the winning goal against the old enemy in the derby is as natural as breathing itself.
Whether red or blue, the prospect of being the one who sends half the city into ecstasy while plunging the other half into despair becomes second nature as soon as they’re old enough to appreciate the age-old Stanley Park rivalry and what it means.
Curtis Jones in the most recent local lad to have written himself into folklore after his stunning FA Cup winner for Liverpool against Everton a little over two and a half years ago when he joined a small but proud list of Scousers who have made themselves the toast of their half of the city.
But there is only one man to have graduated from the city’s schoolyards and playing fields to have achieved the feat for both Merseyside clubs, a record made even sweeter by the length of time he had to wait to pull the red shirt he dreamed of wearing as a boy.
Growing up in Halewood, there was never doubt over where David Johnson’s initial allegiances would lie having been born into a Liverpool-mad family but, having impressed in youth football, the forward was left with a difficult decision at the age of 15 when Everton as well as the Reds wanted to sign him.
“All my family were Liverpudlians”, he recalled. “In fact, one of my brothers even named his first son Ian St John Johnson! When I was a kid, the whole house was bedecked in red and white and my brothers used to take me to the Kop. I’d watch Liverpool home and away as well as playing football myself so it came as a great shock to the family when I signed for Everton.
“After winning the English schools trophy with the Liverpool schoolboys side, I was lucky to have scouts from both Liverpool and Everton trying to sign me. At the time the Everton scout sold Goodison better than the Liverpool scout did Anfield so I signed for them.
I had watched Liverpool throughout the sixties and they fielded virtually the same side week in week out, whereas the Everton scout pointed out Everton had a good youth policy and did give the younger players a chance. So with Everton going through a transitional period, I felt I would have a better chance by going to Goodison.”
After serving his time in the reserves, the 19-year-old was handed a first-team debut January 1971 when Harry Catterick’s reigning champions travelled to take on Burnley at Turf Moor and showed immediately why the Blues were so keen to entice him to Goodison by scoring in a 2-2 draw.
The youngster marked his FA Cup debut the following month by scoring the only goal in a fifth round victory over Derby County and weeks later showed a similar liking for continental competition by notching on his European Cup debut as the Toffees drew 1-1 in the first leg of their quarter-final with Greek champions Panathinaikos. He only made a late appearance from the substitutes bench in the return leg a fortnight later in Athens as a goalless draw sent the hosts through to the last four on away goals and three days later Johnson was left out altogether and had to watch from the stands as Liverpool fought back from a goal down at half time to knock the Blues out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage, a devastating week seen as pivotal in the break-up of Everton’s great side of the late 60s and ultimately Catterick’s reign.
The Blues would win only once more before the end of the campaign, which concluded with defeat in the bizarre and short-lived FA Cup third-place play-off against fellow beaten semi-finalists Stoke City at Selhurst Park, and a poor start to the following season would give Johnson the chance to stake a stronger claim to nail down a place in the side. He followed up a winning goal against Manchester United in late August with another strike in a home victory against Arsenal and by the time the first Merseyside derby of the season came around in late November found himself in line for a first senior appearance against the team he supported as a boy, who ironically were moving quicker through the same kind of transition he was now experiencing at Goodison.
“Almost as soon as I went to Everton, the Liverpool team started to break up but when I look back I don’t regret the decision to go to Goodison”, Johnson said. “As soon as I became an Everton player I was very loyal and, of course, hated Liverpool with the same passion I had hated Everton as a Liverpool fan. Fans don’t understand that you can play for one of the clubs after supporting the other but, as a professional playing for the team, it’s your job and because a club employs you and pays your wages it has a right to expect and receive loyalty.”
The Blues’ poor start to the campaign had seen them hovering just above the relegation placings having only won four out of their first 16 league matches while Bill Shankly’s Reds had loftier aspirations having the week before beaten Double winners Arsenal at Anfield but Johnson showed where his loyalties now lay by putting in a hard-running performance and grabbing the only goal of a tightly-fought encounter nineteen minutes from time.
“Everyone needs a bit of luck and I was fortunate enough to score for Everton on my league debut, my European Cup debut and in my first derby,” he proudly remembered. “I remember the goal well. It was a cross from the right by Gary Jones which I headed down towards goal. Ray Clemence pushed it onto the post but I managed to volley in the rebound. The fact it was in front of the Gwladys Street End made it even better and instantly you become a hero on Merseyside. There was no question where my loyalty lay. I had already been at Everton for five years. I was fully integrated into the club and had already played against Liverpool at B team and reserves level.”
The Blues’ derby victory was a rare bright moment in a disappointing season which saw them finish 15th in the First Division, an indication of the decade of toil which lay ahead at Goodison, but Johnson’s creditable tally of 11 goals in all competitions for his full campaign marked him out as one to watch and started to draw envious glances across the division. By the following autumn, he was headed for pastures new but not – as he had hoped and as newspapers had speculated – across Stanley Park, with Everton unwilling to countenance a direct transfer to Liverpool and, although he would later accept it was the right move, he considered quitting football altogether before agreeing to join Ipswich Town in part-exchange for striker Rod Belfitt.
When I left Everton for Ipswich, it seemed to me like it was the worst time in my life”, he said. “I was Liverpool born-and-bred, and had never considered that I might leave Merseyside. There was even a moment when the thought went through my mind that I might pack football in – but that move made a lot of difference to my career.
It didn’t really hit me what leaving Merseyside meant until I’d put pen to paper but fortunately I settled down well and made a lot of friends at Ipswich. As it turned out, it was the best move I could have made because I reckon that became the turning point of my career. There were a lot of factors: I had been signed for a hefty fee, instead of a being a local boy made good ; things were built around me a bit and my own style of play improved ; and the team played well and we had some success. A lot of things rolled into one helped my game.”
Despite his initial reluctance to move to East Anglia, Johnson proved a perfect fit at Portman Road where Bobby Robson was laying the foundations of his thirteen-year reign in charge which would ultimately land him the England manager’s job. After winning the Texaco Cup – a short-lived trophy contested by English, Scottish and Irish clubs who had to qualified for Europe – against local rivals Norwich City in Johnson’s first season, the ‘Tractor Boys’ reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals the following year, knocking out Real Madrid and Lazio along the way, before being eliminated by Locomotive Leipzig on penalties.
Forming a productive partnership up front with Trevor Whymark, Johnson’s intelligent movement and finishing prowess won him a first senior England call-up where he scored twice on his debut against Wales in May 1975 after helping Ipswich to the FA Cup semi-finals and the following summer his dream finally came true when Liverpool came calling.
After following a trophy-less first season in charge having replaced Bill Shankly with a league and UEFA Cup double, Bob Paisley was looking for a long-term replacement for John Toshack and Johnson’s consistency and Liverpudlian credentials proved impossible to ignore. Tottenham Hotspur had made a bid to take him to White Hart Lane but once the 24-year-old knew the team he had supported as a boy from the Kop were interested, there was only ever going to be one destination for him.
“I had four great years under Bobby Robson and there was only one club that would have prised me away from Portman Road and that was Liverpool”, he admitted. “It came right out of the blue. Bobby called me in and said Liverpool had made an offer which they’d accepted and that I should go and have talks with them. So I immediately jumped on a train with no intention whatsoever of returning to Ipswich. They were the club I’d supported as a lad but I thought my chance had gone.
Bill Shankly was the manager when I started at Everton and he twice tried to buy me when I was at Goodison but Harry Catterick wouldn’t let me cross the park, it is one of the biggest disappointments of my career that I never got to play for Shanks.