Ben Johnson: The race for regular first-team football is now on
Ben Johnson has set his sights on following his fellow Academy of Football graduates Declan Rice and Grady Diangana into Manuel Pellegrini’s first-team squad on a regular basis.
The full-back, who made his full West Ham United debut for Pellegrini at Manchester City in February, signed a new long-term contract this week.
And, having put pen to paper on a deal that will keep him in Claret and Blue until 2022, Johnson has set himself a target of emulating the likes of Rice and Diangana, both 20, who have combined to make 50 first-team appearances this season.
Now I’ve got a taste of it, I just want to keep playing more and more
“It really is helpful and healthy [to have their examples to follow], because we’ve got some really good players here,” said Johnson, 19. “We have some really good individual talent and that helps me to push myself on more. They are pushing on and, we have all got the same dream, which makes it perfect for us to go and perform.”
“I remember going over to train [with the first-team squad] when I was a first-year scholar and thinking ‘Wow’. The likes of Mark Noble, James Collins, Dimitri Payet and Manu Lanzini were there and you are thinking ‘this is a bit mad and nerve-racking’.
“But you realise they are just humans – footballers, but normal people, and they have warmed to me, so I’m just really enjoying being involved.
“At the start of the season it was quite hard for me, just getting into my form, but seeing Conor [Coventry], Powelly (Joe Powell) and Grady play against Macclesfield in the Carabao Cup, it showed it’s possible for us young boys if we work hard. I’m grateful I got my opportunity to show what I can do, and hopefully many more underneath me can too.”
“When you first start training with the team it is nerve-racking, because they are obviously top players, some of the them the best in the world, but once you get used to it and integrate yourself, it’s fine. Just being myself was key. I like to do my talking on the pitch.”
Johnson certainly did that when he made his debut against Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions at the Etihad Stadium, holding his own against £60 million winger Riyad Mahrez and earning praise from his manager, teammates and supporters.
The teenager knows he will have to be patient and work relentlessly towards his goal of regular top-flight football, but it is a goal he believes is within his capabilities.
“Now I’ve got a taste of it, I just want to keep playing more and more,” he confirmed. “But most of all, being focused, working hard and just being patient for my opportunity. There is a fully fit squad now, so I’m just working and looking ahead to hopefully having a really good pre-season.
“Next season, maybe I can get a few games in the Carabao Cup, and see what happens. I have a lot of chats with my mentor, [Academy sports scientist and former New York Red Bulls coach] James Gritt, about the fact that this now is the start line – I’ve really got to start the race now and push on.”