Ben Johnson sits proudly in his England tracksuit, addresses every journalist by their first name, and answers honestly and earnestly.
Less than a week ago, the 22-year-old full-back played the full 120 minutes as West Ham United reached a European quarter-final for the first time since 1981. The Hammers are flying under David Moyes, who has a limited squad in terms of numbers but a group of fighters who will do anything for each other. A group Johnson calls “tight-knit”.
Their opponents in the last 16 were Sevilla, who have such an unbelievably impressive record in the Europa League that many feel European football’s secondary competition belongs to the Seville-based club in all but name. They have lifted the Europa League in six of the last 16 seasons and make the latter stages almost every year.
But Moyes’s side — trailing 1–0 after the first leg — overturned that deficit and then won the tie in extra-time thanks to an incredibly emotional second goal in a week from Andriy Yarmolenko. The Ukrainian has over 100 caps for his nation — which is still under intense invasion from Vladimir Putin’s Russian army.Embed from Getty Images
Yarmolenko earned the headlines, and rightly so. For Ben Johnson, it was another very reassured performance at left-back. Now he sits in his chair facing the media, wearing not the maroon of his club but the red and blue of his country. Johnson is an England youth international for the first time in his career, having been called up for the March internationals by U21 manager Lee Carsley. As the two-footed full-back takes it all in, his first thought is the support his West Ham teammates have given him.
“For a couple of seasons now, the whole team at West Ham have encouraged me so much”, Johnson tells EnglandFootball.org. “They’ve looked favourably upon me. They’ve always pushed me to be better each and every day, when I’m in the team, when I’m out the team. It’s really helped my development to have those boys around.
“The last few years or so we’ve been extremely tight-knit. The lads were so happy for me. They said it’s an honour and to go and enjoy it. All the boys are so happy for me. I’ll definitely be keeping in touch with them during this week to let them know how it’s going. And they’ll definitely be interested when I get back to West Ham.”Embed from Getty Images
Johnson is one of the youngest regulars in a West Ham team currently seventh in the Premier League and punching well above its weight in Europe. Stars like Yarmolenko and Łukasz Fabiański who have been there and done it are few and far between. Rather, West Ham is a unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ryan Fredericks, Issa Diop, Pablo Fornals and Michail Antonio are not world stars. These are hardworking players maximising their talents to ensure a club with a handful of legendary eras threatens to add another.
Johnson played one Premier League match in 2018/19, then three the following year, and 14 last season. As league football makes way for the March international break, he has already made 16 Premier League appearances this term. His rise has been captivating. And Johnson has a rather unique family situation that means he is well placed to deal with the pressure that comes with being a young English player rising in stature season on season.
“Ledley and Paul are both second cousins of mine,” he chuckles, almost bashfully. He is referring to Ledley King and Paul Parker, former England defenders with 40 England caps between them. King appeared at Euro 2004 in Portugal and the South Africa World Cup in 2010, while fellow centre-back Parker lined up at right-back in six of England’s seven games including the semi-final at Italia 90.
“We’ve been in contact with each other for a number of years now. It’s helped me so much, it’s encouraged me. Both of them have given me advice. Not too much of course, to not put too much pressure on me. But they’ve both been great for my development so far.”Embed from Getty Images
He seems desperate to replicate the level of career King and Parker enjoyed, saying: “Both of them have played at major tournaments. They’ve both played for the top clubs in the Premier League. Both won silverware. It’s definitely a great inspiration for me, being able to pick up the phone whenever they text. Or if I want to phone, they’re open to giving me advice.
“Anything they can give me about the England setup and what it takes is a massive help. I’ve had great encouragement from them so far, and I know that will continue. It’s just a great feeling for me.”
Let alone the famed names who take their place on the flanks for the England seniors, even the U21s are spoiled for choice at full-back. He is joined in the squad this month by established Premier League trio Luke Thomas, Tino Livramento and Tariq Lamptey, as well as Derby’s Lee Buchanan and the swashbuckling Nottingham Forest player pursued by Bayern Munich, Djed Spence.
But Johnson should and will fancy his chances of building a successful international career for himself. In King and Parker, he has two very famous mentors on the end of the phone. And he has a Europa League quarter-final to look forward to. First though, his attention will be on Friday, when against Andorra at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium he could become an England international for the first time.