I spoke to Paul Johnson, the former Great Britain forward, for League Express midway through the 2010 season. After leaving the Wildcats, he now plays for the Crusaders.
Name: Paul Johnson
Position: Second row
Previous Clubs: Wigan Warriors, Bradford Bulls, Warrington Wolves
Representative: Great Britain (13 caps), Lancashire (4 games)
First professional game: 1995
Honours: Super League winner (1998, 2005), Challenge Cup winner (2002, 2009), World Club Challenge winner (2004, 2006)
AND then there were five!
Five players, that is, who have played in every one of the 15 Super League seasons so far. They are Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Paul Johnson, St Helens’s Keiron Cunningham, Leeds Rhinos’ Keith Senior, Hull FC’s Sean Long and the unattached Terry Newton.
And the smart money would surely be on Johnson to be the one who extends that record the furthest. Newton’s two-year ban for testing positive for Human Growth Hormone rules him out of the equation and Cunningham is due to retire at the end of the season. Johnson, at 31, is more than two years younger than both Long and Senior and, encouragingly, he claims that his fitness and enthusiasm levels are as lofty as ever.
“I still love the game and you just have to keep playing while you enjoy it,” he says. “Once it becomes about money you’re on a hiding to nothing.
“I’m happy at Wakefield and I’ve got another year. The travelling took a bit of getting used to though but I feel good. Last year I was finding it a bit tough because I had a knee reconstruction the year before. It was doing my head in when I was running, but there’s no pain now and I feel better than I have done for a few years.”
Despite the trophies and the international caps in a long and successful career, however, the Paul Johnson story hasn’t always been plain sailing. In 2003, his brother, Craig, was killed in a road accident – an incident which has clearly shaped his career.
Johnson is in his first season at the Wildcats and has his sights firmly set on another play-off campaign, with Saturday’s impressive 29-6 home win over Hull helping no end. But he accepts his international career is all but over.
“We’ve been struggling due to the fact we let Danny Brough go and we also lost Shane Tronc,” he laments, “but we’re in the hunt for the top-eight place. Just because the club finished fifth last year, people expect it again. We’re not consistent enough but we can still make the top eight.
“As for England, I would have liked to have played last year but I think I have no chance now. No disrespect to Wakefield, but you need to be playing for one of the bigger clubs. I think I’m probably too old now.”
As well as winning trophies with Wigan, Bradford and Warrington, Johnson also played 13 times for Great Britain between 2001 and 2005 – a relatively successful time for the national side that saw him end up on the winning side on a credible six occasions.
“I’m proud of what I did internationally – I played on the wing and in the forwards – not many people can say that!,” he says. “Scoring a hat-trick at Loftus Road against the Kiwis in 2005 is the personal highlight – one of the press guys told me afterwards that I was the first forward to do that.
“Mike Gregory congratulated me after that. He thought Wigan had made a mistake in letting me go.”
Johnson’s Wigan career started with a substitute appearance as a 16-year-old against Workington Town in the autumn of 1995 under the coaching of Graeme West. Wigan racked up a 44-20 win over the Cumbrians.
“I remember my debut – it was against Workington. I played three games in the week – the Academy, then the ‘A’ Team game then I got on the bench against Workington and played four or five games that season for the first team.
“Graeme was really good – not just for me because he gave me my dbut – but for the whole club. He was a good bloke and a very good coach, but we also had some good players back then. The training sessions just ran themselves.”
Wigan won the 1995/6 league title – their sixth in succession – but missed out in the first two Super League seasons before winning the inaugural Grand Final against Leeds in 1998.
“It was a difficult spell when were weren’t doing so well because people were just used to winning and it was hard to accept when we weren’t winning,” Johnson reflects.
“The first Grand Final was really memorable but so was the last game at Central Park [against St Helens in 1999] and it was a fantastic honour to score Wigan’s last try on the ground. It was a really hot day and the crowd were brilliant.”
Three of Johnson’s last four seasons at Wigan were trophyless – the exception being 2002 when they won the Challenge Cup against St Helens at Murrayfield. But his Wigan career ended in 2003 when he was released by the club with another year still on his contract.
Johnson’s world collapsed in the February of that year when he received a Sunday morning telephone call, on the day of a Challenge Cup game, from his distraught father informing him his younger brother, Craig, a Wigan reserve-team player, had been killed in a car crash alongside Billy Joe Edwards, the younger brother of former Wigan and Great Britain scrum-half, Shaun.
“I was lying in bed and the phone rang. It was my dad. He said I needed to get round to the house and I could tell something was wrong so I got him to just tell me there and then what had happened and he said Craig had been killed in a car crash. I just slammed the phone down in shock. I got in the car and raced round to the house. I was worried that I’d drive past the accident but I didn’t, although that made me think my dad had made a mistake and there’d been no accident.
“They were both drunk – drink driving. They hit a kerb and ended up hitting a wall. There were fibres from both of them to suggest they’d both been driving that night, but we’ll never know who was driving at the time. Shaun’s a good bloke but we didn’t really get on afterwards with a couple of run-ins in court with them trying to prove who was behind the wheel, but it came back inconclusive. I thought he’d have let go rather than trying to push blame on someone.
“Wigan even wanted me to play on the day it happened. Maurice Lindsay told me the best thing I could do was play the game and take my mind off it. I told him he was taking the piss and put the phone down.
“My form dipped and I fell out of love with the game and when that happened and rugby was the furthest thing from my mind. They told me I could go even though I had another year on my contract.
“I’d signed a three-year deal and had another year and a half on it when they told me they were releasing me. Before they got rid of me, Brian Noble phoned and offered me a chance at Bradford, which was a fantastic opportunity because they were the dominant side at the time.
“Moving to Bradford was a great move for me. I went from losing a Grand Final to winning a World Club Challenge in my first match for the Bulls.”
The highlight of Johnson’s time at Odsal was the 2005 Grand Final win after they were performing so poorly mid-season.
“We were way off the pace but we put it together at the right time,” he remembers. “I enjoyed those two or three years at Bradford the most. We were always great mates and went for a drink together. There were no cliques.
“I think a lot of Brian Noble and always chat to him. Every time my contract’s up he seems to want to sign me! He’s a great man-manager.”
Johnson’s next port of call was Warrington, whom he signed for in 2007, signing at the same time as Adrian Morley.
“Every team I’ve played for I’ve won something so maybe that’s a good omen for Wakefield!” he laughs. “All the lads at Warrington used to ask what it was like winning the Cup at Wigan but when we won the Cup last year it was massive, mainly because it was at Wembley and because Warrington hadn’t won anything for such a long time. The town went crazy.
“I’d have liked to have stayed at Warrington but I had a good chat with [coach] Tony Smith and he wanted to go with younger players. It was a financial thing and they wanted to cut the wage bill.
“There were a few clubs interested but one of the reasons I went to Wakefield was Terry Newton, but now he’s banned! And there was Sean Gleeson who I travel over with as well. He was only seven when I first played for Wigan and that makes me feel old!
“But there’s a good couple of years left in me yet.”