A small gesture can leave the biggest impact. Sam Johnstone still remembers the day, as a young trainee at Manchester United, when the club’s number one keeper, Edwin Van Der Sar, walked over and slipped him the £20 needed to cover a club fine.
“He told me not to do it again, he was a really good guy who looked after everyone,” Johnstone recalls.
The West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper is preparing to face his old club at The Hawthorns on Sunday afternoon – live on Sky Sports. The training ground incident reflects the work ethic and standards which were drilled into him from a young age at United.
“We had to wear thumb supports so we didn’t break our thumbs. I’d forgotten to put mine on and got hit on the end of the thumb in training,” Johnstone explains. “I had to go with my tail between my legs to Eric Steele, the goalkeeper coach, and tell him my thumb was swollen. So that was a fine straight away.
“That was the type of place I grew up at. It wasn’t all about football, it was about growing up and being respectful. We’d shake all the coaches’ hands, schoolwork was important, behaving in digs was important. It all came before football. If you’ve not got discipline then don’t come into training until you’ve got that right. It was a great place to grow up in, I wouldn’t say strict, but you had to be respectful and disciplined.”
Johnstone joined United’s academy in 2003, at the age of 10. An early mentor was the club’s current goalkeeper coach, Rich Hartis, who worked with Johnstone for the first seven years of the young goalkeeper’s time with the club.
“He’s a friend as well as a former coach,” Johnstone says. “He was a key part to my development. At that age, growing up at a club like United, he drilled in all the basic stuff and was on at me about what I had to do away from the training ground. It’s crazy really because at that age he always said he could see something there. He got close with my Dad and said, ‘He’s got the size, he’s still going to grow, we just need to get all the basics like footwork, handling and timing drilled into him.’
“So Rich was massive for me and when he left I was quite upset, to be fair. When we went to play them at Old Trafford this season, we stood in the tunnel for about an hour after the game just talking. He knew what I had done in the games I’d played, what I needed to improve on and he still keeps an eye on what I’m doing which is nice.”
As a youngster Johnstone would spend countless evenings and weekends working on his abilities with his father, Glenn, who had a brief career in the professional game with Preston North End in the early 1990s.
“I started off playing Sunday League at about eight years old,” Johnstone continues. “I was a defender and we never had a proper goalie. One day it was my turn to go in goal and I enjoyed it, so I just stayed in goal. I knew my Dad had played and he said to me, ‘If you’re going to stay in goal I’ll help you and let’s do it properly, not half-heartedly.’ And I loved it, we’d be out in the garden every night in the summer, down the park at a weekends, just practising. He was a massive help.
“People may not realise how important family are to players in helping them achieve what they need to in order to make it, whether that’s missing out on stuff as a kid or wanting to do extra. I still do extra away from the club now and I’m 27 years old.”
Johnstone took his first professional steps out on loan. He had productive spells away from Old Trafford – at Oldham Athletic, Scunthorpe United, Walsall, Yeovil Town, Doncaster Rovers and Preston North End – before joining former United skipper Steve Bruce at Aston Villa in 2017 for a seventh loan spell.
“I properly wanted to leave Manchester United before I went to Villa as I felt it was time to go, I’d had a few loans and been promoted at Preston. When Jose Mourinho came in he let me go to Villa which was great for me to get that next step. I knew as soon as I got to Villa that I wasn’t going back to United.”
When Johnstone moved to The Hawthorns on a permanent basis in July 2018, he took over the number one jersey from another former United keeper, Ben Foster. After a near miss in his first season, when Albion lost in the Championship play-off semi-final to Aston Villa, Johnstone achieved his ambition of making it to the Premier League the following season. It has been a difficult introduction to the top division for a squad lacking in experience at this level, but Johnstone says the mental resilience of his team-mates cannot be called into question.
“It’s tough to be losing every week and you have to pick yourselves up and get back on the training pitch on the Monday, Tuesday and all week to go again the week after, knowing it’s not going to be easy again. The manager has that drive in him with his staff and that comes down to the lads, we have to fight every game day and hopefully the luck will turn our way.”
With 93 saves, Johnstone is way out ahead in the Premier League saves chart this season, but the goals have been flying in against him with alarming regularity, too. So is being this busy good or bad for the confidence?
“I love making saves and I hate conceding goals,” he adds. “It’s been a mixed thing this year really, which was expected. We’re a newly-promoted club and we didn’t bring many people in during the summer with Premier League experience, which is fine. It’s totally different to last year when we were top of the Championship, when now and again you’d make a save and we’d dominate games. But it’s not affected my confidence, I love making saves especially against these top players.”
And with appearances for England at Under 16, 17, 19 and 20 level, there is one more step up Johnstone hopes to make in the near future.
“That’s a massive goal for me. You want to push those English keepers in the squad now and be in with them and show them what I can do. It would be massive for me and my family, fingers crossed it’s not too far away.”
Watch the full interview with Sam Johnstone on Soccer Saturday this weekend.