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Published 23 December 2021 7 min read
West Bromwich Albion

Grassroots decision proved life-changing

Written by:

Sam Johnstone

Sam Johnstone reveals how a decision at the age of eight at his grassroots club Euxton Villa changed his life forever

My earliest memory of playing football was when I was young and I had a Peter Schmeichel shirt, even though I wasn’t a goalie at the time, which is weird when you look at how my life panned out.

I would play in the garden and around the house but football was not a massive thing for me until I was about eight years old and one of my schoolfriends Liam was playing Sunday League locally and I went down with him one weekend. It was a local club near me called Euxton Villa, so we went there to train and initially I was an outfield player.

My dad was a professional goalkeeper but he never pushed me into being a goalie. When I was younger I was one of the tallest so I was a centre half but we never had a goalie so when it was my turn, I went in and I enjoyed it so I stayed in goal. That was the start of it all.

Because my old man played a bit, he said ‘you can obviously do what you want but if you want to be a goalkeeper then I can help you and we will have fun and see where it goes’.

It is mental when you think your whole life has been shaped by that one decision of staying in goal and the team not having a goalie and me staying in. Obviously there has been a lot of hard work and sacrifice which has gone in since to make it but it is a crazy situation that that one little thing has led to the privileged position I find myself in now.

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I have two brothers but my eldest brother, Ryan, was more into rugby and is the brains of the brothers. My little brother, Max, is in-between the both of us. He came into football quite late and ended up at United for a couple of years, went to Sunderland and then up to Scotland but he has dropped out of the game now. Being a professional footballer is such a good thing but I feel like everyone in my family has had to sacrifice a lot for me to be where I am today.

I was one of those kids growing up where every weekend I just wanted to play football, so my dad would take me and my brothers over to Worden Park in Leyland and we would all play or sometimes me and my dad would go on our own and do practice and do extra work.

My dad helped me a lot when I played for Euxton Villa as well, doing my warm-ups for training and the games, so growing up he was a massive help to me and so were a lot of others, like my Mum who would be looking after my brothers so my dad could take me. I don’t think people realise how big an operation it is to get a young lad to progress at a professional club. Everyone talks about the hard work from the player but everyone in their family helps contribute.

Sam Johnstone and Jesse Lingard have gone from playing as ten-year-olds together to representing England alongside one another
Sam Johnstone and Jesse Lingard have gone from playing as ten-year-olds together to representing England alongside one another

I started up at Euxton Villa at eight and went to Manchester United at ten-and-a-half. It’s funny because Jesse Lingard was already there and now we are in England camps together, so I have known Jesse since I was ten years old. You would train twice midweek, going from Preston to Manchester and back. You would then train on a Saturday and play on the Sunday. Sometimes it would be at The Cliff, the old training ground of United, and they had another training ground called Littleton Road. Then as you got older, you would go to Carrington and stay there into the senior team. 

So four times a week you were up and down the motorways to training and matches. With you leaving at teatime, the traffic was horrendous so it would take an hour and 15 minutes to get there to train and then not getting back until 9pm or 10pm at night, then up to school the next day. But as a kid you are at Manchester United so you are just buzzing and it was not a problem for me. It was more of a problem for my family. 

Your parents must finish work early so they can take you because they can’t be late because if they are late, they make you late and that impacts your development at United. As a 10, 11, 12, 13 or 14 year old, you take it for granted. You work hard but it is not until you look back and speak about it like we are now that you realise just what everyone went through to help you achieve your dreams.

13 Nov 2021 10:04

The Goalkeepers | Inside Training

Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale and Sam Johnstone take part in an intense training session with goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson

When I was 15, United started a scheme where around 11 of us went into digs. We went to Ashton on Mersey School in Manchester and we left school every day to train because they said to be a top athlete, we had to put the hours in. So training twice a week for two hours at night and then twice on a weekend for a couple of hours was not going to be enough. If you look at it now, the extra hours I was putting in with my old man on the side each week would definitely have helped me in those earlier years.

When we moved into digs, you were living with other lads which was fun and you would go home for the weekends so the tough thing for lads our age was moving schools and for me, leaving Wellfield School in Leyland. They are your last two years, your GCSE years, and you have your groups of friends. It was tough for all of us but we stuck together, did the two years and then went on to do a full-time scholarship.

Me and Zeki Fryers (now at Stockport County) went into digs with a young family to start with and it didn’t quite work out because they were new to it and had young kids so it didn’t quite work out. Then we moved in with a women called Lynne, who lived on her own and she was really good with us. She was strict until we turned 18 and at the time you were like ‘come on, let your hair down a bit’ but the club and our parents appreciated that we were in safe hands. 

I’m still in touch with her now. She comes and visits the kids and my missus and stuff like that. I lived with her from 15 until I was about 21 and she was really good to us. She helped us grow up during some important years. She was strong, she was honest with us and if you did something wrong, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell you. 

Former FA coach Rich Hartis played a huge role in Sam Johnstone's development
Former FA coach Rich Hartis played a huge role in Sam Johnstone's development

There were a lot of people who were really influential on me. Obviously I’ve mentioned my Mum, Dad, brothers and Lynne and then there was Rich Hartis, my first coach at United who is now back there with the first team. He had me from when I was ten until I was about 16. He went into a lot of detail and drilled a lot of good habits into me at that important age that I still have now, which get adapted along the way. He was a massive part of my development and I still remember the things he would say when I was younger and he was right. 

I was always the biggest but I was a bit uncoordinated and was trying to find my own body but he would always stress that it would all come together and I would find my feet. He was on it for standards, not just on the pitch but off it, and he was honest with me. He was a big influence on me.

When I got to the first team, Eric Steele was then massive for me. He helped me go from being a boy to a man. Behind the scenes he would push for me to train with the first team more before I got into the squad and he didn’t hesitate to throw me in to training with the first team goalies and stuff like that.

I had a lot of loans and you work closely with a lot of goalkeeper coaches and managers. I think the big one for me was Steve Bruce and Aston Villa’s goalkeeper coach Gary Walsh. Aston Villa were struggling at the time and they easily could have gone and got an older goalie but they gave me the chance at 23 and believed in me. They are a big club and playing regularly in the Championship at that time of my career helped me massively. 

Sam Johnstone first joined Manchester United as a ten year old and worked his way into the first team
Sam Johnstone first joined Manchester United as a ten year old and worked his way into the first team

Now I am an England international and to think it all started with that decision to go in goal when we had no goalie or the decision to join a mate down at a local club. It’s mad isn’t it? I think a lot of footballers have stories like that.

I didn’t play grassroots football for long and it was obviously a long time ago but it is something which set me up for having the career I am having and being able to make a career from the game and be in the privileged position that I find myself in.

Because I am from the area, I still go back and I was at a party recently and there was a guy who works for Euxton Villa. He wasn’t there when I was there but they know you were at the club and when I played for England earlier this year they messaged. It is probably different people to when I was there but they are still proud of you and they have a shirt of mine up in the clubhouse. It was a great time in my life and I loved my time there.