Ben Johnson: 'It's something all the Under-21 players want to emulate'
By his own admission, Ben Johnson’s England MU21s call-up earlier this year came out of the blue.
But with so many of the Young Lions progressing on to the senior ranks in recent times, the West Ham United defender is hoping he too can one day make the step up to Gareth Southgate’s squad.
Johnson has been with the Hammers since the age of seven, initially as a winger before being converted into a full-back in the youth team.
Comfortable with both feet and with a maturity which belies his years, Johnson’s impressive versatility has already seen him feature in a host of positions for the Hammers: central defence, full-back, wing-back and wide midfield, and on both sides of the pitch.
But when it came to international honours, the Londoner thought age group football for England had passed him by, having turned 22 in January, before an U21 call-up came in March.
Johnson said: “To be honest, being 22 and never having a call-up, my mind was always just on focusing on club level. I hadn’t really thought about it because whether I was going to get a call-up or not was never on my radar.
“So the call-up came as a little bit of a surprise and was something different for me as I had just been focusing on club football from the U16s until now.
“It’s been fantastic to represent England and I’m still eligible to play for the U21s for another year so if I get further call-ups then I will be here, I’ll be ready to play and hopefully I’ll make the squad for the EUROs and we can see what we can do there.”
Johnson’s maiden England MU21 appearance came against Albania in March and he has started all three games since, including the reverse fixture against Albania on Tuesday night which saw the Young Lions book their place at next summer’s UEFA U21 EURO Finals.
And speaking earlier this year, before qualification had been secured, Johnson said: “Joining the England squad has been a brilliant experience. It’s obviously something different to being at my club day-to-day and having international camps away from West Ham, so it’s been great to have the chance to meet new people, play with different players from top clubs and playing under a different style.
“It’s been a really good experience and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
While Johnson is most comfortable with his right foot and therefore has played on that side of the pitch the most, he’s spent a considerable amount of time at left-back for the Hammers and all three of his outings for MU21s have come in that position.
The defender, who has former England internationals Ledley King and Paul Parker among his relatives, was speaking after Crystal Palace full-back Tyrick Mitchell and Southampton's Kyle Walker-Peters had been called up to the England senior team squad, with Leicester City’s James Justin following suit in this camp.
It continues Southgate’s impressive record of selecting young players and promoting those who have been involved with the England MU21 set-up, with Conor Gallagher, Marc Guehi and Emile Smith Rowe others to make the step up since last summer’s EUROs.
Highlights: England MU21s 3-0 Albania
See the best of the action from Chesterfield as the Young Lions seal U21 EURO qualificatiion
And Johnson said: “Everyone knows the saying that it is not about how old you are, it is about whether you are good enough or not, so if you’re at the right level for your club and excelling in the Premier League or the Championship, then the senior team may come knocking and that is the nature of football.
“Being around the Under-21s, everyone has enough individually to push on in the next couple of years but you have to deliver on the pitch, you have to do it with the Under-21s and give off a good impression in every training session here at St. George’s Park and when training with your clubs, before then showcasing that hard work in the match days.
“It is then a case of playing well for a number of weeks and months and then you never know, you may earn a senior call-up.
“We have seen with the likes of Tyrick Mitchell and Kyle Walker-Peters, they were playing extremely well and fully deserved their call-ups, so it is not impossible to earn a senior call-up and it is definitely something that all the boys here with the Under-21s would want to emulate.”
Next up for England MU21s is an away qualifier in Kosovo before they play against Slovenia in front of a home crowd in Huddersfield on Monday.
The final EURO qualification match kicks off at 7.45pm and tickets are still available for as little as £15 for adults and £5 for concessions.
See MU21s in Huddersfield