KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Jemal Johnson's soccer career has had its ups and downs, but the English-American said he has enjoyed every minute of it.
After spending the majority of his career in England, he is now looking to make an impact with the famed New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League in his return to the United States.
Although the New Jersey-born man left the United States for England with his family at a very young age, he said he has adjusted to life quite well in his return since first signing with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL's spring season in 2013.
"It's been fantastic, so far," he told Yanks Abroad. "Obviously, my first season at Fort Lauderdale wasn't the greatest of successes because we finished in last place. But, the experience has been second-to-none. I've enjoyed myself, got to meet a lot of new people and I take every day as it comes."
Johnson added that he has been impressed with the improvement of soccer in the United States, which he is very happy to be a part of.
The winger's introduction to professional soccer came when he joined Manchester United before making the move over to Blackburn Rovers at 16 years old. As with any other professional who has come to play Stateside, Johnson has seen the stark differences between his life in England to what he experiences now in the U.S.
"Soccer is a huge sport over there. You can compare it to the likes of basketball and baseball over here. I'd say the only real difference is the fact that you can walk down the street and you're not really being noticed by anyone," he said.
"If you tell someone that you play soccer, they generally seem to think that you play college soccer, they don't even know that there is professional soccer," added Johnson. "But, that's changing a lot now as we go on and the more people are getting know about it and everything like that."
The 29-year-old said compared with the fast-paced lifestyle in England, it is more easygoing in the United States, adding that he loves his life in New York City.
Despite being happy in his current environment he does admit there has been some difficulty adjusting. However, he becoming increasingly comfortable as he has a support system in the U.S.
"I've got all my friends and family, I got my little girl back in England. But at the same time, I've got my family over here in New Jersey where I've been able to get better acquainted with. My mom lives in Florida, so it's been nice," he said.
After playing a handful of games with Blackburn - with two loans in that time - Johnson would make the move to Wolverhamption Wanderers in August 2006. Despite scoring two game-winning goals for the team, he was not used regularly and was once again sent out on loan - this time to Leeds United, where he would again find it difficult to crack the starting lineup.
However, with the season about to start in 2007, Johnson would receive a phone call from his agent about a coach who wanted to sign him.
That coach would be former England international Paul Ince who had just been unveiled as the new coach of Milton Keynes Dons.
"It was transfer deadline day and I had spent all preseason at Wolves," Johnson explained. "I made a trip back up to Manchester and I got a phone call from my agent say that Paul Ince wanted to speak with me, which was kind of a surprise to me because I thought to myself I would be sitting in the stands for the season because Mick McCarthy, who was manager at the time at Wolverhampton Wanderers told me I actually was going to be transfer listed."
"Then I got the phone call from Paul Ince and he said would I like to come in and talk to him about moving to Milton Keynes. So, it was kind of last minute." he continued. "I had a few other clubs interested in me overseas, but I chose to go and speak with him because obviously he was a great player in the game and he was a new manager."
"And it was new opportunity for me because obviously with him being the manager there you're going to get a lot of spotlight. So I jumped at it, gave it a shot and we had quite a successful time at MK Dons winning in that first season I was there."
It was at MK Dons where Johnson found the most success in his career as the team finished in top position in League Two as well as win the League Trophy with a 2-0 win over Grimsby Town.
As for his relationship with Ince, Johnson only has good things to say about his former coach.
"I think he was a very good manager. He's got a very good way of getting his point across to you. He's a very respected man. I feel as though every player listened to him and his man management skills were fantastic," he said.
Johnson added that Ince was also a good friend to him as he was quite "troublesome" young man at that time.
After the success in his first season and signing a new two-year contract later one with the Stadium MK team, Johnson found himself once again out of the coach's plans, leading to loan moves to Stockport County and Port Vale.
After terminating his contract with MK Dons, Johnson made the move to Eastern Europe, singing with Bulgarian league side Lokomotiv Sofia in January 2011.
While it is rare for players to make the move from the West to the East, Johnson did have his reason behind heading to Bulgaria.
"At the time I felt as though it would have been a good experience for me, but sometimes you make these decisions on the basis of it could be money, it could be just because you want to get away from England or you want to get away from the place you live in," he said. "And I feel as though at the time I did probably make the wrong decision to go to Bulgaria. That maybe something, I never like saying it, I may regret to have done."
As for the level of soccer in Bulgaria's top division - the A Football Group - Johnson said it was not the best despite it having some good players that could probably play for any team in the world.
In addition to the level of soccer, Johnson revealed some rather negative aspects of playing in the country.
"You had teams that didn't have any funding or players that weren't getting paid, that was a big problem," he said. "There was a lot of scandal going on at the time I was there. It does affect your game. It affects your family if you've got people you need to support. That's like the dark side of Bulgarian football that people sort of don't hear about."
Johnson mentioned on some occasions seeing teammates of his coming into training in tears with their children saying they cannot feed them as the team was unable to pay them.
After his stint in Bulgaria, Johnson played for a few teams back in England before making his return to the United States with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2013.
Now with the Cosmos, Johnson said it was a great experience playing for a team that has such a storied history with former players such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
"It's fantastic. It's a great experience for me," he said. "Having met Pele myself personally, it was fantastic. I would have never thought that years on from watching videos of Pele scoring goals before my Sunday league games, it's crazy to have got pictures with these people now. It's such a great experience. It's something I'll be able to tell my little girl when she gets older."
As for Johnson's future - either remaining with the Cosmos or possibly moving to a team in Major League Soccer - he said he was perfectly fine where he is now.
"I've come to New York determined to make an impression on my coach, Gio [Giovanni Savarese] and the team," he said. "I feel as though with time, patience and the right opportunities and being able to take them, I'll be able to do them. So, I'm more than happy where I am right now."
"With the future, no one knows got a crystal ball. It's just being happy and being thankful and grateful for the opportunity for playing for such a great club such as the Cosmos."