Réda Johnson interview: Blue, white and between the stripes – Rhymes and revelations of a rampaging crowd-pleaser

The beaming expression has often swiftly followed a successful raid on an opponent’s penalty area during Réda Johnson’s decade in English football. He is the Marseille-born former Benin international who acquired a love affair for life with Sheffield, but the joyous smile could never quite tell it all for the defender with the finisher’s touch.

A battle for Championship safety, with games quickly running out on the 2012/13 season, the white-hot atmosphere of a South Yorkshire derby raises the stakes that bit further in a late-March clash between Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley at Hillsborough. Wednesday legends Chris Waddle and John Harkes are among the near-30,000 crowd, and it is the Owls who stride away from the visitors with 13 minutes to go, as Réda Johnson breaks free to launch himself at a lofted Miguel Llera free-kick and make it 2-0 in front of a rapturous Kop.

A late red card and Barnsley consolation didn’t stop the day belonging to Wednesday, and vital goals like that were every bit a hallmark of the resoundingly popular left-back’s time in S6. Wednesdayites gave him a song; Nigel & Marvin’s ‘Follow Da Leader’ receiving a Réda reworking that was as uncomplicated and effective as the 2011 signing they had quickly grown to love.

‘Follow the Réda’ later got an accompanying collaboration, with the Yaya/Kolo Touré song (2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ for a new generation) adopted by Owls fans in honour of Réda and winger Jermaine Johnson. The more senior (and more Jamaican) of the Johnson boys was the man most likely to set the sounds sizzling in the changing room back then, as Réda recalls.

“Jermaine Johnson, he was the DJ and he was good. He loves the Jamaican music, so all the Vybz Kartel and people like that.

“When JJ wasn’t in the squad sometimes, I liked to put my music on. The music is just a way to think about something else without being too afraid of the game, because in every dressing room you have some young lads who might be nervous, so the music just helps you.”

The sound of around 6,000 Wednesday fans at Derby County on the opening day of the 2012/13 season is still fresh in his mind, with Réda’s dramatic leveller sealing a two-goal comeback and sparking scenes that no other area of everyday life could ever really replicate. Strange how falling over seats and people around you tends to be frowned upon in an office.

A day when Réda had to watch on, however, is actually the standout recollection from not just his Wednesday years but his career to date. The 31-year-old, currently just over three years in at Eastleigh, was sidelined by injury, but right amongst the carnage of post-match celebrations that included the BBC’s Mark Clemmit being covered in alcohol and food from the Owls dressing room, with not-so-subtle encouragement from goalkeeper Stephen Bywater (“Get him! Get him!”).

“My best day was to get the promotion back to the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday (at home to Wycombe Wanderers in May 2012). I can’t just say the day, it was the full year.

“To be honest, on the last day, we already knew we were going to get promotion. It was impossible for us not to go up, with the year we had, with the lads we had; everyone was open and we were just having banter all the time.

“If I can also say something, I would like to thank Gary Megson, because we forgot him a little bit. Dave Jones came after (appointed in March with Wednesday in 3rd) and it was a great run, but we had a good start with Gary Megson and we never really thanked him for that.”

Volume and expression goes hand in hand with Réda’s three-and-a-half years at Hillsborough, with the club finally roaring loud and proud again. That was never captured better than at that Wycombe game, with 38,082 – all but a few hundred of them home fans, with relegated Wycombe relinquishing some of their allocation – seeing Wednesday clinch a 2-0 victory that sealed 2nd place in League One. It also consigned bitter rivals Sheffield United to the play-offs after a titanic Steel City grapple over the season.

Réda bagged seven goals and contributed to 13 clean sheets in his 30 games that year, and even after his 2014 departure, he has been back on occasions to stand and sing with the supporters he sent barmy with his match-winners. Before he ever had chance to establish himself as a favourite in blue and white, though, his vocals were put to the test in the now-customary initiation scenario for new signings at clubs far and wide.

“I had to sing a few times, otherwise you pay the fine. To be honest, it’s good banter when you have to sing.

“There is a group called Poetic Lover, it’s a French group, and the song is called ‘Prenons notre temps’ (‘Take our time’). That’s the song I think I sang when I arrived at Sheffield Wednesday, and I sang the same when I signed my first professional contract in France.

“I think it’s actually the same one I did when I signed for Plymouth as well, so three times I did this one.”

His introduction to English football came as a 2009 summer signing for Plymouth Argyle, led at the time by another favourite of Sheffield Wednesday past, Paul Sturrock. Arriving from French club Amiens as a 21-year-old, he was helped considerably in the early days by Argyle teammate and club legend Romain Larrieu, so much so that Réda believes he may not have lasted there without the French keeper’s input.

There was much to adapt to linguistically, in the dressing room and especially day-to-day in Devon. His team DJ back then was striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, with the odd cameo from Jamie Mackie, and the musical vibe (if not the language) was at least similar to what he was accustomed to.

Parisian hip-hop got his personal collection started once upon a time.

“It was a French one and the group was called 113; that was the first album (I bought) and I think I was 11/12. It won’t be original, but I will say I listen now to ones like Drake; it’s a bit common but I just follow everyone on this!

“Booba is my favourite French artist; he started with rap but he changed a little bit and he’s also a good singer. I listen to all kinds of music, though.”

Along with West Africa and the Caribbean, there is an Algerian element to 113, with the group’s Rim’K often paying homage in his lyrics to his North African roots. Réda, who has paternal Beninese and also some American heritage, can identify. His mother is Algerian, and it was their national team he once wanted to play for, though he never received an approach.

When it comes to live performances, Réda names French rapper Rohff alongside the likes of Drake and Usher for gigs he has most enjoyed. He also had a firsthand viewing of an unsigned American vocalist, whose rendition of Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ went down a storm on one of Wednesday’s away trips in early-2014.

That was former United States defender Oguchi Onyewu, but if Réda had his pick of any artist or band from all-time to see perform, a slightly well-known French-Canadian would just about pip ‘Gooch’ to be the headline act.

“I think I will say Céline Dion, because she’s got a crazy voice. She’s someone I should have been to see.

“I’ve also got a friend who has a very good position at Coachella who invited me to go there, but because we were in the play-offs last season (at Eastleigh), I couldn’t manage to go.”

He may have missed out on Instagram’s favourite festival, but a Californian desert special could never quite rival Hillsborough Park, could it? Réda was around for the first two of Wednesday’s ‘Owls in the Park’ pre-season events, with an estimated 12,000 and 15,000 attending in 2012 and 2013, as the squad were put right amongst the S6 faithful.

As touched upon, Plymouth gave him a certain grounding in regional English accents, though it wasn’t necessarily Sheffield twang he had to work hardest to grasp at Wednesday.

“We had players like Chris Maguire, or Rhys McCabe, and that was harder for me! So I could understand the fans, but I couldn’t understand my teammates!”

It was another Scot who signed him for the club, but he would play for Alan Irvine for just a few weeks before the former Preston North End boss departed. The aforementioned Gary Megson, Dave Jones and Stuart Gray would be the three other managers he worked with.

Nothing could surpass that Wycombe day in his Owls career, but so many memorable moments went with it, the best of which were when true togetherness was burning brightly. It could be said there was a dynamic change after promotion, as experienced Football League pros like Rob Jones and Ryan Lowe made way for various others, some with higher-level reputations.

Some would work well, with former Liverpool keeper Chris Kirkland arguably the best example, but Réda agrees there was a palpable shift around the place.

“If I’m fair with everyone, I think we were like a good League One squad, but no one was really famous. We were all like young lads, hungry, who want to go up and do well, with some older players as well like Rob Jones, Jermaine Johnson, who had some good experience but still wanted to do well.

“The next season, we started to bring some names in, so I think it’s hard for the manager to manage a team with players with that kind of character. Some players who were not happy to be on the bench, because Jay Bothroyd can’t sit on the bench, because of everything he’d done.

“So I think that changed a bit, and we had to adapt also to some players who were just starting to grow up, like Michail Antonio. I think the quality was a lot better, even if we didn’t have a great season (finishing 18th in the Championship).”

He also remembers one loan arrival, who would make a big impression in his second S6 stint, not being quite as keen to tackle the initiation challenge as he was to battle opposing defenders!

“I think Connor Wickham, when he arrived, he just decided to pay the £500 fine! We tried to put the fine high, just to make them sing.

“To be fair, it wasn’t only him, it was also Jay Bothroyd.”

Another loanee is the player who springs to mind when Réda is asked which career teammate he would record a song cover with. The former Tottenham Hotspur youngster is now back in England with Nottingham Forest (on loan from Toulouse) following spells in Canada, Belgium, Turkey and France.

“I think I would do it with John Bostock; this guy’s got a voice. I think I would choose a Michael Jackson song.”

One player not so keen to sing when the spotlight fell upon him was Wednesday’s former French left-sider Jeremy Hélan, as revealed by Atdhe Nuhiu on here in 2015. Austrian-raised frontman Nuhiu, who has gone on to play internationally for Kosovo, is now in his seventh season at the club.

Back in the first of those, Réda recalls how it wasn’t just a place on the scoresheet in the 6-0 thrashing of Leeds United that they had in common.

“I was living in Loxley House, Loxley Court; it was like a small castle and I had an apartment inside. It was lovely, and then I moved in my last year to a house about two minutes from the training ground, in Wadsley.

“It was two brand new houses; I took one and Atdhe took the second one. So he was my neighbour for a year – what a nightmare!”

Although it came on 11th January, that wonderfully surreal Leeds game in front of the Sky Sports cameras was in fact Réda’s penultimate appearance as an Owl. He scored two in his final three for the club, taking him to 19 goals in 87 games – some record for a defender who didn’t take penalties or free-kicks.

As much as statistics can mislead, his numbers from the 2012/13 campaign – 17 games, six goals – could barely capture it more aptly; a storming goal ratio, just with far too few appearances. Réda says the injuries he would pick up on international duty played a part in his decision to stop playing for Benin, and while Wednesdayites desperately wanted to see him free from setbacks, there is nobody who felt the hurt and frustration deeper than the man himself.

“I’m going to be honest, that was one part that made me drop from the Football League, because there is some training that’s hard to handle on an everyday basis. When you’ve got the pressure and it’s just football, it’s fine and I can handle it, but the pressure to always fight to come back from an injury is much worse.

“In my head I was like ‘oh, I might get injured again.’ Every day, people are saying ‘are you fit?’

“I’m out for three months; you can’t ask me every day if I’m fit. It’s just hard because I’d prefer to lose with my team than to not be involved, so every time I was injured it was just killing me on the inside.

“When I’m sitting with the fans and everything, it’s just to try and feel a bit more involved, as much as I could, so it was a really hard time for me.”

There was sadness at the conclusion of the 2013/14 season, as the likes of Miguel Llera, Jermaine Johnson and David Prutton, all who’d made a very definite impact and played a part in success and survival, joined Réda in bidding farewell to Wednesday. Earlier that year, Réda was awarded the PFA Player in the Community accolade, having made over 100 community appearances in his time at the club, donating as well £5,000 to Norfolk Park School. His donation was to help finance a £10,000 Magic Carpet sensory learning tool, and he then launched a charity appeal to help raise the remaining funds.

For Wednesday, 2014 was the summer of the takeover that never was, as Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov’s acquisition of the club was officially announced, only to never receive ratification from the Football League. Réda describes the events that led to his reluctant departure and how the ownership situation factored in.

“I didn’t talk about this before but the chairman (Milan Mandarić) was selling the club, and I wanted to stay. Stuart Gray was the manager, and one year before, he was assistant to Dave Jones, and he was in the room when Dave Jones signed me to a new contract with more money.

“Because I didn’t know what was going to happen with the squad and everything, we agreed to wait until the end of the season. I love Wednesday but I always wanted to go up with Wednesday, not go down, so if we didn’t go down, of course I wanted to stay and sign a new contract.

“For the last four months of my contract, I was injured, and Stuart said ‘the chairman is selling the club, we want to offer you a new contract, but we want to drop your wage.’ I would have been okay to keep the same wage, but when they offer you more money one year before, and then a year later offer you less money, you’re thinking ‘this year, I’ve been captain, and every time I was on the pitch the last three years I always gave my everything.’

“So I just looked Stuart in the eye and said ‘it’s okay, I wish you all the best.’ To be honest, I had a regret after, when I looked what happened.

“The players who were supposed to leave, they came back for pre-season, trained with the team, and when the chairman sold the club, they all signed a new contract. I met Stuart Gray once in Southampton and he said ‘I apologise,’ so it was good from him, because he knows that I should have got a new contract, maybe not on more money but at least on the same money.”

It was to Coventry City next, and another taste of League One, with Réda netting twice on his debut at Bradford City. His two years with the Sky Blues brought eight goals in 34 games and saw him wear the captain’s armband, though he sadly did not play past 17th October in his final season.

The game is full of surprises, but very few could have foreseen his next move. Linking up with a club fervently pursuing an EFL future under now-Sunderland owner Stewart Donald, he scored in his first two league games for Eastleigh.

The managerial and even ownership reins have changed hands in the three years since, but Réda remains with the Spitfires, who are continuing the chase for National League promotion under Ben Strevens. They reached the play-offs last time around and Réda offers insight on the initial decision to sign in Hampshire, and subsequently stick around.

“People didn’t really understand how I could go from Coventry, where I had a really good side, and drop to that level. You have to remember I was out injured for a year, and I talked with the chairman, and he told me about what he was trying to do.

Photo: Eastleigh FC

“To be honest, the challenge was just unbelievable, and there were players like Ryan Cresswell who were going there, so the challenge for the chairman was to go up as soon as possible. I could have signed for clubs in League One, but I just decided to drop, because I knew the project and the security the chairman was offering me was a lot better than what I could get with those clubs.

“I had some great times here and I signed a new three-year contract in the January of the first season, so it’s not just about going to play in the Football League, but the right team. Last year was the first for a long time where I managed to do 36 games.

“It’s been managed with a lot of rest, or sometimes like when you have seven or eight games in a month, trying to not play one or two games, like a 3G (pitch) game.”

Building another promotion charge in a division as gruelling as the National League takes a lot, but add in having to replace a trusted team DJ as well and you have quite the task! Réda’s favoured playlist controller Mark Yeates moved on this summer to AFC Fylde, with the track choices not quite measuring up for Réda since the chirpy Irish winger departed.

At least in his car he is the main man in that regard, and any chance to head out on the cruise is welcome, as he describes.

“I love driving. I always go to a nice area or the beach and I love to see different houses; I’ve got a house in France and I like to get ideas for something new.

“I also like to watch movies, so I used to go a lot to the cinema; now I’m going less, because with Netflix and everything you don’t need to. One of my favourite movies, in French the name is Le plus beau des combats, and it’s a movie with Denzel Washington.”

That would be Remember the Titans, and they certainly haven’t forgotten their former colossus at Wednesday. It is the club Réda remains most strongly linked to, and unless he ends up at a rival in some capacity, the link can never be compromised.

Like recent caretaker boss Lee Bullen has managed to do so successfully over the last few years, he is another promotion winner of days gone by who would like to lend a hand again someday.

“One year and a half ago, I bought my place in Southampton, and in the first place, I was looking to buy in Sheffield. So every time I was going on Right Move I was looking at houses in Sheffield, because I was always thinking ‘I will go back there’!

“I don’t mean go back there with my football, but one day I want to become a coach, and if one day I can come back and work with the young lads at the club, I would be very willing to be part of the club.”

For now at least, he supports from afar. Wholeheartedly invested in the club and all it signifies to so many in Sheffield and much further afield, Réda also always represented hope. It didn’t matter the minute of the game, if he was on the pitch, the chance of a Wednesday goal was never gone.

As both a supporting cast member and the main protagonist, he was responsible for Wednesday memories being created. Moments of pride and emotion that thousands of Wednesdayites got to share in with friends and family; priceless pockets of meaning, especially for those who’ve lost those loved ones in the years since.

In this closing scenario, he’ll be in blue and white stripes again. Like each interviewee on here through the years, Réda was asked for four career teammates he might call upon if he found himself in a small-sided game and needing to fill his line-up. His team here includes international footballers, a two-time Premier League champion and a World Cup winner, but if any of them need a drop of guidance when the action gets underway, remember, just ‘follow the Réda…’

“I hate losing, so if I’m doing 5-a-side I have to take the best ones! So if I take the best players I played with, I have to say Samir Nasri (Marseille academy teammate).

“Goalkeeper, because I was really close with him and he was a crazy guy, even though I love Chris Kirkland, I’m going to say Stephen Bywater. He was a bad guy and I love him!

“Steven Nzonzi (Amiens teammate), he won the World Cup, so he would be a good addition. I think I need a striker.

“I would have said Aly Cissokho (Gueugnon teammate) who played for Liverpool and Aston Villa, because he’s my best friend. I’m going to say Michail Antonio.”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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