Spend twenty minutes in the company of former Nottingham Forest midfield maestro Andy Johnson and it quickly becomes apparent that the club on the banks of the River Trent still runs deeply in his blood.
Johnson spent four years at the City Ground, helping Forest to the First Division title during the 1997/98 campaign under the stewardship of Dave Bassett.
Saturday saw the Reds face West Bromwich Albion and if Johnson was popular on Trentside he practically boasts the freedom of The Hawthorns, such was the rapport he built up with supporters in the Black Country.
Johnson played 131 games for the Baggies and 119 in the red of Forest. Naturally, the weekend’s clash between two clubs where he is held in high regard was a bit of a win-win situation for the former Wales international.
Quizzed about Forest’s performance in a battling 2-2 draw, he was full of praise for the strategy which Sabri Lamouchi adopted, despite going into the game against the team top of the league.
He exclusively told Nottingham Forest News: “I thought Forest were good. They seemed full of confidence and what impressed me the most about them was that they came to West Brom to have a go. A lot of teams have come to The Hawthorns and shut up shop; Forest didn’t do that.
“I just thought it was a great game, to be honest. The two own goals were very similar in that they both came from great deliveries into the box.
“They matched West Brom in terms of formation and, for me, they showed an awful lot of quality.”
Speaking about Saturday’s game, it was obvious the conversation would turn towards the performance of referee Keith Stroud.
In truth, both teams left the field feeling aggrieved at the performance of the match officials, with several big calls falling under the spotlight afterwards.
Jake Livermore could have seen red for a woeful challenge on Yuri Ribeiro early on, Joe Lolley was denied a penalty when Kyle Bartley handled in the box and Sammy Ameobi appeared to be fouled in the build-up to West Brom’s second goal.
It was the handball from the Albion defender that Johnson felt the Reds could feel particularly hard done by.
He continued: “There was a lot said about the referee and had there been VAR in place in the Championship, Forest would have certainly won themselves a penalty. Bartley has clearly stopped the ball with his hand, which isn’t in a natural position and to be fair, that’s a penalty.”
Forest made five changes to their squad against Charlton in midweek and Lamouchi saw the decision backfire as the Addicks ran out 1-0 victors at the City Ground.
Many Reds supporters hold their own opinion on whether or not players need resting. Johnson, however, doesn’t believe many would want taking out of the team if they were to be asked.
Speaking on the squad rotation last week, he said: “You never want to rest, ever, especially when the team is doing well. I kind of get that in this day and age the players play a lot of games but so did we when I was playing – although the current players play on better pitches than we ever did!
“I never wanted taking out as I didn’t want to lose my place. I’m pretty sure players nowadays don’t want to miss games, either. If you want a rest, especially when you’re doing well, then you’re in the wrong game.
“With Forest doing so well, they’ll all be chomping at the bit to be a part of the team.”
Johnson was typically a no-nonsense midfielder. The number of games he played during his career highlights that he largely kept himself fit.
He does concede that in this day and age managers do need to be careful. He doesn’t necessarily believe that it’s the physical aspect that tires players out, but more the mental side of the game.
Johnson said: “Physically the players are proper athletes nowadays. We were all fit lads, but now they’re highly strung and there’s not really a drinking culture in football today. The diets and nutrition are all spot on.
“When people talk about players being tired, I think it’s more of a mental thing rather than a physical one. To mentally prepare for three games in a week is tough.
“When I was at the Forest and we won the league under Dave Bassett it’s the mental aspect of it that is tiring. When we finally got over the line to win the league, we never went out celebrating, we were all exhausted.
“Look at Liverpool now, they’ve not lost a game this season. To mentally get up for every single game and show that level of dominance is really hard and that’s the tiring aspect of it, not so much the physical side.”
So what about the current Forest team, who did Johnson take a shine to on Saturday, and who does he think has been their top man this season?
Lewis Grabban has netted 16 goals, Joe Lolley has looked back to his best of late; whilst Samba Sow has been a revelation in the middle of the park.
It’s between the posts where Johnson believes Forest have now hit the jackpot, however.
He lavished praise on the 25-year-old after his showing in Saturday’s draw, whilst clearly in the midfielders union, Ben Watson also earned a rave review for his performance on Saturday.
Johnson said: “The goalkeeper Samba was excellent on Saturday. I’ve not seen a lot of him but I thought he made some great saves, commanded his area well and in general rallied the whole team from the back.
“He just had the whole game organised in front of him; he knew when to slow it down when to speed it up and he was excellent.
“Ben Watson’s been around the block and he did a cracking job of leading the team, organising the lads and ensuring everyone knew exactly what was expected of them on Saturday.
Forest are currently fifth in the Championship and despite decent results over Leeds and West Brom in the last week, their defeat to Charlton has threatened to throw them back into the mix with eight or nine other clubs for a play-off place.
Johnson believes Forest should enjoy the battle but he does cite where he thinks the Reds must improve between now and the end of the season if they are to win promotion.
“If you’re going to get promoted you’ve got to overcome the lesser teams. There’s probably only a handful of teams in the division who have a go in every game and I’m not knocking that but you’ve got to overcome it,” Johnson explained.
Johnson believes that the supporters can play their part between now and the end of the season.
He had a message to the club’s loyal fanbase, especially in situations where Forest are striving for that ‘ugly’ victory.
He said: “They’ve got to start beating the so-called weaker teams; at the moment if Forest don’t play well, they don’t win.
“Sometimes teams can be guilty of overplaying and it’s down to the players to work on being more patient and trying to combat the different styles in the Championship.
“Fans have to appreciate that too. The Forest supporters are amazing but there has to be a level of understanding and patience. Just because a team is lower in the league, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be steamrolled. They come, park the bus and make life very difficult.”
The man who collected 15 caps for his adopted country still clearly has a glint in his eye when the topic of conversation turns to Nottingham Forest.
Johnson, 45, couldn’t leave us without making a prediction that Forest fans will probably love.
Speaking on Lamouchi’s chances of leading the Reds into the Premier League, he said: “On Saturday, there was a lot of passion out on the pitch from Forest and you could see what it meant to the players and the supporters.
“If you’re asking me if they’ll make the play-offs, I’d say 100%. I really feel that Forest have turned a corner this season.
“In other seasons they’ve got into decent positions but by now they’ve fallen away. I saw them the first game of the season and they were excellent and if you’re a Forest fan things are looking really, really good.”
Andy Johnson was speaking exclusively to Nottingham Forest News Editor Lee Clarke