PICTURE by Bangor 1876.
FOR ME, and for many others too I’m sure, Michael Johnston will go down as one of the best defenders in Welsh Premier League history. The now 32-year-old became a household name at Farrar Road with Bangor City and earned a reputation as a fine defender who could play anywhere across the back (although mainly deployed at CB).
Having come through the ranks at Tranmere Rovers (who, at the time were a League One side in the English pyramid system) – he never went on to make an appearance for the first team. But you could argue that that, just like with many other players, only made him even more determined in future.
In 2007, he made the switch to the Welsh Premier League with Bangor and I think it’s fair to say that “Jonno”, who’s also represented Wales at U16, 17, 19 and 23 level, never looked back again.
But what exactly made him want to make the switch to The Citizens? He said: “It all came about when Alan Morgan approached me. He was Nev Powell’s assistant at the time and he was also the u16 manager at Tranmere. I was a second year pro at Tranmere and knew I wasn’t going to get a look in in their first team.
“So, he asked would I be interested in going on loan to Bangor. I thought it would be good for me to come out of the reserve league and play competitive, men’s football.
“But with regards to knowing much (about the Welsh Prem), I have to be honest, my knowledge was limited. My only experiences of the Welsh system was that my brother played for Porthmadog many years before that. I used to travel down with him and Steve Fisher (Bala Town assistant now) and watch them on a weekly basis.
“I remember watching one Welsh Cup game against Bangor and there was a huge crowd there. This obviously opened my eyes to the club but I never thought I would end up being there.”
But end up there he did. Johnston went on to be a real fans favourite in the heart of the City defence and the loan move to the club in 2007, very quickly became permanent soon after – as, after being voted their Player of the Season, he signed for them on a free in April 2008.
He became a calm and reliable presence in the heart of Bangor’s defence and well and truly went down in Citizens folklore when he and his team-mates ended the club’s 15 year wait for a title when they beat The New Saints 1-0 at Farrar Road on the final day of the 2010/11 season. Midfielder Craig Garside’s goal in the 68th minute, alongside some pretty stern defensive work from Johnston and co, proved to be the difference on that historic day for Bangor.
Describing the feelings when that final whistle blew, Johnston said: “It was an unbelievable, surreal, life experience. All of those emotions linked to elation would fall into this category.
“It was literally the first season that we had actually pushed for the league. We had always finished fourth or fifth in the previous seasons but always performed heroics in the Welsh Cup. That final day we looked down and out because over time, people had thought that we had thrown it away with the lead we had at the split.
“What was riding on the game was unbelievable and we knew that TNS would be very difficult to beat but in the back of our minds, we knew that we had not lost against them all season. When Gars popped up with the goal, I didn’t even know who it was, I just remember the noise and celebrations.
“It felt like the longest 20 minutes of football ever after that. When the final whistle went, I froze. I remember Chris Sargeant and Sharpy (Ex Bangor) coming to me and saying, ‘enjoy it mate’, then, the next thing was my brother just attacking me saying, ‘you’ve F*g done it!’ He grabbed hold of me and I had to hold back the emotion.
“That day, there must have been 4000 people there, the fact that we, as a group of players, had the opportunity to bring that joy to those people was unbelievable and a life experience I will never forget.”
And it didn’t stop there for the defender either. During his stay with Bangor City (2007-2015), Johnston won three Welsh Cups and even went on to become club captain.
He added: “In terms of highlights, I think winning in Europe has to be up there. Lifting my first cup as captain in the play off final v Rhyl and of course, winning 3 welsh cups. I have to say though – there are a lot up there with City but I think leading 1876 out for their first ever game will stick with me forever.“
After more than 250 appearances for The Citizens, Johnston went onto pastures new in 2015, when he joined Llandudno and later even went on to have a brief spell with Bangor’s arch-rivals Caernarfon Town.
Spells at Brickfield Rangers (Welsh National League) and Runcorn Town (NW Counties) followed before he once again made his way back to Bangor City for a very brief spell in January 2019, whilst the club was playing in the Huws Gray Alliance (now Cymru North) following its relegation from the Welsh Premier League.
But fast forward just a few months from then and Johnston switched allegiances to the city’s phoenix club – Bangor 1876 – who formed in the summer of 2019. The team itself was formed by the fans, for the fans, after the troubles that had unfolded with the ownership at Bangor City.
Johnston made the direct move across Bangor to 1876 and quickly became skipper. He says the reason he decided to join the club, who have been playing three leagues (Gwynedd League) below Bangor City in their debut campaign was because “the whole project is fantastic”.
He added: “The main reason was the way in which Mel and Dyl (Management team) sold it to me. You could feel the whole buzz and enthusiasm which was coming with it. The people of Bangor have given me a lot of the years and I felt like this was a chance to give something back. Hopefully, they feel the same way.
“The standard (of the Gwynedd League) has been surprising too. It has been a very physical league, one in which the young lads have had to stand up to. You know that, no matter where you go, you are going to be their cup final. There’s always going to be a big crowd, an atmosphere and it’s a scalp for the other team if we are beaten.
“But the lads have been fantastic and rode a couple of storms this season. Early on, I think a few people got a good kick up the backside as we were starting games very slow and failing behind very early on in most games. I think this showed a few of us that we can’t just turn up and expect to win, we have to earn that right.
“Seeing the young lads mature very quickly has been a joy to watch. They are the future of the football club.”
Asked on whether or not he thought some of those 1876 youngsters were destined to play in Wales’ top flight someday, and what advice he’d give to other young players looking to make it, Johnston added: “Yes they can, most definitely. I think the main advice would be to have no fear, express yourself and enjoy it.
“Also, I think knowing you are apart of a team is essential. When we won the league, we had no outstanding individuals but we were a great team. It’s all about appreciating teammates and working together, striving to reach your goals.”
Closing the interview, Johnston spoke about how he hopes the season will end for the club, should it ever return following the coronavirus pandemic which has put football of all kinds on hold since March.
He said: “We have gone all season without dropping a point on the league and good cup runs. (Although, I do feel like we let ourselves down in the Welsh Trophy).
“Hopefully, the club can go from strength to strength. The work going on behind the scenes constantly and how the managers/board and fans are working tirelessly to give us, the players, the best of everything is unbelievable and I do believe that getting the club higher up the tiers will be the least we could do.
“I’d just like to finally give a special mention to all of the people of Bangor who have made this all possible. They couldn’t have put their faith in better people than Mel, Dyl, Nige and even little Chris. They are great people who live for the club.
“It is because of them we have been so successful this year. They haven’t rested on nothing and are always looking forward and looking how we can improve.”
Here’s a few little quickfire Q&A’s from my interview with Jonno to close this article:
AFE: Who would you say is the manager you’ve learnt the most from over the years?
MJ: “There are a few to mention but I think notably, I had a manager at Tranmere called Shaun Garnett – he was great, he had just finished playing himself and was great to see how he transitioned from playing to management.
“I would also like to say about Nev Powell at Bangor City, who was old school but got the job done. Recently however, if you look at Mel with his assistant Dylan,at 1876 – the way they have approached the whole project with the professionalism is something to be admired.”
AFE: Who are the best players you’ve played alongside?
MJ: “There have been a lot of great players. Have to say Big les obviously, living legend, bugger to play against. Reedy (Jamie Reed) was probably the best goal scorer. Damien Allen was probably the most natural when he was on it, he sticks out too.
“I have played with Joe Ledley and Wayne Hennessy (for Wales), who obviously stand out too. Wardy (Nick Ward), probably the fittest 30 odd year old I’ve ever seen.
“I am very very lucky to have been able to play with some excellent players over my time, too many to name them all.”
AFE: What about the best players you’ve come up against?
MJ: “There was a player who played for Portugal called Bruno Gama who was very good. Teemu Pukki (now at Norwich in the Premier League), played for Helsinki when we faced them at Bangor.
“We actually also played against Manchester United at Farrar Road once where Paul Pogba played. However, in the game, and probably the best I’ve seen on the same pitch as me, Ravel Morrison was head and shoulders about the rest.
“In regards to Welsh Football, there are 3three main players that stand out; Rhys Griffiths; Lee Hunt and Sam Finley.”
Thanks for your time Jonno and all the best to both you and 1876 in the future!