A boyhood Red, David Johnson’s career began with Everton before a move to Ipswich and then finally the opportunity to represent the Reds in 1976 – right as they were set to dominate European football.
The collection of trophies that Johnson was set to collect at Anfield meant that he won the lot in his six years with the club. Slight injury concerns and a wealth of attacking options for Paisley to select from, meant that ‘Doc’ was not a guaranteed starter and often found himself coming off the bench and featuring on the wing. His nickname came from the wide array of painkillers that the Scouser always had on his person, especially cough sweets due to his perennial sore throat.
First competing with Kevin Keegan and John Toshack (for whom he was deemed to be a long-term replacement of), it was always going to be a tough ask to be part of the squad that won the club’s first European Cup in 1977 but seeing as he managed 38 appearances in his maiden Anfield campaign, he certainly didn’t do too badly.
With the two aforementioned forwards leaving the club soon after, new competition came in the form of Kenny Dalglish and David Fairclough. The Scot went on to be one of, if not the, very best Anfield had ever seen and so it was between two local lads to fight for the role alongside him. The ‘bionic carrot’ was given the early nod before Johnson finally forced his way into the side. That was until a serious knee injury curtailed his season and again saw him miss out on European Cup success.
His comeback was set to be emphatic though and from 1978 to 1980, Johnson enjoyed two prolific seasons with Dalglish and scored 45 goals in 91 games and finished the second season as the club’s top scorer. He and Kenny scored 55 goals between them in a single season and the confidence the pair played with was unerring. With the Reds winning no less than two First Division titles and their third European Cup in this period too – ‘Doc’ was a crucial part of Paisley’s winning machine.
Despite going on to make a further 67 appearances in the following two seasons, his scoring return of 20 goals was enough for fresh options to be handed more opportunities in the limelight and one of these was Ian Rush. The Welshman was set to go and become the club’s all-time record scorer and so it wasn’t a surprise to see Johnson gradually faded out of the team. However, Paris in 1981 was finally an opportunity for the Scouser to taste European Cup Final success first-hand and he played the full match against Real Madrid.
There were of course plenty of individual highlights on this journey though, one of which came against Everton in 1978 and he became the first man to score a winner for both clubs in the Merseyside derby. In an interview with James Pearce (via the Liverpool Echo), the Scouser described the historic moment:
‘I had gone full circle and that day I was playing in the derby wearing the red of Liverpool – the club I had supported as a kid and travelled all over the country to watch. I must admit that goal in front of the Gwladys Street was far sweeter than the one I got for Everton against Liverpool.
‘It’s difficult to put into words what it felt like. Scoring goals in cup finals or derbies is what kids dream about when they are kicking a ball around in the streets and I was able to fulfil that dream. The fact that I had played for Everton and then gone back there to score a winner for Liverpool made the stick I got that day even worse. I still don’t think Evertonians have forgiven me but I was pleased to get some stick because it meant I had done something right’.
One thing that would have done little to ease the stick that was headed Johnson’s way was a rendition of “Thank you very much for David Johnson!” (sung to the tune of Lilly the Pink) that was echoed from the Liverpool supporters inside Goodison Park that day.
Another personal highlight came in May 1980 when Liverpool needed a victory to secure a second successive league title. Johnson scored two and his left-footed effort that flew into the Kop End goal ended with the commentary line of “That’s the championship” from John Motson and is a moment that provides great pride for a homegrown lad.
His tireless and free-scoring years at Anfield may have been set to come to an end but Johnson wasn’t ready to leave Merseyside again. £100,000 was enough to see both clubs shake hands on their first transfer for 20 years. Johnson joined an Everton side managed by Howard Kendall and called the likes of Graeme Sharp, Mark Higgins and Steve McMahon his teammates.
There’s no question the Scouser gave everything when he wore a blue shirt but he achieved so much more as a Red. In the ‘100 players who shook the Kop’ fan vote, Johnson finished 77th and that shows that he is held in high regard by his fans. As part of Bob Paisley’s silverware-collecting team, he proved to be a vital team member.
RIP David Johnson 1951 – 2022