Leeds promoted: League One play-off heartbreak and doing it the hard way – Bradley Johnson reflects on long journey back to the top
He may have left Elland Road nine years ago, but Blackburn’s Bradley Johnson’s affection for Leeds United has never waned amid their long-awaited promotion back to the Premier League.
“When you play for Leeds United, you feel like you’re part of a family,” he says, as we talk over Zoom for talkSPORT’s newest documentary ‘Leeds United: Ups and Downs’, which is narrated by Johnson’s former teammate Jermaine Beckford.
The Whites were, of course, the club which gave Johnson his first big break in the game when they snapped him up from Northampton Town in January 2008, reigniting a career which had been at a crossroads when the midfielder was released by Arsenal as a youngster.
But after playing in Non-League with Waltham Forest, he forced his way back into the Football League with Cambridge and Northampton, via loan spells at Gravesend & Northfleet and Stevenage, before enjoying a fair degree of success at Elland Road.
Johnson was part of the side, which has since gone down in Leeds folklore, which beat Manchester United at OId Trafford in the FA Cup in January 2010 courtesy of Beckford’s early strike and the midfielder then helped them secure promotion back to the Championship later that year with victory over Bristol Rovers on the final day.
Under Simon Grayson, who Johnson credits as one of the best managers he’s worked under during his career, they very nearly had the chance to make it back-to-back promotions the following season, but a patchy run of form in April 2011 meant they missed out on the Championship Play Offs by one place.
Johnson made friends for life at Leeds and is ‘massively grateful’ for the opportunity the club gave him, which is why he refused to celebrate when he was part of the Derby County side which dumped Marcelo Bielsa’s team out of the play-offs last season.
“I left nine years ago now but I’ve been back many times before and when they [the fans] see you working hard for them on the pitch and doing it for the badge, they will never forget that,” he says.
“Every time I’ve been back, I’ve got a great reception when I’ve been back there and I still look out for their results now. Even last year when I went back there in the [Play Off] semi-finals, I was playing for the opposite team [but] before the game I got a good reception. Throughout the game I was getting stick but that’s fair, as I was the opposition player and I know how it is.
“Even after the game, I remember everyone was celebrating and I didn’t really want to celebrate that much and I saw a few of the [Leeds] players on the floor. I spoke to Kalvin [Phillips] after and picked him up off the floor as I knew how he felt, because I’d been there before. I lost in the Play Off final with Leeds United in my first year there at Wembley and it was heart-breaking for me.
“I picked him up and said: ‘Listen, you’re a top player, you’re at a top club and I’m sure you’ll get there one day,’ as it wasn’t meant to be that day. After the game, we [Derby] celebrated a little bit and I still went over to a few of the fans because I knew a few of the fans there who are still die hard Leeds fans and they still sit in the same seats when I was there. So, I went and said: ‘Hello’ to them and they gave me a warm welcome and said: ‘Good luck in the final.’
“I think for me, they gave me that platform to play week-in, week-out for a massive club. It is a part of me and will be a part of me for the rest of my life because it is a club I will never forget playing for.”
The phrase ‘Leeds always do it the hard way’ has certainly been used on various occasions across the last decade, following numerous near misses when it comes to promotion back to the Premier League.
Johnson knows only too well about how Leeds can put their fans through the mill when he reminisces about their crunch match against Bristol Rovers in May 2010, where promotion looked like it was going to slip through their fingers once again.
“I have many fond memories of Leeds but the one standout for me was getting them out of League One and getting them into the Championship and that was the Bristol Rovers game. It was not just the game, but the way the whole day went,” he explains.
“We were favourites to win the game, but on that day, it was out of three teams, us Millwall and Swindon, and throughout that day, they were going up and we were staying down.
“People always say Leeds do it the hard way and we did. Max Gradel getting sent off didn’t help. Going in at half-time at 0-0 and looking at the table, because we were all looking at the results at half-time, we weren’t getting promoted at that time as I think Swindon were winning or something like that.
“Coming out at half-time and then going 1-0 down, you just sit there and go ‘Why us? It’s always us!’ The fans really helped us that day.
“I’ve been promoted after that with Norwich at Wembley and lifting the cup is a boyhood dream as you want to walk up the stairs and lift the cup and get promoted. But, to get promoted in the way we [Leeds] did at Elland Road with a full house and the fans running on the pitch and going out after, it’s a day I’ll never ever forget.
“When I speak about it now, you’re right, I get passionate about it as it was one of the best days of my career, if not the best.
“Playing with the team, you don’t really realise how lucky you are to play in such a good team. But I’m older now and can look back and think: ‘Yeah, that was one of the best teams I played for.’”
Now, after 16 years away, Leeds are on their way back to the promised land, an achievement Johnson believes is thoroughly deserved.
He finished: “They’ve got a fanbase not just in this country, but worldwide. I remember my first pre-season with Leeds United. We went to Ireland and we played a pre-season friendly and there were 15,000 fans there. They’re a massive club.
“They deserve to be in the Premier League, playing against the top teams and everything about the club and city is Premier League.
“I was speaking to Kalvin [Phillips] after the game [against Blackburn Rovers, Johnson’s current team] the other week. Jermaine Beckford was doing commentary on that game, so, he came down to see me after and we were all talking.
“We said to Kalvin: ‘You’re going to be a hero,’ being a local boy there. He’s one of their best players and he’s going to be a hero. It would be unbelievable for him to get it.
“But me and Jermaine said: ‘You’ll never beat what we done’ You’ll never beat getting promoted and doing it with your fans and the fans coming on the pitch. But, they’ve been in the Championship long enough now and I’m sure they don’t care how they go up.
“When they do go up, I’ll be going to a few games next season in the Premier League with them.”
Tomorrow from 11am on talkSPORT 2, Jermaine Beckford brings you ‘Leeds United: Ups and Downs” – a special programme looking at the Yorkshire club’s 16 year exile from the Premier League.
Guests include Simon Grayson, Bradley Johnson, Brian Deane, Gus Poyet, plus world boxing champion & Leeds fan Josh Warrington.
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