This season Sam Johnstone has made lots of difficult saves. In fact, the West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper is top of the Premier League’s expected goals denied chart. If that piece of trivia makes you think football jargon has become absurdly esoteric, you may be happy to know Johnstone is an admirably grounded fellow, a person of exceptional ability content to be able to make a difference on and off the pitch.
This year the 27-year-old has spent time and money on a variety of schemes to help people during lockdown. On the pitch a player who spent nine years on Manchester United’s books without making a first-team appearance and had seven loan spells at lower-league clubs before joining West Brom in 2018, finally made it to the Premier League.
His team may be struggling, although they got their first league win against Sheffield United last week, but Johnstone looks so at home in the top flight that his ambition of breaking into the England squad looks to be within reach.
Getting this far has been a roundabout journey and he looks forward to the day when the people who have accompanied him on it – dad Glenn, whose playing career peaked at Morecambe, mum Julie and his two brothers – are at last able to watch him in action at a Premier League ground.
“I don’t think people realise the massive sacrifice that the whole family makes for one person to grow up at a football club,” Johnstone says. “I’m very appreciative and grateful for that. Mum worked in the day in an office in a prison and at night she did mobile hairdressing. Dad was taking me to Manchester United training four nights a week so my brothers were getting dragged with us to Manchester or were staying at home on their own.
“My family followed me to Scunthorpe and Walsall [when he went on loan], to all these places in the freezing cold standing in the away end. Then I missed out in the play-offs a couple of times to get into the Premier League. Then you finally make it here and no one is allowed in … It’s so frustrating.”
This is all said without bitterness, even with a resigned chuckle. He is not whining because he is well aware many people face far grimmer predicaments. During lockdown he paid for and delivered 6,000 meals to 61 schools in the Birmingham. He paid for meals and specialist vitamin drinks to be distributed to NHS and care home workers in Preston, where he was born and raised. He donated £700 to a man in Manchester when the van he had been using to feed homeless people was burnt out.
“Some things you read just touch you,” he says. He does not claim to be as influential as Marcus Rashford but says the generalisation of footballers as uncaring members of society is unfair.
“You have to be in touch with the real world. It hurts when people slag footballers off and say they only work two hours and it is easy to play football. To give something back is massive. A lot of people are doing it. Some people do it and don’t say anything. You always want to help. People just see what you do on the pitch and judge you on that. It is nice for people to see we are normal people and we want to help. You don’t realise how often that happens but now it’s being highlighted.”
Johnstone aims to stay among the elite. Life in the Premier League has meant learning to expect the unexpected. “It’s a massive step up. These players can do something out of nothing and you always have to be switched on. It’s probably not as hectic as the Championship but the difference in quality is enormous. The quality of balls, quality of finishing, these top players can see that extra pass when you might think they are going to shoot and they maybe cut it back. And the quality of set pieces.
“We were 3-0 up against Chelsea and they take three shots and they all go in. It’s clinical; they’re not messing about. But that’s what you want, to test yourself against the best, that’s what everyone at West Brom wants. We’ve found it difficult adapting but have played well in the last few games and hopefully we can keep progressing.”
One technique Johnstone thinks should be outlawed is the way Bruno Fernandes takes penalties, with a “hop, skip and jump” before shooting. Johnstone saved a spot-kick from the Manchester United midfielder at Old Trafford last month, only for the referee to order a retake because he moved early. Fernandes scored the second one to give United a 1-0 win.
“You need a trigger as a goalkeeper to go and that jump makes you go but you’re too early and off your line,” he says. “It’s just making it easier for the taker to score. If you want us to stay on our line, surely they can’t just do what they want when taking the penalty. It has to work both ways.”
That is a minor quibble in a season in which Johnstone has big ambitions. He has represented England at age-group level and dreams of a place in the senior team. “[Jordan] Pickford is a very good goalkeeper, so is [Nick] Pope and Dean Henderson, and I want to be in the thick of that as well. I want to be pushing them and be on the minds of the England setup.
“I have been there as a kid and now I am in the Premier League playing and I want to get into that setup and keep pushing … It would be a dream come true.”