Damien Johnson cannot wait to walk out at Windsor Park with Northern Ireland again – just ask his family.
“They’re sick of me talking about it,” he joked, when asked how much he is looking forward to joining new NI manager Ian Baraclough’s coaching team.
It is 11 years since Johnson last played for his country at Windsor and, having not been back since, there will be added significance when he returns there in his new coaching assistant role with the international team.
“My kids never saw me play at Windsor, so it will be nice for them to see me being part of the Northern Ireland coaching staff,” explained the 41-year-old, who won 56 international caps.
“They’re Northern Ireland fans, there’s a lot of excitement. Now that I’m involved, we will be doing all we can to get them over to Windsor when it’s safe and when they are allowed to go.
“There’s been a lot of work done at Windsor since I last played there and it’s great to see the investment that has gone into football back home.”
And, when the regulations permit, it seems Johnson’s three children will have grandmother and grandfather for company.
“My mum and dad are excited at the prospect. They never got to see many of my games in England, but they loved going to see me at Windsor and never missed a game.”
Surprise offer that couldn’t be turned down
Johnson’s passion for Northern Ireland will not surprise supporters who watched on as the tenacious midfielder’s consistent performances saw him become a key figure in a team that secured famous wins over England and Sweden.
While he did not see it coming, that commitment he showed since making his international debut in 1999 meant he did not have to think twice when the call from Baraclough came.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing for Northern Ireland and am really glad to have this opportunity to get back in – it’s something I couldn’t even have considered turning down,” he explained.
“I’d never worked with Ian before but had got to know him well from speaking to him at games during his time managing the Under-21 side.
“He has kept a lot the existing staff on, who have had a lot of success, and that continuity is important for the players. I will fit in with the staff and do whatever duties Ian sees me doing.”
One-to-one development crucial
Just as he did as a top-flight player with Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City, where he remoulded himself from a jinking winger into a combative central midfielder, Johnson has been quietly but effectively developing his coaching career.
Returning to Ewood Park as an academy coach in 2015, he went on to enjoy trophy success with the Under-21 and Under-23 sides before being promoted last summer to the first-team coaching staff, a job he will continue doing alongside his international position.
While happy to carry out any role identified by Baraclough, Johnson has a clear idea of where his strengths as a coach lie.
“I’m very passionate about developing players and I see that as a big part of my role. I like to build relationships with players and get to know their individual needs,” he said.
“When I was a player I didn’t get a huge amount of one-to-one attention, but I believe that if you invest in the individual and improve them then it goes a long way to making the team better.
“You need to do the grass work with the team, of course, but players learn in different ways, with some working better in smaller group settings. I’m open-minded – you have to utilise all the tools that are available.”
Great chance to emulate Euro 2016 joy
Johnson’s first opportunity to walk out at Windsor again with Northern Ireland will come on 7 September when the side play Norway in the second of a Nations League double header, three days after a trip to Romania.
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The most important upcoming match, though, comes a month later when Baraclough’s men take on Bosnia-Herzegovina in a Euro 2021 play-off semi-final, with a final at home to either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia the prize.
Reaching a major finals eluded the Lisburn native as a player, but he is hopeful of putting that right as a coach.
“Having tried and ultimately failed as a player, you always felt the odds were stacked against you, so for the team to reach the finals in France was unbelievable,” he added.
“We have a great chance now to emulate that with the play-off coming up, and it’s our job to do everything we can to make that happen.
“Bosnia away as a one-off match is a difficult test. They are a good side, but this group of players have shown in the past that they don’t have anything to fear.”
And it’s a group of players who will have a few young fans from Lancashire cheering them on – either from the house or at the stadium.
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