David Johnson: football says farewell to the doc

david johnson

This is one of the saddest obituaries I’ve had to write. The news of the death of David Johnson has shocked many of us. He was the sort of fella you felt you knew. In many ways lots of Liverpool supporters did. He was one of those who was quite often seen around the city. There are plenty of stories of him happy to chat with fans.

He really was just a nice bloke.

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People can often say someone was a nice person once they’ve died, but for Johnson they said it when he was alive. You’ll struggle to find a bad word said about him. Maybe if he was a bit more flash, had a bigger ego you may have heard more about him. What he possessed was great athleticism and a desire to work for the team.

Consequently, his teammates loved him. Fans loved him.

A glittering career saw him win the League Championship four times and the European Cup three times.

He was part of one of the finest sides English football has ever seen. In 1978-79 Liverpool set record after record during a season where they won more points than any club had before and conceded fewer goals than any club had before.

For me personally, he was one of the reasons I started supporting Liverpool. Born and brought up in the South-East in a family full of Spurs fans, I needed to choose a different team. At the age of seven, I was already seduced by the atmosphere and colour of Anfield. When Johnson and Terry McDermott appeared on Football Focus one Saturday lunchtime, the choice for me was clear.

Johnson, nicknamed ‘Doc’, was one of those rare individuals who played for both clubs in a city and was loved by both.

Everton loved him so much that they took him back for a second time.

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Born in October 1951 in Liverpool, his first club was Everton. He was a Liverpool fan in a family full of reds. Bill Shankly wanted to sign him but they wouldn’t give him up. They had just won the league the season before, and looked to bolster their attacking options. He made his debut at the beginning of 1971 at Burnley and scored in a 2-2 draw. He had a remarkable record of scoring on his debut in every competition he played in – League, League Cup, FA Cup, European Cup.

A month later manager Harry Catterick threw him into the starting line-up for an FA Cup Fifth Round tie as Brian Clough’s Derby County were the visitors. Johnson scored the only goal of the game.

A month after that, Greek champions, Panathinaikos arrived at Goodison in the European Cup. Johnson scored that night too, but the 1-1 draw allowed the Greeks to progress on away goals after a goalless draw in the second leg

With a disappointing defence of their title in the league, Johnson was able to lift spirits when he scored in his first Merseyside derby in November 1971. He would go on to become the first man to score for both clubs in the Merseyside derby.

He later reflected on the moment;

“I remember the goal well. It was a cross from the right by Gary Jones which I headed down towards goal. Ray Clemence pushed it onto the post but I managed to volley in the rebound.

The fact it was in front of the Gwladys Street End made it even better and instantly you become a hero on Merseyside.”

A week later he scored his first hat-trick for the club, although his striker partner, Joe Royle grabbed all the headlines. Everton beat Southampton 8-0 with Royle scoring four.

His final outing for the blues came at the end of October 1972 in a 2-2 draw at home to Ipswich Town. The following month he was going to see a lot more of Ipswich as he was part of a swap deal with Rod Belfitt. Bobby Robson brought him to Portman Road going straight into the first team against Leeds United.

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His first season saw his first piece of silverware as Ipswich won the Texaco Cup, beating rivals Norwich City over two legs.

The club’s fourth place finish meant an entry into the UEFA Cup for the following season. In the First Round, they were drawn against Real Madrid. They saw them off over two legs, defending a 1-0 lead from the first leg to hold Real to a goalless draw in the Bernabeu. They were up against Lazio in the next round. Trevor Whymark scored four goals to give Ipswich a comfortable lead to take to Italy. Trailing 1-4 in the second leg it was clear the next goal could be crucial. Robson sent Johnson on as a sub and with virtually his first touch he put Ipswich into the last 16 where they took on Twente. They won both legs and were into the Quarter-Finals. There they would meet Lokomotiv Leipzig of East Germany.

Both teams won their home legs 1-0 so a penalty shootout was required to settle it. Johnson was one of three Ipswich players to miss their kick as they went out.

During his time at Ipswich, he put together a good partnership with Whymark, scoring 35 goals in his four seasons at the club. England manager Don Revie was impressed enough to put him in his squad for the British Home International Championship.

He made his debut at Wembley against Wales in May 1975. It took him only 10 minutes to get on the scoresheet. John Toshack and James Griffiths scored within 60 seconds of each other early in the second half to put the visitors in front. Johnson then capped a personal milestone by scoring again to earn a draw.

He impressed Revie enough to keep his place for the visit of Scotland. He was on target again with the fifth in a memorable 5-1 win.

After two further caps that year he wouldn’t be seen again in an England shirt for another five years.

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The following year Liverpool were finally successful in their attempt to sign him. Shankly had tried twice, but it was Paisley who managed to persuade his club to let him go. A measure of how highly they rated him was evidenced as £200,000 was more than the club had ever paid for a player.

After 46 goals in 178 appearances for Ipswich, he made his debut against former rivals, Norwich City in August 1976. A week later he had his first goal for his new employers, in defeat at Birmingham City.

He was bought as a replacement for Toshack, now struggling with injury. He scored eight goals in 26 matches in all competitions that season, including against Bristol City in the week before the FA Cup Final. His performance convinced Paisley to start him at Wembley. Despite being the better side Liverpool couldn’t do the double and a disappointed squad travelled to Rome for their first ever European Cup Final.

Johnson told the story of the build-up to the game and how he never knew whether he was playing right up to the day of the game. He was walking through the hotel with a teammate when they saw the manager walking toward them. Just as they drew level with each other, Paisley simply uttered

“you’re sub”

And it was at this point Johnson knew he would have to watch from the bench as Liverpool beat Borussia Monchengladbach to lift their first European Cup.

Johnson would often be amazed at Paisley’s lack of communication skills, but marvelled at how well the boss could read players.

He was stuck in the reserves for much of the following season. Often on the bench, he came on as a second half sub for McDermott to score a crucial away goal in the Semi-Final against Monchengladbach. Liverpool won the second leg to reach their second successive European Cup Final. This time the venue was to be Wembley and Johnson was hoping for a far happier visit to the capital than a year before.

He started three games in a week, including the Merseyside derby at Goodison where he scored the only goal of the game, thereby becoming the first man to score for both clubs in the derby.

Back in 2008, he reflected on the occasion;

“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.”

Three days later against Leicester City he tore knee ligaments just six minutes into the game and his dreams of a European Cup Final appearance were taken from him.

He didn’t return to the first team until Tottenham arrived at Anfield at the beginning of September 1978. In a memorable game, he came on in the second half and scored twice as the side swept Spurs aside to win 7-0. He played a crucial part in McDermott’s iconic goal when he swept the ball out to Heighway “in acres of space”.

He didn’t make the starting line-up until the trip to a familiar foe, Norwich at the beginning of October. He scored in a 4-1 win. He was on target in his next two outings as Derby County and Chelsea were beaten.

He scored later in the month in a 3-1 win at QPR when yours truly got to see Liverpool for the first time.

The 1978-79 season was a personal triumph for him as he hit 18 goals in 38 games, and one for the club. 68 points was a record for a two-points-for-a-win season. They only conceded 16 goals in 42 matches and just four at home, as Johnson won his second League Championship medal.

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This was the perfect platform for the 1979-80 season where he was at his peak. 27 goals in 54 matches in all competitions as Liverpool retained their league title.

They began the season with a stunning display in the Charity Shield against FA Cup winners, Arsenal. The Gunners got their own back in a titanic battle in the FA Cup Semi-Final later that season. The two met five times before Brian Talbot’s goal finally saw Arsenal through to the Final. Johnson then scored twice as they beat Aston Villa at Anfield to secure the title.

This earned him a place back in the England team as Ron Greenwood called him up for the friendly at Wembley against Argentina. Against a team containing 19-year old Diego Maradona, he scored in a 3-1 win. A week later he scored his eighth and final goal for his country as Northern Ireland gained a 1-1 draw at Wembley.

Three weeks later he was in the European Championship side which lined up against Belgium in Turin. A disappointing afternoon for both he and the team, saw him replaced by his club teammate, Ray Kennedy, as they drew 1-1. It was his eighth and final cap.

At Liverpool, he had formed a great partnership with Kenny Dalglish but the emergence of Ian Rush threatened his place in the team. He still managed 41 games the following season and he was in the starting line-up to win his third European Cup winners medal as they beat Real Madrid.

That season also saw him win his first League Cup winners medal. He started in the first game at Wembley against West Ham, but after a 1-1 draw, Paisley decided to give Rush his place for the replay.

Rush forced Johnson back onto the bench for the 1981-82 season, which proved to be his last. His final goal for the club was in a League Cup win at Barnsley in mid-January. The last time he pulled on a Liverpool shirt was to sit on the bench when Notts County visited Anfield at the beginning of May.

Liverpool won the title again that season, giving Johnson his fourth League Championship medal. He came on as sub for McDermott in the League Cup Final win over Tottenham too.

In all he played 213 times for the reds, scoring 78 goals.

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In August 1982 he returned to Goodison Park where he enjoyed another couple of seasons before moving to the States for a season in Tulsa. He had spells at Barnsley, Manchester City, Preston North End and then a short period as player-manager of Barrow.

Johnson was known as the Doc. He used to suffer from a sore throat so he always had cough sweets in his bag, along with headache tablets.

“Everyone used to go to my bag to use my gear”, he explained, “Terry Mac went in there one time and took out all these pills and stuff and said ‘It’s like a flippin’ doctor’s bag and after that, it just stuck”

When news filtered through he had died at the age of 71, many in the game were quick to give their tributes.

Former teammate Graeme Souness made an emotional tribute during ITV’s World Cup coverage.

“Extremely sad, when people pass normally everyone says ‘what a good guy’, well this guy was genuinely a good man, a great team-mate, extremely popular in the dressing room, we called him ‘The Doc’ because everyday he’d turn up to training with a bag of medicines and if we had a hangover, a tummy upset, he was the go-to man.

“I can’t tell you how good he was, he was a lovely human being, and didn’t have a bad bone in his body. As a player he was the perfect forward for Kenny Dalglish in those days

“He’d run forward without the ball, extremely athletic, would go for crosses and get himself injured, as I said already he was just a great guy.”

Kenny Dalglish said on twitter;

“Sad news about the Doc. David was hugely popular in the dressing room. A really good guy and condolences to all his family. RIP DOC YNWA”

Phil Thompson reflected on his performance against Argentina in 1980;

‘It’s a very sad day. The Doc was so popular among the lads and he was hugely influential in keeping us all together after we finished playing,’ Thompson said.

‘That performance against Argentina, the great thing was he got a standing ovation that night at Wembley. 

‘He wasn’t too happy being taken off by Ron Greenwood mind, as not many England strikers would be if you were on a hat-trick against Argentina, you don’t get that chance too often but it spoke volumes for how good he was.

Everton Chairman Bill Kenwright also paid tribute;

“That David enjoyed the love and respect of both sides of Stanley Park underlined his qualities both as a footballer and a man. He was one of the few who crossed the divide and managed to retain his reputations with both sets of supporters. That is because he was always honest, hard-working and brave. Rest in Peace Johnno.”

Ipswich Town also posted a fitting tribute to the man on their website,

His ability in front of goal and his selfless running that benefitted his teammates was an integral element in establishing the Blues right at the top of the English game, and as a coming threat in Europe too. He helped put in place the foundation stones that culminated in the coming of silverware in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. A true Town great. 

Rest easy, David.

It was announced on Wednesday morning (23 November 2022) Johnson died of throat cancer.