Glen Johnson exclusive: Evra made it clear he didn't REALLY want to shake Suarez's hand
Glen Johnson was five players down the line when Luis Suarez seemingly refused to shake hands with Patrice Evra at Old Trafford last month. He didn’t see it.
The Liverpool defender has watched it plenty of times on television since, though, and he is convinced of what happened.
‘Evra was clever at Old Trafford,’ said Johnson, extending his hand directly towards me. ‘Because – I’m not being funny – but if I wanted to shake your hand I would stick it right out in front of me like that. But if my hand is down here, almost by my side, then it’s because I really don’t want to shake your hand.
On the ball: Glen Johnson is convinced Luis Suarez would never use racist words and backs him over the Patrice Evra handshake affair
‘Luis didn’t shake his hand because Evra’s hand was down there. What else is Luis supposed to do Would you go to shake someone’s hand if their hand is way down there by their side Course not. But then, because Luis didn’t do it, Evra has pulled him back by his arm as he walked on, as if to say to everybody: “Look, I wanted to shake his hand and he didn’t…”
‘He’s following Luis with his eyes as if to say: “Right he’s gone, he’s gone (past me) so I’ll pull him back now…” Evra probably stayed up all night thinking about how to do that. The whole thing was ridiculous.’
This week Johnson became the first member of Kenny Dalglish’s squad to talk in detail about the Suarez-Evra episode, a saga that shook football and – in many people’s eyes – left a dent in Liverpool’s reputation.
It would appear that those who think the resentment surrounding this awful dispute has vanished are quite wrong.
Controversy: Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra caused a storm with their non-handshake
Glen Johnson is the guy who got dragged into a race storm that had nothing to do with him.
Liverpool’s only black first-team player, the England defender has been criticised by other black sportsmen for standing by Luis Suarez after the Uruguay forward was found by the FA to have made racist comments to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra during a game last October.
Former United defender Paul McGrath took to Twitter on seeing Johnson join his team-mates in wearing T-shirts in support of Suarez as they warmed up before a game at Wigan.
‘If I was in Glen Johnson’s position, I would have thrown the shirt to the floor,’ said McGrath.
Weeks later, Worcester and England sevens rugby player Marcel Garvey used the same social network to call Johnson an ‘Uncle Tom’. The term is used to describe blacks who are willingly subservient to whites. When we met this week, Johnson remained baffled. Admirably phlegmatic, but baffled all the same.
‘It’s only an issue because I am the only black lad in the club,’ he shrugged. ‘If it’s bad that the other lads supported Luis then that should be seen as just as bad as me supporting him. But people are on to me because I am black.
‘The McGrath thing … that’s actually racist. Saying what he said is racist. He is only saying that to me because I was the only black lad wearing the T-shirt. He’s targeting me because of my colour.
‘Listen, I’m my own man. If I have something I want to say or do then I will do it. The reason I wore the T-shirt is because I know 100 per cent Luis Suarez is not racist. He is one of the lads in the team that I get on with best of all at the club.
‘I am still on Twitter but I don’t use it much now. I was getting pathetic stuff on there. But that is what people go on it for, to give people stick. I haven’t spoken to Paul McGrath about it. I don’t care what he thinks, really. I don’t know anything about him. But for someone to say that, it sums them up. It’s their problem.
Getting shirty: Johnson showed his support for Suarez, like the rest of his team, by wearing controversial t-shirts before a Premier League game at Wigan
‘As for the rugby guy… well, that was really intelligent wasn’t it I don’t know who this geezer is either. He should stick to playing rugby.
‘If I was to react to everyone’s comments I would be arguing every single day, you know Like I say, for someone like that to write such a stupid message … well, make your own judgment.’
Johnson sat down with me this week in Warrington as part of an obligation to promote a new England sticker collection for children. Scheduled to do a host of media engagements, he was willing and courteous as he talked and signed card after card that would subsequently be distributed to youngsters.
Traditionally not an easy interviewee, the 27–year-old nevertheless spoke openly, intelligently and at length about the Suarez issue. It is clear he has no doubt about his team-mate’s innocence.
Along with many others, I have been fiercely critical of Liverpool’s handling of the affair. Nevertheless, Johnson’s reasoning was compelling to listen to, even if it was not enough to persuade me Dalglish and his club dealt with the issue as well as they should have done.
‘The evidence was Luis’s word against Evra’s,’ argued Johnson. ‘I’m not saying Evra is lying but it’s his word against Luis’s, isn’t it So how did it all turn out to be so strong in Evra’s favour I work with the lad every day. There is no way he said that.
‘With the media these days and the way it was going to be blown up, maybe the T-shirts thing wasn’t the right thing to do. How should I say this We wore them to show our support for Luis. It wasn’t to send a message to everyone else. It was just for him.
Critical: Paul McGrath had his say on the matter after the Wigan match
‘It seemed to come across that we were making a point. We weren’t. It was the club’s idea. But obviously we all agreed. We didn’t really think about how people would react.’
The core argument of Suarez’s defence was that the word ‘negrito’ — which he was found to use to Evra at Anfield last October — is not an abusive term in South America. Suarez has played in Europe since 2007. Many impartial judges believe he should have known better.
Johnson, though, accepts Suarez’s defence. He tweeted his support of his friend the day after the T-shirts came out at Wigan. His loyalty to Suarez is admirable. It is clearly genuine, as is his fear that Suarez may turn his back on the Barclays Premier League.
‘I wrote what I thought on Twitter,’ Johnson recalled. ‘Then when I saw him the next day he came over and said thanks and that it meant a lot to him. I didn’t write that for him to come and say thank you. I just wanted to let people know my point of view. Like it or hate it, I don’t care.
‘It was nice for him to see his team-mates supporting him, I guess. But what people don’t appreciate is that these things stick with people and it can ruin careers. He could get almost forced out of Liverpool. He’s a good lad and a fantastic player and all he wants to do is get on and play football.
‘I can’t understand how people don’t get that in his culture the word “negro” or “negrito” is genuinely normal. Just because he’s out of his country he is not going to stop using his mother tongue. If we went to another country, we would use our slang, wouldn’t we I can’t see why somebody can get in trouble for using his culture in another country.
‘I work with him every day. I know what he is like. Other people don’t. I will not change my view.’
Brought up in Greenwich, south London, Glen Johnson used to fight with those who called him names associated with his colour. Happily for him, he has not had to put his fists up during his years in the professional game with West Ham, Chelsea, Portsmouth and now Liverpool.
‘Obviously, racism was there,’ he reflected. ‘Like any kid I had my fights growing up after somebody called me something stupid and I reacted the wrong way.
‘But I think the game is OK. We have had the two big issues this season, with two high-profile players who you wouldn’t expect it from. But I have never had it in a game from another player. Never.
‘When something like this happens then it seems to put it in people’s minds again and then it happens more for a period until people forget about it again.
‘It’s very frustrating for all the people who work in the anti-racism campaigns. They must think their work is being undone. But I don’t feel like that at all.’
Johnson can empathise with Suarez a little. He, too, has had image problems. During his time at Chelsea and Portsmouth, his commitment to the game was questioned.
Settled: Johnson is enjoying life on Merseyside, and is in a rich vein of form
Two stories stuck with him, one suggesting he forgot his passport on a Chelsea trip — it was actually a club official’s fault — and another that he had tried to steal a toilet seat, of all things, from a hardware store.
‘There were a lot of things said and written that weren’t great,’ he said. ‘It has died down a bit and it is all about football now, which is what I want to be known for. But it took a while and that’s why I feel for Luis. Mud sticks. The B&Q one was ridiculous. There was nothing else to do but laugh.
‘I mean, come on, did anyone really believe I would do that What thief walks through the till trying to pay with their credit card in their hand They are normally running out of the door, aren’t they
‘The thing is that things like that affect everybody. My mum is hearing things she doesn’t need to be hearing. My brother is hearing things he is having rows about.
‘But it’s gone now. Now it’s just about the football. That’s how I want it.’
Settled: Johnson was an 18million signing from Portsmouth by Rafa Benitez
Brought to Liverpool by Rafael Benitez, Johnson suffered a little under Dalglish’s predecessor Roy Hodgson last season. The current West Bromwich manager didn’t always seem to trust his defensive work. It is something Johnson has heard before.
‘It’s just a talking point, isn’t it’ he said. ‘They just say it about everyone. As you get older you improve all areas and hopefully I have.’
Johnson is settled at Anfield. What’s more, he may yet be about to find the England team is managed by Harry Redknapp, the man who first gave him first-team football at West Ham and subsequently took him to Portsmouth. Johnson — who once described Redknapp as his ‘mentor’ — said: ‘Only Harry can decide if he wants it.
‘All I can say is that he’s a fantastic man, a great manager. He has helped me a lot. At the age of 15 he believed in me and gave me the chance to train and play with the first team. He helped my family out a lot when I was growing up. All that side of it.
‘Then he signed me again at Pompey and that was when I played for him properly. He has always had faith in me and that’s welcoming. Not everyone has.’
Say what you like about the modern Liverpool, but it would be wrong to question the club’s unity or sense of purpose. The Premier League season may not yet yield the top-four finish many would consider a pre-requisite, but Liverpool do have the Carling Cup on the shelf.
Liverpool also have Kenny Dalglish, their iconic manager, who is clearly as revered inside the home dressing room as he is on the Kop. Happily for Johnson and his team-mates, though, the Scot has abandoned his early attempts to join in during training.
‘When he first started he trained with us for a couple of sessions but he needed a few days’ rest afterwards and knocked it on the head,’ smiled Johnson. ‘At the end — after the hard work — we have little games and he would join in but everybody was too scared to go near him. It was like, “You can’t tackle Kenny Dalglish!”
‘It was good to see, though. He was a legend as a player and is a legend around the club. He came in and steadied the ship and brought a fantastic coach in Steve Clarke.
‘Training is sharper and he just put a smile on everybody’s face.
‘We are a tight unit. We defend together and do everything together. We are close on and off the pitch. Kenny Dalglish is good at that.
‘He places an emphasis on it and makes sure he involves everybody. We look forward to going into training and you can see that on people’s faces.’
Johnson accepts a campaign that ends without a place in next season’s Champions League cannot be considered an unqualified success.
‘No, I wouldn’t say that it would be a success,’ he said. ‘We need to be in the top four. That’s what we would take above all others.’
Race for fourth: Liverpool are the outsiders to secure a Champions League place
He is clearly a player, though, who is intelligent enough to understand what the club has been through this season. There is a sense that the next one cannot start soon enough. Time to wipe the slate clean.
Johnson has only been at Anfield for two-and-a-half years but has a clear understanding of the importance of the club’s reputation. It is obvious that he takes no pleasure from discussing the Suarez case.
There is no attempt to antagonise Manchester United or indeed Evra. It ought to be stated here that — in this interview — he was merely asked some questions and he answered them candidly.
Like everybody else, he wants to get back to the football.
‘People are now singing, week in week out, that Liverpool are a racist club,’ he sighed. ‘Well, no. We are not. We have had one incident concerning racism that we believe isn’t true. So how can people think like that People wanted something to happen that day. I don’t know why they didn’t just scrap the handshakes like they did before the Chelsea-QPR game.
‘It’s sad because those Liverpool and United games are known for big rivalries, big tackles, great football, love of the game.That day everything was not about the football and that was very sad. It was about everything else.
‘It was good that both clubs came out afterwards and said, “We are over it, it’s in the past. Let’s move on”. That’s how it should be.
‘Everybody should now start loving hating each other again. For football reasons.’
Glen Johnson is a brand ambassador for Topps Match Attax England 2012 — the Official England Trading Card Game — and the all-new England Sticker Collection. For further information, please visit toppsfootball.co.uk. Find Match Attax on Twitter @ToppsMatchAttax