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      Sam Johnstone on having the support of SE25 and south London


      The old adage that the job of a goalkeeper is a lonely one has proven unfounded in south London for Sam Johnstone, who says that – in a Crystal Palace shirt – he has never felt better supported by fans or teammates, despite facing some of the greatest challenges of his career...

      This interview originally appeared in the Crystal Palace v Nottingham Forest match programme, updated to mark World Mental Health Day today (Tuesday, 10th October).

      You can get programmes delivered to your door by clicking HERE.

      In the recent press, much has been made of – and plenty speculated about – the ongoing competition between two high-quality goalkeepers over at Arsenal. Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya’s interactions have been judged; interpretations made, body language scrutinised, and conjecture committed to print.

      Perhaps it’s not surprising. The role of a goalkeeper has long been regarded as one of the loneliest in football, with spaces traditionally assigned in squads for just one – often pre-defined, stand-out – starting shot-stopper.

      In contrast, when Dean Henderson sat on the Old Trafford turf 20 minutes into his Crystal Palace debut and appeared to clutch at his thigh, the overriding expression on the face of Sam Johnstone – coming off the bench to take his place – was one of support, of compassion.

      After all, Johnstone knew better than most the kinds of frustrations his close friend – both players were Manchester United academy graduates; Johnstone attended Henderson’s wedding last summer; and the two exchanged phone calls before Henderson’s move to SE25 – had fought through to start the Carabao Cup tie.

      “To be honest, last year was frustrating,” Johnstone replies, candidly, when asked to reflect upon his own first calendar year as a Palace player. “I was used to playing, so not playing was tough, and I was injured quite a bit which I wasn’t used to.

      “I was also trying to settle into a new area in London with my family. That was hard, to be honest. It was a new experience for me.” It’s sometimes easy to forget that the footballers don’t merely exist on matchdays, but face off-the-pitch battles as well.

      “I’ve lived away from home a number of times, but it was the first time that I’d had to move so far away from home. I had to move kids, find schools, and had no family close by for support.

      "It’s a challenge that people maybe don’t realise exists, on top of not playing at first, and being injured.

      “We got through it. That’s football. It was something I had to just kind of deal with as it all happened, because it wasn’t something I’d dealt with before.”

      As Johnstone alludes to, the goalkeeper initially found himself in uncharted territory after his move to south London last summer, joining from West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer.

      The shot-stopper had missed just 11 league games for the Baggies over four seasons, earning automatic promotion to the top-flight in 2019/20. He won the Supporters’ Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards the following season for his Premier League exploits, and earned his first senior England call-up in March 2021.

      Yet for the first two thirds of his debut season in south London, Johnstone struggled to force his way into Palace’s starting XI, making just two League Cup appearances before April and missing a number of matchday squads through injury.

      Knowing the goalkeeper’s character, his reaction will not surprise you.

      Johnstone gave the best response any player could provide: “I dug in, I kept going, and I trained as hard as I could.

      “In that situation, you just want to do your best, every single day. You want to keep doing more, so I was in the gym in the morning, doing extra training and then going to the gym again in the afternoon.

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      It was a new situation for me and it was tough. I knew I had to work hard.

      Sam Johnstone

      “Don’t get me wrong, it was hard, half knowing you weren’t going to play at the weekend. But then, in the back of your mind, you know how quickly things in football can change and if anything happened to your teammate, you would play, so I just had to constantly be ready.

      “It was a new situation for me and it was tough. I knew I had to work hard. Eventually, my chance came at the very end of the season – and I really enjoyed it.

      "Then, through default a little bit” – an aside which tells you much about the humility Johnstone speaks with – “I got back into the England squad through those nine Palace games at the end of the season.

      “The ending was perfect but up until those last nine games, it was a frustrating year. That’s football. That’s just how it is. It’s not meant to be easy and nothing’s a given for anyone.

      “But you kind of forget about the hard times when you’re playing.” These days, that might ring truer than ever.

      After three consecutive clean sheets against Fulham, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest in the Premier League, and a third consecutive call-up to the England squad, good times probably never seemed so good.

      “Obviously I’m happy when I keep a clean sheet – but it’s a team effort,” Johnstone observes. “As a goalkeeper, we work hard every day with each other. We’re a group that train – just the goalies – together, and we’re supportive of each other.

      “I’m happy to be in the team now, playing and, thankfully, getting some clean sheets. Of course, everyone wants to play, but I have to make sure that when I’m on the pitch, I do well. That keeps you in the team, so that’s all I can do.”

      For Johnstone, it is collective – rather than individual – success which brings about the most satisfaction. “I love the whole experience of being a goalkeeper, making saves,“ he says, “but only if we’re winning at the end of the day.

      “It would be great to keep a load of clean sheets, but I’d much rather collect three points. Getting those three points is obviously the best feeling you can have.”

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      It does go a long way. For the lads to hear them [the Palace fans] in front of 70,000 United fans...

      Sam Johnstone

      It was a feeling Johnstone was able to embrace at Old Trafford a fortnight ago as he shut out former club Manchester United, preserving Joachim Andersen’s match-winning strike in the process.

      His return to Old Trafford was made all the sweeter by the backing provided by an away end not only making their second trip to Manchester in the space of five days, but overcoming national rail strikes to do so.

      “They’re brilliant,” Johnstone smiles. “They’re the best fans that I’ve played in front of. Their support earlier in the week, and then again last Saturday with the train strikes, was unbelievable.

      “It does go a long way. For the lads to hear them in front of 70,000 United fans... we could hear them supporting us and I’m glad we gave them the result they travelled for. I’m glad they got it.”

      Could the ‘keeper hear his own name over the Old Trafford humdrum – a rendition of ‘Super Sam Johnstone in goal’, perhaps? “It’s something the fans started singing pretty soon,” he laughs. “It’s great to hear.

      “When you hear it, you find yourself singing along a little bit in your head! I obviously appreciate the fans singing it, and it’s a good song.”

      Given his recent form, there’s every chance that the melody won’t be contained to just Premier League stadia.

      Johnstone’s form over Palace’s last nine Premier League matches in 2022/23 earned him his first England call-up in over two years, and he was subsequently selected again in the September international break, and again this month.

      He remembers of that initial call-up: “It was great! I was in the physio room at the time, just getting my ankle strapped up ready for training, and the text came through which, to be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting. I’d only just come into the team towards the end of the season. Obviously [Nick] Pope was injured but...

      “It’s an amazing feeling when you get that text. You immediately get excited to meet up with the squad, and test yourself with the best players in England.

      “I kept it quiet around the lads at first, but I forwarded the message to my missus and family. I’d never change it, but I was meant to be at a wedding during that period, so I sent it straight to the missus to tell her I couldn’t go!

      “Every time you go away with England, it’s amazing. The standard every single day is high. To be in that setup, and be around it with those types of players and the games and stuff, it’s amazing every single time it happens.

      "You never get bored of it, do you know what I mean?”

      First-season frustrations behind him, settled in south London and feeling the support of fans, family and teammates alike, how does Johnstone now look forward in a Crystal Palace shirt?

      “We have to go again,” he explains. “It’s not easy, is it? Come Saturday, against every Premier League team, it’s going to be completely different.

      “The lads need to keep doing the things the manager asks us to do. We’ve got a good group of lads who we know can go on and win some games.”

      I like it, I like it, I like it. Here we go, oh: super Sam Johnstone in goal...

      If you need to talk to someone, there are many helplines staffed by trained people, ready to listen. They won't judge you, and could help you make sense of what you're feeling.

      • Samaritans, open for anyone, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: 116 123 or email
      • CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), open 5pm-midnight every day for men: 0800 58 58 58.