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