Sat almost in the shadow of a flyover, just off the ring road, the home of Dunkirk FC might not sound like the most glamorous of venues. But the Ron Steel Sports Ground could hardly have been a more perfect starting point for the career of Brennan Johnson.
Nestled on the opposite bank of the River Trent to the City Ground, the approach to the ground, down a quiet lane, takes you past the renowned Restaurant Sat Bains.
From humble beginnings playing next to the only venue in Nottingham with two Michelin stars to playing for the only side in the region with two stars on their shirt.
In the coming days, 20-year-old Johnson will hope to help Steve Cooper’s side cut a path back into the Premier League for the first time in his lifetime.
Given his history and that he grew up in West Bridgford, barely a wayward shot away from the stadium, playing a part in helping Forest win promotion would mean the world to a young man who idolised players like Robert Earnshaw, Britt Assombalonga and — even though he has only faint memories of watching him play — another Johnson who wore the No 9 shirt.
Johnson junior has the No 20 and often a slightly wider role in the side. But he is no less of a goal threat than his dad, David, having netted 16 Championship goals, as Forest pushed Bournemouth hard for second place. He will hope to add to that tally as Forest face Sheffield United in the play-off semi-final over two legs, starting at Bramall Lane.
But it was in more humble surroundings that Forest’s most valuable asset, and one of their most influential players, began his journey.
It was no surprise that Johnson ended up at Dunkirk. His father had a spell as chairman of the club after having his playing career cut short by injury. The striker had attempted a short-lived comeback, playing a few games with The Boatmen, who play in the United Counties League Division One. But while his story ended on those pitches by the Trent, his son’s was only just starting.
Aged eight, Johnson joined Forest after impressing on trial.
“When I signed for Forest, I did not really think about whether this would happen to me at this point… I just wanted to play football — that was all it was for me then,” says Johnson.
“I just wanted to keep enjoying my football. And that is what happens here (at Forest). They let you enjoy it. They do not take it too seriously when you are young, which really helps. As you get older, as you get closer to the first team, then they start to work you really hard to install the traits you need. But at the start it is just about playing with a smile on your face. That’s all I have ever tried to do.”
In the home dressing room at the City Ground, the Forest under-18 side were preparing themselves to face Chelsea in one of the biggest games of their careers — the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup. Late in the day, somebody came up with the idea that it would be great for some of the academy graduates playing in the first team to deliver a pre-match pep talk.
At short notice, Ryan Yates, Joe Worrall and Johnson duly obliged.
Yates and Worrall were typically bullish, delivering chest-thumping words. Johnson was more reserved. No less vocal, but seemingly grateful to be part of their day.
“It reminded me of my own journey. I did not make it as far in the FA Youth Cup, but it was good to give the lads a few words of advice,” says Johnson.
Forest went on to beat Chelsea 3-1 to earn a place in the final at Old Trafford, where they were unlucky to be beaten 3-1 by Manchester United.
A decade ago, another young Forest team had begun to impress. A 10-year-old Johnson was in a group that included Arvin Appiah and Riley Harbottle, while Alex Mighten would often play in the team despite being a year younger.
For years, a debate raged at Forest over who would evolve into the better player — Johnson or Appiah. The two young men were more friends than rivals and remain close, despite Appiah’s £8-million move to Almeria in 2019.
In the early years, Johnson was a midfielder. His passing ability, rather than his pace, initially stood out, meaning that he was even used in a deep-lying role. He was not physical; he was quiet and unassuming. But he possessed fierce drive and determination — which he needed to help him overcome a bad knee injury at 15.
After the injury, his development quickly accelerated — as did his speed. He began to be used in a more advanced role. Those who worked closely with him could see he had lovely technique with both feet and a footballing brain to match.
A key part of the ethos at Forest is to ensure that, when young players see a shirt hanging in the first team dressing room — with their name on the back of it — for the first time, they see it as an achievement, rather than a burden. While there has been plenty of Premier League interest in Johnson — and there will be again this summer — he has been brought up with Forest, in every sense, and retains a strong affinity for the club.
“You can see that the players who played in the Youth Cup final are the same (as you); you can kind of tell. They look like a Forest team; you can see how they have been coached,” says Johnson. “You can see it in the likes of Yatesy and Worrall as well. Forest are good at bringing players through the right way.”
In 2018-19 Johnson scored 17 goals in 28 appearances for the under-23 side. He followed that up with 12 goals in 18 appearances the following season. He remained humble, unassuming and grounded, but there was an arrogance; a bit of swagger starting to show on the pitch.
Former winger Arron Davies remains close friends with Chris Cohen, with the duo having signed for Forest together in a £1.2-million joint deal from Yeovil Town in 2007 — and spent a lot of time watching Johnson play with the Forest under-23 side Cohen coached.
“Every time I saw Brennan play, I am sure he scored,” says Davies. “Even when he has a quiet game, he seems to have an impact. He plays with freedom. He is direct and wants the ball.
“Everything is so rigid and technical in football now — and he can be disciplined. But he is just refreshing to watch. He is a gifted, natural footballer. He is quick and he never misses a chance to show that. But he has always been that way, from the first moment I saw him.”
In the Forest dressing room, during the 2019-20 season, there was a growing belief that Johnson was ready for a first-team opportunity.
“I always felt that he should have been involved more regularly in the first team before he was,” says former defender and fellow Forest academy product Michael Dawson.
“You are not in the Forest academy unless you have ability. But he was one that was always talked about. You could see straight away that he was a great striker of the ball; that he was capable of delivering it where players wanted it. When you see a player like that, you know that they have something special. In one-on-one situations you would not want to be against him. He could finish from all sorts of different positions.
“When that was me, training with the first team for the first time, I remember people telling me, ‘Make sure people know you. Make sure the manager knows who you are by the time you have finished that session’.
“Johnno did that. He has always been lovely on the eye from day one.”
Michael Appleton has known about Brennan Johnson for longer than most. He has been friends his father, David, for many years from their days together in the Manchester United youth system. He was at the Johnsons’ wedding in 1996, where he received a “rollicking” from Brennan’s mother, Alison, for turning up a little worse for wear. It was the day England beat Spain on penalties at Euro ’96 and Appleton had enjoyed the game with some refreshment before heading to the wedding.
So when Johnson became available for a loan in the summer of 2020, the then-Lincoln City manager was perfectly placed.
“I knew he’d make a difference as soon as I started working with him,” Appleton says. “You could tell straight away he was a match-winner — defenders were scared stiff of him. He’s clearly got electric pace but it’s one thing having that, it’s another knowing how to use it.
“In his first appearance he came on for 15-20 minutes against Charlton, and straight away they were on the back foot — they would back off rather than press. It was 20 minutes of ,’Oh my god, we’ve got a right player here’.
“There would be games where my staff would be on at me: ‘Gaffer, you need to take him off, it’s not happening today’. And I was just like: ‘Shut up, sit down, he’ll win us the game’.
“He’s such a quiet lad. He does his work, goes home, he’s got a fantastic family. I don’t think he ever missed a day’s training. We played over 60 games and he wanted to play in every one of them. That gives you a little bit of feel for the lad.
“All I tried to do with him as give him a bit of freedom. As long as we got the ball to him, he’d do the damage.”
Johnson himself believes his time in Lincoln was vital to his development — not least his experience in the play-offs, even if Lincoln were beaten 2-1 by Blackpool in the final. Johnson had set-up Lincoln’s first-minute opener.
The quickest goal *ever* in a third-tier play-off final…😬
Lincoln City are in dreamland but it’s a nightmare for Ollie Turton at Wembley! pic.twitter.com/JsJgtWdTxw
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) May 30, 2021
“It was a great experience, even if we could not get the job done. People tell you just to play a normal game. But it is not. There is something unspoken,” says Johnson.
Former Forest manager Chris Hughton has been given plenty of flak for failing to give Johnson a chance earlier, as he finished the season with 10 goals in 40 League One appearances.
Steve Cooper, his successor, is pragmatic. “Loans are so important for young players,” Cooper says. “Even if they do not go well, they are still a huge benefit. As soon as a player hits 19, if they are not playing regularly, then they need to go somewhere where they will. That is where the real development is. Brennan is a good example of that. The exciting thing for me is that he is only getting better.”
With Lewis Grabban injured, the 16 Championship goals Johnson has provided have been vital. Of those, 11 have come since January but it is the 9 assists Johnson has laid on that have impressed his manager just as much.
“It is not just about the assists and goals — it is all the assists that haven’t been converted and all the shots he has had saved,” says Cooper. “He has such a clear mind in the final third. He is very productive, because of his decision making, his quality and ability to create and score chances. Goal involvement is something we look at. Assists can be amazing, but it might be a simple pass after somebody else has done something amazing.
“Brennan gives us those things. He is a really, really good character. He is humble, he is hard-working — he has a steely, determined side to him as well, which is perhaps not the most noticeable thing. There is a fierce character behind it all.”
As if there was not enough at stake when Forest go toe-to-toe with Sheffield United, there is another sub-plot.
Forest’s 4-3 defeat in a dramatic second leg at Bramall Lane in 2003 only served to intensify the rivalry with Sheffield United. David Johnson was in the Forest side and admitted that he shed a tear. It is impossible to escape the thought that his son might put a few ghosts to rest.
Johnson, understandably, plays talk of the past down. His focus is on the present day. He, like many 20-year-olds, still lives at home and, while he has not asked him to exact any revenge, his dad does remain a useful source of advice.
“I usually just chill when I get home from football. I wouldn’t say we talk daily about Forest. Before a game he will give me advice, but normally it is just the usual family stuff,” says Johnson. “He has not mentioned it (2003)… I have watched a few videos. It is a different time and a different game now. I have a really good circle around me. They make sure my focus is right.”
That does not mean Johnson is short of motivation.
Having been at the club for more than half his life and lived in the city for all of it, he understands what promotion would mean for the city and for his team-mates — particularly the likes of Worrall, Yates and Mighten, who have followed the same path.
“Growing up watching Forest, there were a few times when we got to the play-offs; when we got close to promotion. Now I have a chance to be involved in helping to achieve that,” says Johnson. “We have all lived in the area for most of our lives and want to bring joy to the city.
“We all just want to be remembered for being the team that gets us back into the Premier League.”