At just 29, former Warriors utility player Alan Johnson decided he had had enough of the professional football lifestyle and decided to take up junior coaching at the Harare International School (HIS).
BY MUNYARADZI MADZOKERE
Eight years on, he sits back to watch one of his products, Senegalese forward Dominique Badji, scoring goals for fun in Major League Soccer (MLS) for Colorado Rapids in the United States.
In fact, sometimes Badji calls his former coach ahead of high profile matches, especially when he is anxious. Talking to Johnson calms his nerves.
In Europe, another of his players, Christopher Tangeni Nangolo Mbamba, who is Swedish with a Zimbabwean mother, spent the 2016-17 season at relegated English League One side Portvale.
Just the thought of having players he coached at HIS leaves Johnson a fulfilled man, but one of these days he wouldn’t mind boarding a plane to watch footballers he nurtured play at the highest stage.
“I really think junior development is my calling. My ultimate dream is to one day attend a match where some of these guys are playing at the highest level and I think that would be priceless for me,” the former Arcadia and Motor Action star told Standardsport in an exclusive interview last week.
At HIS, where he is getting help from former top players in James Matola and Eddie Mashiri, Johnson has a chance to coach mostly children of diplomats, politicians and other wealthy people.
Johnson has helped a lot of children get football scholarships to colleges in the US and Europe.
As such, he does not harbour any dreams of coaching a professional club.
“When I started coaching the kids, I felt that this was the way. You will never see me coaching in the premier league and I don’t think any amount of money will take me away from coaching the kids. I do not see myself ever coaching anybody who is over the age of 18,” he declared.
With nine Warriors’ caps, Johnson’s professional career was rather short yet very eventful as he played for teams such as Arcadia, Air Zimbabwe Jets, Canadian side Toronto Links then Motor Action as well as Hellenics in South Africa.
He also had a stint in Canada and decided to end his career at a time when an opportunity to play in Cyprus had also opened up.
While his childhood dream was to become a pilot, exploits of the Zimbabwe football legend and role model Peter Ndlovu made him change his mind.
And when he trained with him, it was like a dream.
“I used to watch Peter Ndlovu play on television when I was young and when we played in the streets I used to claim that I was ‘Peter Ndlovu’ every time. That is how I developed a love for football.
“Imagine I actually got to play with him later on in my career. The first time I saw him it was like a dream and it was so weird. I remember tackling him in training and the reporters were on my case saying you want to injure our star player,” recalled the 38-year-old coach.
Locally, Moses Chunga gave the man nicknamed “Ramadan” his professional debut at Arcadia United when he was 17, then still a schoolboy at Prince Edward School with the likes of Tonderai Ndiraya and Fungai Kwashi.
He was playing for CAPS United’s reserve side and looking to one day wrest Dumisani Mpofu’s place in the team.
“Chunga told me that it was better to come play for Arcadia than having to wait until Mpofu retired to get an opportunity to play and it made a lot of sense. I moved and went straight into the first team and people started to know about me,” he said.
Johnson explained his reason for retiring before he got to the age of 30.
“My son Azriel was young and having to move him from a different schooling system was a challenge. My wife Leila was also denied a work permit in South Africa and in the end she had to sit at home. My [agent] Mike Makaab had arranged that myself and Musa Mguni go to Cyprus for one year then Russia after that but me and my wife decided it wasn’t the right move. That is when I decided to call it quits,” he said.
At the same time, an irresistible managerial offer at Spar Athienitis also strengthened the idea of him hanging up the boots.
“I was well looked after at Spar but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was getting more money at Spar but I had to leave so that I could concentrate on my coaching at HIS,” the Gweru-born football star said.
After initially retiring in 2007, the former Warriors defender was initially convinced to go back and play by Rahman Gumbo who was at MTN Wanderers in Malawi then.
He came out of retirement and played for one more season before quitting for good at the end of 2008.
Johnson has an attachment with Malawi where his in-laws live. His son Azriel, a promising footballer, currently based in the US, has a Malawi passport and has already represented that country at Under 20 level.
Azriel (17) plays as a central midfielder and looks set to scale dizzy heights, having already attracted the attention of some European clubs.
“I think he is way better than I was because he can use both feet quite comfortably. US Colleges want him and a professional football side from Denmark wanted him but he was too young to sign a professional contract in Europe.
“Unfortunately, he has swayed towards representing Malawi at international level. Malawi want to slowly integrate him into the senior team. He could still play for Zimbabwe because he hasn’t turned 18 yet but we are going to let him make that decision himself,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s daughter Saliah (10) was in the Zimbabwe Gymnastics team that competed at the Region VI Games late last year and although she prefers hockey, the father is desperate to make a soccer player of her.
Currently Johnson runs two football academies, at HIS with 80 kids and another weekend project which is personal which has attracted over 50 young players and is also held at HIS.
Every August he teams up with US-based former Arcadia star Miguel Lemming and his organisation Ten Toes Africa to host a tournament that sponsors for kids’ scholarships locally as well as abroad.