As far as West Ham United’s hierarchy are concerned, there has been a change of heart when it comes to Ben Johnson’s future.
The 23-year-old is entering the final months of his current deal and has attracted interest from Crystal Palace and Championship side Leeds United. West Ham’s recent contract offer was a four-year package, but both parties failed to reach an agreement. With talks reaching an impasse, the club viewed it as their final offer, with Johnson having rejected two contract extensions.
The versatile defender wants assurances about playing time. Having impressed in cameo appearances against Bristol City and Sheffield United earlier this month, West Ham hope to start negotiations again in the coming weeks. It is Johnson’s preference to stay in the Premier League and he is willing to see out the remainder of his deal if he fails to agree to new terms.
Johnson turned down new six-year deal at West Ham but is still under contract until 2024
The former England Under-21 international has only made nine appearances under manager David Moyes this season. He has struggled to dislodge first-choice right-back Vladimir Coufal. The goalless draw against Brighton & Hove Albion on January 2 was Johnson’s first league start of the campaign, but Coufal is suspended for West Ham’s next league game against Bournemouth and Johnson will likely deputise.
Johnson played in midfield in the 2-2 draw against Sheffield United last weekend, having replaced Maxwel Cornet as a second-half substitute. Johnson joined West Ham at the age of seven and was a midfielder from under-9 to under-16 level but was converted into a full-back under academy coaches Mark Phillips and Steve Potts. Johnson’s versatility is one of his strengths and Moyes praised his performance afterwards.
“I thought we needed to have some control and Ben was probably unlucky not to start,” said the West Ham manager. “I thought he played well when he came on the other night. When he came on, we had more control in the game when we switched to three in midfield.”
Johnson has made 92 appearances in all competitions since his first-team debut away to Manchester City in February 2019. The versatile defender won West Ham’s young player of the year award in 2021 and 2022. He also comes from a sporting family, with former Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Ledley King his cousin, while former Manchester United defender Paul Parker is his uncle. Johnson’s father, Mark, played football at non-League level and another uncle is Neville Douglas, a former England schools sprinter.
For Johnson, 2023 was a year of both highs and lows. He got engaged to Jessie, his long-term girlfriend, and won both the UEFA Europa Conference League and UEFA European Under-21 Championship with England.
But he suffered the ignominy of being at fault for all four goals in a 4-0 loss away to Brighton & Hove Albion in March. Johnson played six successive games leading up to that fixture. After that bruising defeat, he did not play in the Premier League again until West Ham’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City in May.
“It was a tough day for Ben, but he’s a young boy,” said Moyes after his team had been heavily beaten at the Amex Stadium. “That’s the way it is — you have to learn on the job sometimes and hopefully he learns a lot from today.”
Johnson responded to that setback by helping West Ham avoid relegation last season.
Despite helping the club win their first major trophy since 1980, Johnson was candid about whether he should have received more chances along the way, with the defender featuring in the first leg of his team’s quarter-final success over Gent but remaining an unused substitute in West Ham’s three subsequent Conference League games, including June’s final triumph over Fiorentina in Prague.
“I was gutted not to play in the semi-finals or final,” Johnson told the Evening Standard in June. “But I contributed in the early stages in some crucial games which got us there.
“I really did feel part of the team. He (Moyes) will go down as one of West Ham’s best managers. I would have loved him to play me more, if I’m being honest. I feel I’ve impressed him enough to warrant more opportunities but that’s football and we’ll see what the plan is for me. When another final comes, hopefully I’ll be playing in it.”
Despite Johnson being capable across the back four, he has mainly played at right-back for West Ham. Broadly, though, he has struggled to replace Coufal for several reasons.
The Czech Republic international creates more chances in the final third and is more attack-minded than Johnson. The latter has struggled with registering assists, with just two across 92 appearances. Coufal, by comparison, has produced 17 in 109 league appearances.
Johnson is aware of the areas he needs to improve and often mentions his faith in God as a key factor behind his positive mindset.
“Football is difficult and I don’t think I could do it without my faith, which has made me a lot stronger and a lot calmer and it has helped me go further in my life,” Johnson told West Ham’s official website last month. “It’s difficult for them (Johnson’s friends and family) to see that, unfortunately, I’m not playing as often as we’d all hoped, but as a family, we all stay optimistic and that’s from the foundation of our Christian faith, which is to be expectant and optimistic, continue to pray, work hard and be as professional as I can for me and everyone around me.”
Johnson offers a lot of versatility to Moyes’ squad, but he is at a critical point in his career and needs to play regular football. Whether that will be at West Ham remains to be seen.
(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)