STEVEN JOHNSON was a ball boy at Darlington at a time when Sean Gregan was beginning to make a name for himself at Feethams and Robbie Painter and Steven Gaughan were among the Tin Shed’s crowd favourites.
Two decades later and his is the name chanted by Quakers fans after playing a major part of the club’s Northern League titlewinning season.
From starry-eyed teenager to Darlington goal-getter, Johnson is the archetypal local hero and tomorrow evening, when the club plays a Sunderland XI in a friendly, fans have an opportunity to say thank you and farewell to one of their own.
His job, and a niggling knee injury, mean he is unable to fully commit to the cause in the Evo-Stik League, so the 32-year-old has taken the brave decision to walk away from a club where he admits to having realised a dream.
He scored 15 goals in 29 appearances last season, most as a substitute.
Not that he ever complained about being on the bench.
He said: “I didn’t mind being a sub, I just loved being involved and I said that from the start.
“It was great to be part of it and the fans were brilliant with me, singing my name all the time. I’d be driving home from a match and I’d be buzzing all the way – last season was unreal, it was like a dream and I’ll never forget it.
“My mam and dad came to every home game and my dad used to bring my lads with him. I was proud, especially when the crowd were singing my name. The hairs would stand up on the back of my neck.
“Last season was surreal, playing for Martin Gray, who has been there and done it, and Brian Atkinson and Tony Norman. Sean Gregan was my hero when I watched Darlo.”
Born and bred in the town, Johnson attended Eastbourne School and played for Darlington 21st Allstars as a kid, but, unlike like many that go on to play in the Northern League, was never in the youth ranks at a professional club. He was even turned down by Darlington when he offered to play for free two years ago in the midst of administration.
He said: “I walked to the Arena, I only live around the corner, I went into reception and I asked if there was anyone I could speak to about playing.
“I knew they had no money. I said I’d pay my own expenses and me and dad would’ve travelled to the away games, we didn’t mind, I didn’t want a penny. But nobody got back in touch.”
Having turned 30 and with a young family to support, after leaving West Auckland Johnson was on the verge of hanging up his boots until he got his chance in the summer of 2012 as his hometown club geared up for the Northern League.
“I was working away in Plymouth at the time,” he says. “I’d had enough of football really so I was going to concentrate on work. I knew Darlington were going to be in the Northern League, but I didn’t think I’d get a phone call in a million years.
“I was busy and couldn’t answer the phone so a voicemail got left. When I got chance I listened to it and it was Harry Dunn saying he was scouting for Darlo and asking if I was interested in going on trial. Well I downed tools and rang him back straight away!
“I did a bit of training, played a few games and then that game at Glasshoughton Welfare came when I scored a hat-trick. Afterwards Martin Gray said ‘You’ve done enough, we’re going to sign you’. I was buzzing, that’s all I can say, absolutely buzzing.”
A fantastic year followed which included his 15 goals, sometimes jumping into the crowd to celebrate and the fans singing “he’s one of our own”.
He says: “The closest I’d come to winning the title was with Consett one year when we lost the title by a point. That was devastating.
I’ve had a few good Vase runs, but nothing compares to last season. It was unbelievable.
“Scoring against Guisborough in the last home game was a good one because my wife and kids were there and I ran over after I scored and gave them a kiss. That was a good moment, I’ll never forget that one.
“The winner against South Shields stands out. Jack Norton had made an unbelievable save, kicked the ball out and from there I went round the keeper and put it in – the crowd were going mental. I was on Twitter at the time and I was getting tweets all night until the early hours of the morning!
“I could go on all night about my best memories, but one that stands out for me is the presentation night. It was unbelievable and seeing Martin Gray dancing on top of a table will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
This season, however, has been different.
A knee injury dogged him in pre-season and the impact of his job – he works nightshift doing railway maintenance – means it’s time to go.
He said: “I met Martin and Brian after a game two weeks ago. I said enough’s enough. I’m too tired, I’m drained constantly and football’s not helping. For an away game on a Saturday we set off at 10.30am, but I don’t get in from work until 5.30am. And then I work on a Saturday night as well, so it’s taking too much out of me.
“I’ve been doing this job for nearly a year now and I’ve just been dealing with the hours, but it’s got to a stage where I can’t do it anymore and my wife’s six months pregnant with our fourth child. So my family come first, but believe me it was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my life.”
By way of thanks, Gray has said Johnson will receive the proceeds from tomorrow’s game at Heritage Park. Although he appreciates the gesture, Johnson says he would rather the club keeps the money.
Once a fan, always a fan.
“I was thinking of packing in altogether, but I regret that in years to come so I might play in the Northern League again,” he added. “I’ll still come to Darlo home matches to see the lads though.”
Perhaps he’ll be a ball boy again?
“I think we used to get a pound and a mince pie for being a ball boy,’’ he recalled.
“And we used to get into the ground for nowt’, that’s why we did it!
“Sean Gregan was playing Bernie Slaven, Mark Prudhoe, that era. I used to love standing in the tunnel with the players until they walked out, I’d try to stay there as long as I could.”