If you’re looking to get the best Championship betting odds, they don’t come much better than West Bromwich Albion gaining promotion back to the top flight. After eight seasons in the Premier League, the Baggies were relegated at the end of the 2017-18 campaign and struggled to return at the first time of asking. Having finished fourth in the Championship, they lost their play-off semi-final to rivals Aston Villa in heart breaking fashion – it took a penalty shootout to separate the sides.
Sam Johnstone was in goal for both of the ties, having joined that season from Manchester United for a fee reported to be £6.5 million. While he may not look back at the loss with fond memories, he instantly cemented his place in the side. Not only did Johnstone inherit the number 1 jersey from Ben Foster who joined Watford that season, but he played all 46 matches as well as the two legs of the play-offs. Not bad for a player who wasn’t fancied by the Red Devils.
Johnstone started in Manchester United’s academy as a 16-year-old and in his second season was the first-choice academy keeper. The 2011-12 campaign saw the youngster surplus to requirements. With four other goalkeepers including first-choice David de Gea on their books, he went out on loan, beginning his footballing journey at Oldham Athletic. It wasn’t the start he would have hoped for and Johnstone went between the sticks for two pre-season friendlies, before returning to his parent club.
He gained first-team experience and made his debut in League One that season for Scunthorpe United. Deputising for Josh Lillis, Johnstone played 13 games in all competitions for the Iron and returned to Manchester following the end of his spell.
Move after move
The following two campaigns were a bit hit-and-miss for the Preston-born shot-stopper. After spending a month on loan to Walsall, Johnstone went to Yeovil Town on a three-month temporary move. His time at Huish Park was cut short due to a dislocated finger and it was five months before he made his next appearance – this time with Doncaster Rovers. Johnstone spent a successful five months with the South Yorkshire club, to the extent that his loan spell was extended to the following season.
In January 2015, he joined his home-town club, helping Preston North End gain promotion to the Championship. Returning to Manchester and joining the squad on their pre-season tour of the US, Johnstone featured as the second-choice keeper to Anders Lindegaard. Named on the substitutes’ bench for their first Premier League match of the season, Johnstone failed to make the team again following de Gea’s return, and re-joined Preston.
Breakthrough at Villa Park
Despite signing a contract extension with his parent club in October 2016, Johnstone was once again shipped out on a temporary move. He joined Aston Villa in January 2017, making his debut in their FA Cup loss to Tottenham Hotspur before starring in their Championship campaign. In his 21 league appearances, the 26-year-old kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in the division and while Villa finished a disappointing 13th, Johnstone extended his spell by a further season.
After a dizzying decade of loan spells, Johnstone was playing regular football at last. The 2017-18 season saw the keeper ever-present in Villa’s squad, helping them reach the play-offs, although they lost the final to Fulham. At the time, manager Steve Bruce said: “Playing week in week out has helped Sam Johnstone become a very, very good goalkeeper. We are doing our best to keep him if we can and we would love him to stay.” Failing to reach the top flight, Villa’s loss was Albion’s gain and Johnstone moved to their bitter rivals.
£6.5 million move to The Hawthorns
After the disappointment of last season’s play-off semi-final loss, the club has bounced back. Spurred on by new boss Slaven Bilić, the Baggies currently sit top of the Championship. Johnstone is a key figure between the sticks, although their defensive record isn’t the best in the division. Conceding 17 goals in 16 matches, West Brom have only managed four clean sheets thus far and will need to improve on that.
It’s fair to say that under Bilić, Johnstone is reaching his full potential and he has nothing but praise for the Croat. He recently told the Express and Star: “Everyone loves coming into training every day because we all enjoy working under a manager who believes in us and gives us the confidence to go out and perform at our best. He has a really clear way of speaking to all the players.”
Fingers crossed this will be Albion’s year and Johnstone can bounce back to the Premier League, silence his critics and show his former club what they have missed out on.