Sometimes one player makes all the difference, and for Bishop Auckland that player is usually Andrew Johnson. And so it proved once again in a hard-fought FA Cup clash with a Trafford team playing one level above the Northern Leaguers.
Johnson’s 11th-minute goal was the difference between the teams as the Two Blues moved into the Third Qualifying Round for the first time in 17 years. His composed finish contrasted with the wayward contributions of the opposing strikers, who had assistant manager Chris Shuker howling in frustration on the touchline.
For Trafford, apparently, that’s been a problem all season. For AJ, though, life at Bishop is a steady string of scoring feats. In his first spell at the club he got 99 goals in 106 games before looking to play at a higher level with Darlington 1883. That only lasted one month before he moved on again to join promotion-chasing Spennymoor Town for a spell that was ultimately frustrating due to a lack of game time. But returning to Bishop in October 2014 got him back among the goals and he’s stayed there ever since.
The stats suggest he’s long overtaken Andy ‘Snapper’ Shaw to become the famous old club’s leading scorer in modern times and a quick look at his game suggests why. Johnson’s a nightmare to mark, full of running and always looking for that half-yard of space that can get him into the danger zone. Whether he’s feeding off knockdowns from Ian Ward – the bulkier half of a classic little-and-large front two – or running onto balls threaded in from midfield, he’s a potent threat across the field. Throw in a willingness to go wide and a more than decent aerial threat (very much on view as he ghosted in to head home Bishop’s second goal at Bedlington Terriers a week earlier), he’s a constant menace to defences at this level.
Which is great for Bishop Auckland, where he’s playing an integral part in the Two Blues’ impressive start to a season that could – finally – see them promoted back to the EvoStik League. But it’s also prompting questions about why he hasn’t moved up to higher level on his own initiative.
The answer, as is often the case, is far from straightforward. It’s probably not due to any lack of ability. Fans at Blyth Spartans remember him as an effective player in Conference North and were surprised that he left the club at a time when there seemed to be a chance to cement his place in the team. At Darlo, barely six weeks of the season saw him score six goals despite battling for a regular place in the starting line-up. He then moved in search of regular football but had similar problems establishing himself in the first team at Spennymoor.
However, in two spells at Bishop Auckland Johnson, now 29, seems to have found a club where he feels entirely comfortable. A great relationship with the fans, a team that plays to his strengths – some would say that is built around his game – and an environment where he clearly feels valued and wanted, giving him the confidence to play his football and score his goals.
While Johnson is on the up, Bishop Auckland also seem to be climbing back from a long spell in the doldrums. Attendances are up this season, the team is in good form and the fans are enjoying what they’re watching. Some even went as far as to suggest that Heritage Park, the shiny new out-of-town arena that the club waited so long to move into, had finally captured something of the terrace atmosphere of the sepia-tinted Kingsway days, when football lived in the heart of the town and the club had a home with a distinct identity. The new ground was essential – Kingsway, shared with the cricket club, was increasingly unfit for football and had to be abandoned in 2001 – but the protracted move and nomadic years of playing in Shildon, Spennymoor and West Auckland took their toll on the club. Now, at last, it feels like better times might be returning.
Heritage Park, Bishop Auckland, England
FA Cup Second Qualifying Round, Sep. 17, 2016
Bishop Auckland 1 (Johnson) Trafford 0