Bradley Johnson claimed today that he was in the finest form of his career as Leeds United manager Simon Grayson refused to rule out a rethink over the midfielder’s contract.
Johnson said he was “as happy as I’ve ever been” after finding a niche in United’s line-up and emerging from a period of unrest caused by his contractual situation at Elland Road.
The 23-year-old invited internal and external criticism by rejecting Leeds’ final offer of a new deal in November, but he made his 40th outing of the season last weekend – a virtual ever-present record bettered only by club vice-captain Jonathan Howson – and said a concerted run of appearances in a fixed position was responsible for his consistent form.
Grayson has employed Johnson as a defensive midfielder, a role the player described as “dirty work” and United’s manager has shown no appetite for replacing him, despite the prospect of Johnson leaving Elland Road on a free transfer when his existing three-and-a-half year contract expires in June.
The former Northampton Town player raised questions about his future again this week when he said that “his dream was to play in the Premier League and that to do it with Leeds would be a dream”. He is likely to remain a fixture in Grayson’s team for the duration of the Championship season.
Johnson said: “This is probably the best period of my career and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. It’s probably down to being in the same position week after week.
“It’s not the position I’m used to and it’s dirty work but I don’t mind doing it at all.
“I’m having to learn as I go along and it’s a big help having (centre-back) Andy O’Brien behind me. He talks to me constantly and keeps me right – I’ve needed that voice in my ear.
“But it makes a difference being settled and I’m grateful to the manager for showing faith in me. I’m only in this form because he’s stuck with me all the way through.”
News of Johnson’s decision to reject United’s contract offer emerged on November 18, after lengthy negotiations and two days before the game at Norwich City.
The midfielder was engaged in a bitter exchange of words with chairman Ken Bates but, nevertheless, claimed that he still wanted to agree an extension of his contract with Leeds.
A further offer has not been forthcoming and the situation is unlikely to be addressed until the end of the season. United were unequivocal at the time of Johnson’s contract rejection in stating that they had no intention of handing him improved terms.
Johnson was placed on the transfer list but Grayson continued to field him regardless and retained him at the end of the January transfer window.
United’s manager is likely to have planned for the possibility that Johnson and Neil Kilkenny – another midfielder whose contract is close to expiring – will part company with Leeds in the coming months but he appeared open to the idea of reconsidering the situation in May.
Grayson said: “Bradley has stated all along that he wants to stay, from the start of the negotiations we had a few months ago.
“Nothing has changed, but he’s a Leeds player. He’s done well for us since it came out that he’d turned down our contract offer – which he was entitled to do.
“Bradley will decide what he wants to do in the summer and so will we.”
A shortage of midfielders has been one of Grayson’s more serious problems this season, a complication which manifested itself in a heavy defeat at Swansea City last month.
A one-match ban served by Johnson – the only game missed by him since August – led Grayson to abandon his preferred formation with too few players available to name a five-man midfield.
Grayson finally cracked the emergency loan market last week when he signed Barry Bannan from Aston Villa until the end of the season.
Bannan is a Scottish international with experience of both the Premier League and the Championship, but the form of Johnson and Kilkenny kept him on the bench for both of United’s matches against Preston North End and Ipswich Town.
His arrival was seen as a challenge to Grayson’s incumbent midfielders but Johnson said: “I don’t think of it as extra pressure on me. The manager’s shown that he’s got confidence in me and he’s obviously happy with what I’m doing.
“A new player coming in doesn’t make you up your performances. We’re all playing to our maximum anyway, or we should be.
“If you’re not playing well you never expect to stay in the team.
“Barry’s a top player and it’s good to see someone of his quality coming in. It makes the squad stronger.
“The stronger you are as a club, the more chance you’ve got of getting promoted. I don’t think of Barry coming here as a threat to my place.”
United’s chance of promotion has improved since their loss at Swansea – helped by three productive results and mixed form amongst the Championship’s other prominent clubs.
Johnson said that a play-off position was “in our hands” but added that he would see this season as a success even if promotion eludes United in the remaining weeks of the term.
“I’d be disappointed if we dropped out of the top six now,” he said. “But I wouldn’t see the whole season as a disappointment.
“We’ve done more than people thought we were capable of and it goes down as a good season, whatever happens.”