The irony of Seth Johnson’s transfer to Leeds United was that Derby County agreed to it on the instruction of their own bank.
In trying to ease one financial timebomb, the money-lenders hassling Derby’s board inadvertently helped to create another. Leeds – always good for cash at that point in their history – stumped up £7m and Johnson became their player on October 17, 2001.
Peter Ridsdale was so proud of the signing and so convinced about Johnson’s status as a missing piece from the puzzle that the midfielder’s five-year contract was signed on the Elland Road pitch at half-time of a UEFA Cup tie against Troyes.
Johnson was an England international with a solitary cap to his name and, in the words of manager David O’Leary, a “nice, hungry player” bought at “a good price.” But the deal posed questions of both O’Leary and Ridsdale as calculations showed that United had spent more than £86m on players during O’Leary’s three years as manager.
Ridsdale and O’Leary were unrepentant. “There is always more to come when we talk about strengthening the team,” Ridsdale promised. “We won’t just stop here because we have signed one player.
“We’ll never stop looking for players because we want to build a squad which can compete for honours in Europe and at home. Seth was just one of a number of targets we’re looking at.”
Ridsdale wasn’t bluffing. A month later, he and the board at United invested another £11m in buying Robbie Fowler from Liverpool and duly broke the camel’s back. With that transfer, expenditure on O’Leary’s squad climbed to almost £100m – a sum Leeds raised in part through loans without the means to pay borrowed money back.
Fowler’s move was as much of a failure as Johnson’s proved to be. Reportedly earning in excess of £35,000 a week – an apocryphal tale which was almost certainly untrue – Johnson suffered repeated injuries and was never a convincing fixture in O’Leary’s team. He persisted at Elland Road until the summer of 2005 when United cut their losses and sanctioned a free transfer back to Derby, scrapping a deal which committed them to paying County an additional £250,000 for every 15 appearances up to a maximum of £1.25m.
Johnson was badly injured in the closing minutes of the play-off final between Derby and West Brom in 2007 and retired soon after on medical advice. He’d turned 28 that year.
His transfer to Leeds came 13 years ago this week and is still considered to be the most reckless of United’s signings, with the possible exception of Fowler.
“If I’d done well, no-one would have said anything,” Johnson said later. “But because I was injured and spent so long sitting in the stands on high wages, it became a problem. The stuff around money didn’t help.
“It was a massive move for me and I wanted to go there and do well. But it wasn’t to be.”