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Marvin Johnson: Luton Town Legend & Coach

Marvin Johnson: Luton Town Legend & Coach

Marvin Johnson is an ex-professional football player who spent his entire playing career with Luton Town FC. After 15 years as a Hatter, Marvin joined the club's coaching set-up, where he stayed for another 7 years. Now coaching soccer in the USA, Marvin chats to Sascha about his career thus far; from successes at Kenilworth Road and his rapport with Luton Town FC fans, to life in America and how he laughed at the first time he heard the term 'Helicopter Mom'. This is a great insight into the life of an ex-player who has experienced all of the ups and downs of a football club, and a coach who has a real passion for helping his players to achieve their dream of gaining a sports scholarship to a top college. 


You are one of the very few professional players who spent their career with one club (Luton Town FC). Can you give us a little background to your playing career - from how you first started in the game to how it felt playing that final game as a defender for Luton Town FC?

I always had aspirations to become a professional football player but I came into the game late. There were quite a few players already on the books and in the academy system at Luton when I joined. I started at the club the year before I left school; training once a week on a Wednesday evening. David Coates was in charge of the youth team at that time and he was a fantastic coach.  I was one of the last players to be told whether I was going to be given an apprenticeship or not and that was a nerve-wracking experience! If I remember correctly, I was told I was going to be taken on as an apprentice around 6 months before I left school, and that was the start of it all really.

I knew I was going to have to make sacrifices but at the same time, I knew that being a professional football player was what I really wanted to do. At 16 years old, leaving school, I had my friends who were all going out… I wouldn’t say I was boring but I was dedicated. I had it in my head that if I wasn’t going to make it as a player, it was going to be because I wasn’t good enough, not because I didn’t try my best or prioritise my football development. It worked out having that focus, and I went on to have a fantastic career at Luton. If you include the time I was with the club as a coach, I spent 22 years there – 15 years as a player and 7 years as a coach. I would have never envisaged that it would have been my career path.


In regard to the first game, I played in a competition called the Simod Cup (Full Members’ Cup). I hadn’t made my debut for the club in the league yet but that was my first game. It was against Everton, at Goodison Park and we won that game 2-1. It was a damp, Wednesday evening and David Oldfield scored both goals. There weren’t a lot of supporters there but I felt comfortable. I was the right level of nervousness and I had the great Steve Foster playing alongside me so he kept me at ease and talked me through the game.

My league debut was against Wimbledon in the same year at the old Plough Lane, against the ‘crazy gang’ as they called themselves. John Fashanu was upfront so that was a baptism of fire for me! We lost the game and I actually gave the first goal away – I can remember it like it was yesterday... The ball got played to me… See, I always considered myself to be a confident player – I would just do what felt natural to me – but I can remember the ball being played to me, I’d taken a bad touch; been closed down; I’d tried to go round the player; the ball had been robbed and they went on to score. I guess I was overly confident! It was in the first 10-15 minutes of the game as well. But I suppose making that mistake in my first game, and then going on to having 440-odd games with the club, means I didn’t do too badly!


And the final game?

Again, it was another cup game. I had already spoken to Joe Kinnear - who didn’t mince his words - and he said, “You’re not getting any younger ‘Johno’. Have you done your badges because… why don’t you come and join the coaching staff with me and Big Mick?” I was going to be working alongside John Moore for a season and then he was going to retire and I was going to take over. For me, it was the most natural progression for my career. I was still registered as a player for emergencies but in that season, I think I only played 2 games, with the last game being against Woking. It was strange because in my head, I was retired and ready for coaching but because I was still there for emergencies, I didn’t know what game was going to be my last. But I liked that it happened that way, the fact it was quiet and without fuss. People who know me will say I am ‘out there’ but I am quite shy – I don’t like being the centre of attention. So I am glad we didn’t have a, ‘This is Marvin Johnson’s last game’ attached to any match because it wasn’t about it being my last game, it was always about the team and the club. Luton Town will still be here when we are all long gone.


And how did you find your coaching experience with Luton Town?

I loved it. Even prior to finishing my career and having the conversation with Joe, I had already thought about pursuing that avenue and had already gained my A and B licences in coaching while I was still playing. A few people told me to do my badges while I was still playing as it would be easier to do it that way.

Coming through the system myself, I think, helped me in the coaching role. A lot of the boys in the academy were aware of who I was and my journey with the club, so it helped to start with a bit of respect already there, as well as me knowing the staff working at the club and what the set-up was.


You were a popular player among Luton Town supporters. What was your experience with the supporters like?

I was always enthusiastic (I still am) and I always wanted to do my very best. I feel that’s what created a bit of respect with the fans – they appreciated the effort and work rate. I didn’t always have the best of games but I think they knew I was always giving 100% and that I was proud to have come through the ranks. Sometimes it’s harder for the players who come through the academy system because they’ve been with the club for a longer period of time and take a bit of flak from the fans.

But one thing I do remember – I don’t know who or how it started – I would go on a little dribble with the ball and I would hear this ‘Marvin for England’ chant. I’m sure there was an element of sarcasm to it but at the same time, I took it as a compliment! I think I was playing ahead of my time because I liked playing out from the back and nowadays, everyone is doing that.

I have a good rapport with the majority of the Luton fans though and I appreciate everything they have done for me. Still to this day, I interact with the supporters on social media and I feel privileged to have been a professional football player with the club.


I always appreciated the fact that fans would be working hard all week and then spend their money watching Luton, as it’s not cheap to watch football. That’s why I never took it personally if I got a bit of stick because coming to the game, was their release after working hard all week and choosing to spend their money watching us. You always knew that the following week, you might have a better game, win 4-0, pop-up with a goal and be back to being loved anyway!


You currently work as a Coach for FC Virginia, along with hosting the My Best Eleven podcast with Andrew McMellon. Has working on a number of projects within football something you knew you always wanted to do, or has it been the case whereby the opportunities have come first and it is that which has driven your workload?

I was working as a consultant before I came out to America, with Kevin Nicholls actually. I was in between jobs so ‘Nicko’ asked me to come on board with him and work on recruitment. I wasn’t doing anything else and I was keen to help out a friend and try something new too.

But coaching is what I love. For me, if you can’t play, you coach; it was always in the back of my mind. Coming over to America was a big change from the UK though because here, I am coaching in what they call ‘Travel Soccer’, which is where girls and boys play with a focus of gaining a soccer scholarship to a top school. I actually didn’t know that was the structure until I got over here but yes, if you are very good at a particular sport, you can get into some top schools. I love that approach and in knowing that my coaching is helping out in regard to education as well as sport.

Check out Marvin's Best Eleven Podcast by clicking the image above, or check out their Youtube channel

The podcast and other projects have just happened. I have been more than happy to embrace those projects though. Andrew, the co-host, had another podcast called ‘It’s not called Soccer’, and he reached out to me to say he was a Luton Town FC supporter living in Melbourne and would I be a guest on his podcast. So I took part in an interview, and once the podcast stopped, we had a general chat and just got on really well. We were talking about podcasts in general and I told him how in the previous 12-18 months I had started to listen to more of them and was really enjoying it. I told him I was surprised that there weren’t a lot of players doing their own podcast too. Anyway, Andrew said, “Why don’t you do one Marv?” I didn’t have a clue where to start and I am somebody who, if I take on a project, I want to make sure I do it properly. Andrew offered to help me with it and after working out the logistics of him being in Australia, me being in America and knowing most of our guests would be in England, it all came together. We wanted it to be a simple format and so we went with the idea of a best eleven. We knew that would be the best way of speaking with our guests, having a laugh and hearing some good stories too. It has worked really well and all of the guests have been fantastic.

A few people have said to me about writing a book too. That’s an idea which interests me but I would need help with it. I’ve always said to my wife that I would love to have my own TV show too – something funny. I don’t think I could be told what my television show was going to be though, I would have to just go off with a camera and do what I wanted to do! I think planned, structured projects like that don’t work – I like things to flow and have a bit of spontaneity. I think that’s one of the reasons why I like doing the podcast because, while the guests know that they are coming on to talk about their best 11, there’s no questions written down; we just have a chat and go by what the guests are saying. You don’t know what experiences they are going to talk about so I like to listen, process it and then ask questions.


On the subject of your podcast, do you have any ‘dream guests’ that you hope will take part in the podcast?

I’ve got to keep my fingers crossed because although he has agreed to come on, we haven’t confirmed anything yet, but it’s Ricky Hill.

I would say he is the best player I have ever played with. He was an unbelievable player and I always felt he could have been bigger. I don’t think he was underrated as such but he was in an era where there were a lot of great players around and while Luton were in the top division, I just felt there was a bigger move there considering the player he was. He should have had more credit. I am hoping he is going to take part in the podcast towards the end of February, which I believe is going to tie-in with a project he is working on too.


Moving back to the coaching... you mentioned the difference between America and the UK in terms of the focus on a school scholarship but are there any other differences? What has your overall experience been like working in America thus far?

In regard to coaching, putting on the sessions and planning the drills is exactly the same as the way I coached in England. I have coached both boys and girls here in America and I told them that I wasn’t going to treat them any differently to how I treated players in a professional group at Luton Town. Of course, the drills can be modified if they are too difficult for their level but I want to stretch their knowledge and ability for the benefit of their development. In the last 3 years, I have only coached girls though and to be honest, that’s the way the game is driven over here; the girls seem to stay in soccer longer than the boys do. The boys probably come into the game at a younger age but when they get to a point where they have this strength and athleticism to them – usually around 14 or 15 years of age – they go down a different pathway like basketball or the NFL. But the girls, once they’re in it, they are in it all the way into college. So I pushed myself into coaching the girls because I have an opportunity to coach them through a journey.


With my knowledge and background, I really want to help those that have this passion to be in the industry and stay within it. For me, I have had to adapt to the way I coach; I have to be more aware of personality because, while the girls do have a mental strength, some of them also have more of an emotional response if I give criticism, compared to the experience I’ve had in giving criticism to the boys. I first noticed it when I saw how the other players were comforting one of the girls after I singled her out. It’s not a negative characteristic or anything I have a problem with, it’s just an understanding that I have to take a different approach to coaching because that human empathy element is more apparent with the girls. I’ve started giving one-to-one feedback more, rather than giving criticism in a group environment. It’s actually been great for me too because as a coach, I want to learn and keep improving.

The parents have been another thing to adapt to, they’re very opinionated. There is a saying out here – which made me laugh when I first heard it – called a ‘Helicopter Mom’. Basically, it means a mum that hovers – she’s just always around! I was cracked up when I heard it but a lot of the parents are driven that way and even though I am the coach, they will tell me that they think their daughter isn’t getting enough playing time or she is playing in the wrong position. I’ve been lucky though as they don’t overly challenge me. I think the fact I am an ex-professional has helped that. Of course, you get the odd parent that does challenge every now and then and I will usually sarcastically say, “I think my 15 years as a professional and my 7 years as a coach means I may know a little bit more than you Sir/Madam.” That usually nips it in the bud!


I guess that competitiveness from the parents is partly driven by the fact the sport is potentially the only driving force to their daughter having a top education. For you, although it comes with extra pressure, it must be a rewarding experience to know you are playing a part in developing an educational pathway as well as a pathway in a sport that you and your players both love?

Most definitely. If I were in England and coaching in an academy, my goal would be to get my players into the first team, whereas here, I am potentially helping a player to further their education. It’s very, very rewarding.


What is the most enjoyable part of being a football coach and at the opposite end, what is the most difficult part?

The most enjoyable part is the social aspect. Every coach is different and I feel the way I coach, and the rapport I have with the girls, is something I value and appreciate and I think they do too. When I was growing up and being coached, I went through this particular structure and coaching sessions were often stopped so players could be told what they were doing wrong. As much as I know that needs to be done, it’s not how I liked to learn or to coach – I prefer to have a smoother session and give the players a chance to work out where they are going wrong for themselves. I’m not saying that’s the right way or the only way but personally, it’s the way I like to coach and I have found the girls enjoy that too.

When you’re kicking a ball around, enjoying yourself and a coach shouts, ‘Stop!’ it’s a bit frustrating because all you want to do is play. So that interaction and rapport with my players, is definitely the most enjoyable part of my role and it’s allowed me to help them with life lessons as well. I want them to learn to engage with adults and take responsibility because at 17 years old, they have to write to college coaches; they can’t rely on their parents to do that for them. They think coach Marvin is cool and relaxed, which is great, but it is quite funny when they forget that I can see what they are posting on social media and I say something to them about it! It’s never anything bad that they’ve posted but it’s just funny that they forget I can see it.

The most difficult part, is balancing my current workload of coaching because unfortunately, I can’t keep everybody happy. Here in America, there are so many teams in the same age group, that they are ranked, so you have your top team, second team, third team and sometimes even a fourth team. I work with the second team and I really enjoy it. I help the other coaches at times but for me, it’s not always about the top team – you want to ensure all of your players develop and feel loved so I prefer working with the second team. But my boss wants me more involved in the top team and it’s a little difficult to try and balance that with what I’m doing. I have 3 teams (U16s, U17s, U19s) that I look after and there’s only seven days in the week, one of which they don’t train on, so trying to delegate my time to help everyone and trying not to upset anyone is difficult; I don’t like to feel I haven’t been able to give any of the teams my time.


What has been your career highlight?

It’s a difficult one for me because even though my career spanned over 15 years with Luton, I didn’t play in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea because I was injured for most of that season, and I didn’t play in the Littlewoods Cup Final in 88. I was in the squad for the Littlewoods Cup game though and that was great – I was playing alongside Kingsley Black and that was the fixture that really elevated his career. He was playing in the first team before that but I remember him being unsure as to whether he would be in the squad for that game, so that was brilliant for him.

But I think my whole career is a highlight for me...

Then again, I don’t like to sit on the fence so if I had to pick one highlight, I scored a goal away at Tranmere in a game we won 2-0. Tranmere hadn’t been beaten at home since the start of the season and we played them in the February so to win that game, score and break their unbeaten record, was a highlight for me. Also, towards the end of my career in my last full season under Joe Kinnear, I scored against Hartlepool at home – it was the promotion season – a 2-2 draw. I started on the bench and with 20 minutes to go, I came on as left-back, Matty Taylor pushed forward…

I scored roughly 10 or 11 goals in my career but that goal was my favourite and it just happened to be my last goal. It was such a team goal and the way we played and moved the ball for that goal was brilliant. I think it started with David Bayliss and after a 7 or 8 man move, I ended up putting the ball into the back of the net! It was a perfect last goal because football is a team game and this was a team goal of the highest standard.

I played my part in the promotion too – the only promotion success I had - but strangely, it isn’t the first thing I think of. It really is just looking back on my whole career. To say that I played in the old English First Division and know that I was good enough to do that, is a real highlight for me. The only other time we came close to promotion was under Lennie (Lawrence) and we played Crewe in the play-off semi-finals. Looking back, it’s disappointing we didn’t fulfil our potential that season because we felt like we were a good team and it was an opportunity missed.


You don’t realise it at the time but when you look back and remember you have played at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford… well, it just felt like the norm at the time. You wouldn’t have dreamt about swapping shirts back then either! I wouldn’t trade those memories and experiences for trophies and medals. I’m so happy that I can say I played in the top division and I had a successful career in regard to playing at many top, top grounds and had a great life because of it.


What advice would you give to those players looking at their options as they approach the end of their playing career and in addition, what general advice would you give to those individuals who are looking to work in other areas of the football industry?

If you’re coming towards the end of your playing career, it’s the same advice that I was given and that’s to do your coaching badges because the help and support is there. Even if you feel like it may not be the route you go down after retiring, it’s still there for you as a back-up. I didn’t know categorically, that I was going to be a coach; it was in the back of my mind but not a guarantee. But I am thankful that I gained my badges. Don’t put it off either – do it now and then you’re ready.

For general advice, just be yourself. You being you is the most unique thing. You might be bringing something new to the table just because of who you are and not because you’re trying to be someone that you’re not. Don’t be an actor, be yourself because 9 times out of 10, people will embrace you and you’ll go onto being successful.


Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown

Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.