Tomorrow England will take on one of the giants of European football under the eye of a caretaker manager more used to handling the Under-21s and with a squad heavy on new names and youthful faces. It has happened before – but only once – and memories have predictably returned to the match against Italy in 2000 when Peter Taylor's experimental selection lost in Turin.
The squad did not include a single player aged over 30 but in the end Taylor's chosen team did not look so bizarre – the first XI were to go on to win on average 55 caps each. But Taylor's temporary tenure will be remembered for two things: introducing David Beckham to the captaincy and giving Seth Johnson his only cap.
Johnson's call-up was unexpected for several reasons: he was 21, was playing for the Premier League's bottom side and was not in very good form. "This has come as a bit of a shock," he said after the squad was announced. "Derby are not doing well and I don't think I am playing as well as I can. I have only had four bookings this season and, although that doesn't sound great, it's good for me!"
As that quote suggests, discipline was an issue. Johnson's manager at Derby, Jim Smith, admitted that his player "can sometimes be too hard in the tackle". One opponent, Aston Villa's George Boateng, went further: "I can't believe any player with such a bad attitude ever made the England squad," he said, after the pair almost came to blows as Derby beat Villa 1-0 in a particularly bad-tempered match. "I think he should learn to kick the ball instead of the player. It's a shame for English football because players like that don't deserve to be capped by their country."
Taylor claimed Johnson's selection – and those of the also uncapped Michael Ball and Paul Robinson, neither of whom played – was not only justifiable but necessary. "The only way to find out if they are up to the task is by putting them in the squad and then throwing them in the deep end," said Taylor. "If we don't take a chance, we'll never know how good they are."
Taylor's decision very nearly looked inspired: Johnson came on in the 73rd minute and would have scored with his first touch but for the brilliance of Gianluigi Buffon. "I can't remember who crossed the ball in but, as it came across the box, I was quite far out, on the edge of the penalty area," he recalls. "I just sprinted in, managed to get my toe on it and Buffon made the save. I was only five or six yards out so I should have scored." Italy won the game 1-0.
"I remember coming on for Gareth Barry and standing on the touchline next to Alessandro Del Piero, who was coming on at the same time," Johnson says. "It was a bit surreal, standing there next to such a massive name in the game, such a legend. It was a really strange time, you just had to pinch yourself a little bit. I wondered what I was doing there at one point."
Johnson's rise brought tremendous pride to Crewe's serial talent-spotter Dario Gradi, who had discovered the midfielder while on a trip to Devon with Crewe's youth team. A match against Dawlish Generals was cancelled at the last minute and a number of their players – including Johnson – still turned up, to find nothing but a few Crewe players training on an empty pitch. Gradi asked if they would like to join in. "We spent the whole day with the lads, we went go-karting, and they gave us some gear and stuff," he says. "After that Dario kept in touch and it went from there."
"He looked keen, hungry and lively, so I offered him a week's trial," said Gradi. "I've taken teams to Dawlish since my time at Chelsea and I thought it would be nice if we allowed one of their boys to come up to Crewe for a week. I didn't expect much but Seth proved better than we thought."
Johnson broke into the team as a 17-year-old and had made 80 league starts by the time Derby first tried to sign him a few days after his 20th birthday. It was transfer deadline day, March 1999, and Crewe at the time were 23rd in the division now known as the Championship with nine games to play.
"We accepted the bid but Seth told us the deal was off because he didn't want to leave with us in so much trouble," said Gradi. "He stayed on and endeared himself to Crewe fans forever with that gesture. It was typical of him as a bloke."
Crewe won three of their last four matches to finish one point (but four places) outside the relegation zone and Johnson left for Derby that summer for a fee of £3m – three times as much as Crewe had accepted in March. "I took a lot of pride in Seth deciding to stay," said Gradi. "The only trouble with kids is that they grow up and can change. Seth hasn't. He's become the man we hoped he would be."
Johnson's combative and whole-hearted displays at Derby made him extremely popular with the club's fans but led inevitably to transfer rumours. Early in his third season in the Midlands, and a little under a year after his international debut, Johnson was on the move again. He had been frequently linked with Leeds United but on 10 October their chairman, Peter Ridsdale, said the rumours "have certainly got nothing to do with us", adding: "I can assure you there is absolutely nothing happening." Seven days later Johnson signed for Leeds. "We have been tracking him for some time," said Ridsdale. The fee was £7m, rising to £9m depending on his future success at club and international level.
The story of Johnson's contract negotiations with Leeds have passed into legend, a chilling damnation of Ridsdale's spendthrift regime. It goes as follows: Johnson had been earning £5,000 a week at Derby and his agent told him he wouldn't settle for less than £13,000 a week at Leeds. Ridsdale's opening gambit, however, surprised them both. "Right, I'm sorry, I can only offer you £30,000 a week," he said. Around the table jaws dropped in genuine shock. "Oh, all right then," said Ridsdale, filling the silence, "£37,000."
The story is untrue. Ridsdale says it is "a myth", that he had seen Johnson's contract at Derby and his actual offer was "two grand more than what [he was] getting" there. Johnson's agent, Leon Angel, said: "We went into that meeting with a figure in mind for what we wanted. We negotiated and I can tell you we didn't get everything we wanted. In other words, it was a perfectly normal negotiation."
Johnson says he had just signed a new contract with Derby. "So I was on decent money there and, if you go to a team that's top of the league, you're not going to go for less money. But I wasn't going there for the money, that wasn't even an issue for me."
Had Johnson and Leeds gone on to great success all would have been forgotten but his time there was little short of disastrous. When he signed, Leeds were top of the Premier League after winning five and not losing any of their first eight games of the season; when he left four years later they had finished 14th in the Championship.
In that time he played only 59 times, his availability limited by injuries, at least until the final months. As part of the deal that brought him to Yorkshire Leeds were to pay a further £250,000 every 15 appearances, up to a maximum of £1.25m. In April 2004, his 53rd game, Johnson sustained a knee ligament injury that was to keep him out for 11 months. When he came back Leeds, by then practically destitute, refused to trigger the next bonus. "He's cost us £230,000 a game," complained Ridsdale's replacement, Ken Bates. "Both himself and Derby must have been laughing their socks off at that deal. What sort of value is that for this club and its fans?"
"A lot of unfair and incorrect stuff was said about me at the time," says Johnson. "It just didn't work out for me there. If I'd went and done well, no one would have said anything. Because I was injured, and spent so long just sitting in the stands on high wages, it became a problem. All the stuff around the money didn't help. It was a massive move for me. I wanted to go there and do well but it wasn't to be."
That summer, after his contract at Leeds was cancelled, the player returned to Pride Park. He was particularly impressed by the new training facilities, which had been almost entirely funded by his sale to Leeds. In his first season he made 30 league appearances but the Rams finished a dismal 20th. He was again a steady presence the following season, making 33 appearances as Derby's fortunes were transformed under the stewardship of Billy Davies.
The last came in the play-off final against West Bromwich Albion. Derby were 1-0 up in the 87th minute when Johnson's knee gave way and he fell to the ground. Derby held on to secure promotion to the Premier League but Johnson would never play again.
"I had surgery. It was a well-respected surgeon," he says. "When I came round, he said: 'If I were you, I'd call it a day.' He said it would just keep happening. I half-heartedly tried to get back fit, went for a few jogs on my own to see how it was. I got back home and I couldn't walk. I didn't want to go through all that for nothing and, if the surgeon says I should pack it in, it says a lot really."
That was four years ago. Johnson is only 32. "I don't do very much these days," he says. "I've never been one to do coaching and things like that. I tried a bit of scouting but that wasn't for me either – there's too much writing involved. I thought you just went to the game and watched the football.
"I found it very difficult, going from football every day to this. You don't realise how big a shock it is. I've found it hard to find something I want to do, because there's nothing else that I've liked, really. If you're going to do something you might as well have a passion for it but there's nothing else I've ever had that passion for. I still love football. I'll watch anything but it's not the same, is it?"