For Crystal Palace, it was the deal of the century. In the summer of 2002, the Eagles sold Clinton Morrison to Birmingham City in a part-exchange transfer. The Blues paid Palace £3.5m in cash for the Ireland international and also sent them Andy Johnson as a makeweight. There is no debate over which club got the better end of the deal.
Morrison had a few bright moments in a Birmingham shirt, but he was back at Palace within three years having scored just 14 goals in 87 league appearances. By that time Johnson was firmly established as a Palace legend.
Few knew what to expect from the striker when he first rocked up at Selhurst Park. The most memorable moment of his career up that point was his costly missed penalty for Birmingham against Liverpool in the 2001 League Cup final. Johnson had struggled to nail down a starting spot at St Andrew’s: he was named in the first XI just nine times in the First Division in 2001/02, and ended his Birmingham career with an average of a goal every eight matches.
It was a different story at Palace. His inclusion in the deal which took Morrison to the second city was insisted upon by Trevor Francis, a manager who did not have much success at Selhurst but nevertheless deserves credit for his work in bringing Johnson to the club. He had worked with Johnson at Birmingham and clearly saw something in him, while he warned chairman Simon Jordan of the perils of selling Morrison without having a replacement lined up.
Johnson made his debut in the red and blue against Preston North End on the opening day of the season. It was not the best start for the 21-year-old, who was substituted at half-time after suffering a nasty head injury.
It took him until October to open his account for the club, but it proved to be worth the wait. His first goal came in a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon, before Johnson hit back-to-back hat-tricks against Brighton & Hove Albion and Walsall. The fact that his first treble came in a 5-0 thrashing of the Seagulls made it even sweeter.
The goals then dried up for a while and Johnson missed several games through injury. He returned before the end of the season, but Francis was sacked in April and replaced by Steve Kember on a caretaker basis. Johnson ended his debut campaign with a respectable return of 11 goals in 28 First Division outings, with his searing speed and smart movement catching the eye.
It turned out that AJ was just getting started. He scored four goals in Palace’s first 16 games of 2003/04, at which point Kember – who had been handed the reins on a permanent basis over the summer – was dismissed. Johnson then scored five times in eight games under interim boss Kit Symons, who was succeeded by Iain Dowie a few days before Christmas. It proved to be the best managerial appointment of Jordan’s chairmanship.
Palace actually lost Dowie’s maiden match at the helm, going down 1-0 at home to local rivals Millwall on Boxing Day. That result left them just outside the First Division relegation zone; ensuring Palace avoided demotion to the third tier was the remit Dowie was handed. He did much more than that – and Johnson was integral to Palace’s rise up the division.
Dowie’s first nine games in charge produced seven wins and a draw, with Johnson scoring 10 goals. From the start of March until the end of the season, Palace amassed 23 points from a possible 36 to sneak into the play-off places. Johnson ended the campaign with 27 league goals to his name – more than any other player in the division – and another five in other competitions.
The best was still to come. A thrilling play-off semi-final against Sunderland ended 4-4 after 210 minutes of hard-fought action, with Johnson scoring Palace’s winning goal in the first leg. He also found the net in the subsequent penalty shoot-out as the Eagles triumphed 5-4 to reach the final. Johnson was instrumental in that game too, in effect setting up Neil Shipperley’s winner against West Ham United at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Promotion was a remarkable achievement for a club that had been languishing near the relegation zone when Dowie took charge. The step up to the Premier League proved substantial, though, and Palace picked up just two points from their first seven games, despite only facing one member of the so-called big four.
Having formed a little-and-large partnership with Shipperley in the second tier, Johnson was by now playing as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. He was a rare bright spot for Palace early on, scoring four goals – two-thirds of the team’s total – in those opening seven matches. It was at that point that things began to improve for Dowie’s side, who won three of their next four games thanks in large part to Johnson’s five goals.
A 10-match winless run followed, but victories over Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Birmingham after the turn of the year ensured Palace remained within touching distance of safety.
At the end of April a 1-0 triumph over Liverpool, who would go on to win the Champions League the following month, gave Palace genuine hope of staying up. But the concession of two late equalisers against Southampton and Charlton Athletic in their final two matches proved costly. Had Palace won either of those fixtures, they would have stayed up. Back-to-back 2-2 draws saw them finish a point adrift of safety.
Johnson nevertheless emerged from the season with huge credit. He was the highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League in 2004/05, an accomplishment which saw him called up to the national team by Sven-Goran Eriksson. Cynics pointed out that 11 of his 21 goals were penalties, but missing from that headline figure was the fact that Johnson won many of those spot-kicks himself.
Even Palace fans expected AJ to leave that summer, with Birmingham, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Liverpool among the clubs thought to be keen. The striker handed in a transfer request but was ultimately persuaded to stay put by Jordan, who handed him a new five-year contract. Palace also re-signed Morrison in the summer of 2005, giving them considerable firepower with Johnson and Dougie Freedman alongside him in the pool of forwards.
Despite being the pre-season favourites for promotion, Palace were largely underwhelming on their way to a sixth-place finish. Johnson missed 13 games through injury, and although he scored 15 times in 33 appearances, Palace fell well short of automatic promotion and were then comfortably beaten by Watford in the play-off semi-finals. Unsurprisingly, Johnson left for Everton that summer.
He returned to Selhurst in 2014, after Steve Parish had tried and failed to bring him back to the club a year earlier. He made only one appearance in his second spell, receiving a standing ovation from the home crowd in a League Cup tie against Newcastle. Johnson departed after just four months, but his status as a Palace legend was long since assured.