IT is a tradition that sons usually follow in the footsteps of their fathers into the same sport.
Chris Johns, the son of former Ireland rugby international Paddy, was a rugby and soccer enthusiast as a child but he is now carving a career as a football goalkeeper in England.
The 18-year-old former Waringstown Primary School pupil is in the second year of an Academy contract with Premiership club Southamption.
He hasn’t exactly taken the conventional path to the top. As a youngster he wanted a career as an outfield footballer but then he was diagnosed with Osgood–Schlatter disease, a condition characterized by painful lumps just below the knee.
His hopes of a career playing outfield in football or indeed rugby were effectively over.
Waringstown principal Gary Kennedy suggested Chris consider an alternative career as a goalkeeper and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dad Paddy takes up the story: “Back in P6 Chris was playing left midfield, but he developed a pain at the top of his left foot and below the knee and he wasn’t able to play week in and week out. We eventually got the diagnosis of Osgood–Schlatter disease.
“Then at the start of P7 Gary didn’t have a goalkeeper and I told Chris he should consider going into goals, because he could be involved in the school team every week, rather than playing one week, and not the next because of the injury.
“He played in goals that year but I remember that he didn’t like it much. He was not as involved in goals as he had been outfield, he didn’t like the long periods of not being involved in the game.”
Chris played a key role in Waringstown’s success that year, and after going on to Banbridge Academy, he was later snapped up by Lisburn Youth and then Irish League side Dungannon Swifts.
He later caught the eye of both Southampton and Sunderland, and although financial problems at St Mary’s in 2009 initially scuppered a move to the south coast, an impresive performance for Northern Ireland under-16s secured the big move once the club had been revitalised by a takeover.
“Chris has really enjoyed it. It’s a very good club, they are very good to him and are very good at looking after their young players,” said Paddy.
“We try to get over every six to eight weeks to see him so we know the place fairly well.”
Chris is one of three goalkeepers at under-18 level at St Mary’s and encouragingly he has started more games this season than the two other contenders for the number one jersey. He has also been on the substitutes’ bench regularly for the under-21 side, and has trained alongside the club’s three senior goalkeepers, Artur Boruc, Kelvin Davis and Paulo Gazzaniga.
There was upheaval at the club in January when first-team manager Nigel Adkins and his backroom staff were surprisingly sacked. New boss Mauricio Pochettino has brought in his own staff from Spain and Chris has enjoyed working in the new set-up.
Paddy added: “He has trained with the first-team squad once or twice a month which is a great experience. With the Spanish goalkeeping coach coming in he has learnt new techniques. Football is a ruthless business and he has two more years to make his mark. The good thing is with a goalkeeper it usually takes them longer to develop, so he has plenty of time.”
Despite his own sporting successes, Paddy is careful not to offer his son too much advice.
He added: “I give Chris very little advice, because he doesn’t listen! But looking at the success rate for kids going across the water, only about 10 per cent actually make it, 90 per cent of those who go across come home again. At the minute he can enjoy what he is doing, if he makes it great, but if he doesn’t then we will have a plan in place.”