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The life story of Jack Johnson

Story by Muroro-Pacho

Danish coach Jack Johnson gained fame, acclaim and a permanent place in the legendary folklore of Gor Mahia when he steered the club to win the Africa cup winners cup in 1987. Interestingly enough, at the time, Johnson was not the coach but was listed as the Technical Advisor. Maurice Ochieng “Sonyi” was officially the coach. But in the eyes of most people, Johnson was the driving force behind the tactics that Gor Mahia applied that year.

Jack Johnson pictured far right on the day before the Africa cup final in 1987

Early Life

He was born as Jack Johnsen in 1924. By the time he could walk, he was already orphaned as both his parents passed on. Thus he spent his younger days in an orphanage. He changed his last name from Johnsen to Johnson in honour of the American boxer Jack Johnson who at the time was the world boxing heavyweight champion. In those days and up until the 1980s, the world heavyweight boxing champion was typically the most famous sportsman in the world and the young Dane admired the hard punching American boxer.  But Jack Johnson was not cut out for boxing. So he took up football ay age 7. His big break came at age 17 when he was selected to play for Danish club Boldklubben 1909. In later years he would say that being selected to play in the first team at Boldklubben 1909.  He also cited the excitement of playing alongside Knud Lundberg, a legendary player who represented Denmark at Football, Basketball and handball as the next greatest moment. That was in 1951.

Playing Career

He spent most of his playing career playing for Boldklubben 1909 which was based in Odense. As a player, he was known as a utility player who could be deployed in several positions. But his favourite position was inside right. He was mostly known as an iron-man, a tough tackler with a fiery temper like a volcano. Interestingly enough, even during his playing days, Johnson stood out for his chalky white hair which was his trademark even during his playing days.  His team-mates say that they were inspired by his passionate play. His aggresive style perhaps channeled his inner child that wanted to mimic his American boxing hero.  In the mid 1950s, he left Denmark briefly to play for Dundee United in Scotland. He would later return to Boldklubben 1909 where he played until he ended his illustrious career at age 36.

Jack Johnson front row second from left

Coaching career at Boldklubben 1913

His coaching career started in 1959 at Boldklubben 1913 a club that was also based the City of Odense and a fierce rival of Boldklubben 1909 for whom Johnson had played.  At the time, the club was in the Danish second tier. With Johnson’s coaching, they reached the top tier. His stint at Boldklubben 1913 was highly successful. Though they did not win the top tier league, they finished second once and third two times and in 1963, they won the Danish cup. With Johnson at hem, Boldklubben 1913  did however play in the European cup. After beating Spora Luxembourg in the preliminary round by a score of 9-2 on aggregate. In the first round they ran into the juggernaut that was Real Madrid. They lost by a massive 12-0 to Real Madrid. This was the legendary Real Madrid side that won the European cup several times and had legends like Alfredo de Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. Real was the most succesful team in the world during this period largely because they had the direct support of Spanish dictator Franco who was head of state from 1939 until 1975. Johnson would coach Boldklubben 1913 until 1967 before returning again for another stint from 1972 to 1973.

Coaching OB Odense

In 1971, Jack Johnson had perhaps his most famous job when he coached OB Odense, one of the most popular teams in Denmark. Odense had been relagated to the second tier in 1968 and hired Johnson with the hope of gaining promotion to the top tier. Fans of OB remember him as a coach whose team played very rugged, aggressive and defensive football. Very much in the image of Jack Johnson himself. Johnson was fitness fanatic. One player describes Johnson as making them run on cross country trails while carrying another player on their back.  As a coach, his temper was just as fiery as it had been as a player and he would often berate referees from the sideline and bury them in an avalanche of epithets. Johnson was also very hostile to reporters whom he had little patience with. An interesting aspect of Johnson was that although he displayed a fiery temper to outsiders, he was very protective of his players.  But he did not have stellar record at OB. He finished in 8th position twice before being replaced by Richard Møller Nielsen.

Jack Johnson while coaching at OB Odense

The Jack Johnson Institute

In 1971, Jack Johnson and his wife Inger Johnson took over a building that was previously a home for orphans known as Maria home. Jack and Inger converted it to a gym. It grew and soon incorporated a physiotherapy clinic.  In 1983, Inger Johnson took over as sole operator of the Johnson Institute. She ran the institute until 2006 when she sold it. The Johnson istitute still exists today and consists a Health Club and a Clinic of Physiotherapy Chiropractic.

Remaining coaching career in Europe

Aside from OB Odense, Jack Johnson also coached other Danish sides Svendborg , Kolding and his former club Boldklub 1909 whom he coached in 1981. He also coached clubs in Norway, Scotland , Iceland , the Faroe Islands and  Bahrain.  As has been mentioned before, Jack Johnson had a volcanic temper. By the mid 198os , Jack Johnson had burned so many bridges due to his temper that he felt he had no option but to leave Denmark.In fact Johnson had become deeply unpopular in Denmark. But when questioned, he retorted that he did not think he was put on this earth to be popular.  This is how he arrived in Kenya in early 1987.

Jack Johnson arrives at Gor Mahia

Upon arrival, Johnson introduced a whole new set of tactics and a style of play that had not been deployed in Kenya. Prior to his arrival Gor Mahia had always played with the 4-3-3 formation. Brilliant wingers had always been a staple of Gor Mahia. Upon his arrival, Johnson changed the system to 3-5-2. In the process he introduced the concept of twin strikers instead of wingers. Gor Mahia fans were unhappy and had major reservations.  In addition, Johnson introduced the concept of holding midfielder, a concept that was completely new to Kenya. The man he identified for this role was Isaiah Omondi “Janabi”. Johnson probably saw in Janabi, a man who reminded him of himself during his playing days, a tough, rugged, iron-man. Prior to the arrival of Johnson, “Janabi” had been primarily a bench warmer who was called upon for special roles. But the arrival of Johnson propelled him to fame. He would play one of the most pivotal roles as Gor Mahia won the Africa cup in 1987.  Another player who thrived under Jack Johnson was Peter Dawo. Like Johnson, Dawo was limited technically. But what he lacked in the technical aspect of the game, he made up for with intelligence, hard work, aggressiveness and a non-stop motor. Much like how Jack Johnson played during his playing days. Johnson seemed very good at getting the best out of Dawo. Its worth noting that neither Dawo nor Janabi thrived under other coaches as much as they did with Jack Johnson.

Johnson seen here carrying Mike Otieno after the latter received a scything tackle from an Inter Club player circa 1988

The tactical  changes that Johnson brought proved fruitful as Gor Mahia won three trophies in 1987 in grand style. Besides that, Gor Mahia were playing incisive, intelligent and attractive football. Despite his hard-man mentality, Johnson did put a premium on playing attractive football. Speaking after the victory over Esperance in the Africa cup final of 1987, Johnson said “The match was ruined by the referee and a result we did not entertain our fans as we had planned.”  Johnson also brought his tough training regimen to Gor Mahia. This author remembers a residential training session in 1988 in which the players trained continuously from early morning until almost 2pm as some of the players complained.

 Cup Triumphs

With Johnson at helm, Gor Mahia also won teh local cup which was then known as the Moi Golden cup in 1987, 1988 and 1989. In 1987, they beat arch rivals AFC leopards 2-0 in the final. In 1988 they beat Kenya Breweries (now known as Tusker FC) by a score of 1-0. The win was thanks to a solitary 75th headed goal by their effervescent striker Peter Dawo.  Afterwards a delighted Jack Johnson, the Gor coach, commented: “We deserved to win. We played better football and Dawo proved why he is our best striker by scoring the winning goal. It was a good header.”  Late in 1988, his temper was on show once again when Gor Mahia played against Black Mamba in the last match of the league. It was a match that Gor Mahia needed to win to retain the league title. After the match, an irate Johnson assaulted referee GMT Ottieno while accusing him of costing Gor Mahia the match.  He had in the meantime married a Kenyan woman.

Jack Johnson leaves Gor Mahia

By 1989, Gor Mahia had started to experience acute financial difficulties. It became clear that they could not hold onto Jack Johnson anymore. Johnson left Gor Mahia in mid 1989, a few weeks before Gor Mahia played LPRC Oilers of Liberia in the Africa cup winners cup quarter finals. On leaving Gor Mahia, he joined another league side Re Union briefly. But Re Union clearly could not pay Johnson either.  In 1996, he crossed over to arch-rivals AFC Leopards. While there he steered. While there he steered AFC to a 2-1 win over arch rivals and hos former team Gor Mahia. The match ended in fracas as some Gor Mahia fans could not stomach being beaten by a former coach who had legendary status in the team.  Johnson then left for Uganda but his stint in Uganda did not last long. The Ugandan club said Johnson was not able to carry out his duties due in part to his advanced age. By this time He was in his early 70s.  He then returned to Kenya and took a job as a funeral director.

Departure from Kenya and death

By the time he decided to go back home, Johnson had become a despondent and angry man. He died on 24 April 2002 at the Betalia nursing home in Frederiksberg Denmark. He was aged 77. To this day, Johnson still holds legendary status in his hometown of Odense.


2 thoughts on “The life story of Jack Johnson

  • Sam Muga

    Thanks for that history which makes me to ask this questions.
    What value is Sir Boby adding to the TB as a ass coach?
    Can’t Gor get a qualified coach to assist Wiliamson?

    That’s just my view since this position is very crucial not only when the coach is absent, but to exchange ideas on a daily basis.

  • Francis Nandi

    Great history of the popular Danish man. Just some correction Gor won the Moi Golden Cup in 1986,87 and 88 in 1989 it was Breweries (Tusker)


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