PNE keeper helped keep Scunny side up

Sam Johnstone is looking forward to a run of games between the sticks for PNE

Sam Johnstone is looking forward to a run of games between the sticks for PNE

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With his eyes narrowing, the normally laid-back figure of Sam Johnstone fixed me with an icy stare at Preston North End’s Springfields training ground this week.

“Are you trying to blame me for their relegation?” Johnstone said, before his grimace turned into a wide smile.

The 21-year-old Preston-born goalkeeper was busy recollecting the time he spent on loan at this weekend’s opponents Scunthorpe United.

Trying to remember which season it was he was with the Glanford Park outfit, I asked if it was the one when the club was relegated.

Despite the Iron going down in the past four years twice, Johnstone’s stint at Scunny 
did not coincide with a relegation season.

However, he remembers his spell at the club as a very difficult one.

The club was still coming to terms with relegation from the Championship the previous season and when Johnstone arrived in September 2011, they were struggling at the foot of League One.

A rookie 18-year-old, it was the first time Johnstone had left the cosseted world of Manchester United, where he had risen up through the youth ranks.

He made his Football League debut at Glanford Park – a 1-1 draw against Sheffield United.

Johnstone went on to make 13 appearances for the Iron – only finishing on the winning side on two occasions.

He managed to keep just two clean sheets but did not suffer any major disasters as the most he conceded in any one game was three.

The Leyland lad returned to Old Trafford in January 2012 and Scunthorpe eventually secured mid-table security, although they were relegated the following year.

Now armed with more than 50 appearances under his belt after further loan spells with Walsall, Yeovil Town, Doncaster Rovers and now Preston, Johnstone is a totally different person to the nervous and inexperienced teenager of nearly four years ago.

However, he credits his time at Scunthorpe as a major part of his footballing education.

“Scunthorpe was my first loan when I was 18-years-old,” Johnstone said.

“It was a difficult loan because I had come from academy football at Manchester United and I was going into men’s football.

“We were bottom of the league and it was difficult.

“But I’ve have always said that was the loan which kind of made me grow up and push on really.

“When I went out on loan again after that, I knew what to expect and you just keep pushing on from there.

“The manager there was Alan Knill and I appreciate that he took a chance on me so young.

“I did enjoy it. I experienced everything while I was there... injuries, playing, then out of the team.

“I spent five months there so there was a lot to deal with in a short space of time. Like I say it was difficult, but looking back it made me grow up.”

Since arriving at Deepdale at the start of this year, Johnstone – who is the son of former North End keeper Glenn – has endured a tricky start to his North End career.

The preferred choice for league games, Johnstone has had to sit out a number of games because he has been ineligible to play in the FA Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

He has to sit in the stands and watch team-mate Thorsten Stuckmann in action between the sticks.

But with the club now out of every cup competition, Johnstone can now look forward to a run of consecutive appearances until the end of the season.

He said: “I have not really had a run because we have had a cup game, then a league game and then a cup game.

“But that’s how it is. I knew when I came to the club that I could not play in the cup.

“Preston knew that and we’ve just had to get on with it and deal with it.

“Obviously, I would have loved to have played in the cup, but I haven’t found that it has affected me when I have come back into the team.”

Neither has Johnstone worried about losing his place in the team should PNE manager Simon Grayson decide to stick with Stuckmann for the following game after a cup match.

“I wouldn’t say I worry about that,” he said.

“I trust my ability and before every game I wish Stucki well.

“He helps me and I help him. We stick together and things like that never run through my mind.

“I always want him to do well so the team wins.”

Johnstone was in the stands at Deepdale on Monday night as North clashed with Manchester United in the FA Cup.

The youngster admits it was a strange night for him as he watch his current club do battle with his parent club.

“I was at the game with my family,” he said. “It was a bit weird although it would probably have been a bit more crazy if I had been able to play.

“I enjoyed the game – I stayed neutral.

“A lot of people kept asking me who do you want to win?

“But I kept quiet when both teams scored. I thought Preston played well and were a bit unlucky.”