Jemal Johnson knows a thing or two about making first impressions.
Leading the line for Jacksonville Armada in their first ever game in the North American Soccer League (NASL), he found the net after just 12 seconds, which remains a league record.
His arrival at Wolves wasn’t quite as explosive, but equally as decisive and equally as valuable.
Fifteen years ago this week the fleet-footed frontman marked his first two league appearances, away at Burnley and home to Luton, with the only goal of both games to help Wolves to a hugely promising start under new boss Mick McCarthy. Quite a seven days.
Johnson is also one for the big occasion.
Three months later, as Wolves met Sunderland on a Friday night at Molineux in front of the Sky Sports cameras, the atmosphere was positively crackling.
Frenzied media attention surrounded the first meeting of respective managers McCarthy and Roy Keane since the infamous saga in Saipan when the Irish captain had departed the squad on the eve of the World Cup after a huge disagreement about the standard of facilities and preparation. On that occasion, it seemed the whole world suddenly centred around this Northern Mariana island in the Western Pacific.
Back at Molineux four years on however, Johnson achieved the almost impossible.
With one powerful swish of his right foot, he somehow stopped people asking questions about Keane and McCarthy, and – temporarily at least – gave them something else to talk about instead.
“Unreal,” is the Johnson verdict on his 30-yard strike which sent Molineux into unparalleled delirium, before revealing it was also inspired by his own additional motivation.
“I’d been in the academy at Manchester United and Roy Keane always had a few things to say about the young players so that spurred me on as well.
“It was just awesome, live on Sky, the only game of the night, all the attention on it, and all my mates were watching at home.
“It was good to score a goal like that, and when it came, and I just ran over towards the bench, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
“I didn’t have any celebration planned, there was just a lot of passion involved, and I remember thinking that I needed to get it all out of me somehow!
“The reaction in the stadium was something else, it has to be among my best goals, and the occasion and the moment made it even better.
“There was such an atmosphere in the stadium that night, although Mick was probably one of the calmest as he was a manager who didn’t let outside pressures affect us.
“He was never a boss to let anything that was going on outside into the dressing room, he would handle all that and let us get to work.
“Everyone always has their own agendas in football anyway, so that pressure on the game, there was nothing extra which affected us as players.”
Johnson’s additional motivation for that memorable goal could also perhaps be linked back to the fact that he was actually dismissed from Manchester United’s academy for disciplinary reasons.
By his own admission there were several examples and incidents throughout his career, largely off the pitch, that did him no favours.
Now 36, Johnson has no intention of hiding away from his mistakes, or glossing over them.
Instead he is turning any past misdemeanours into a positive, reflecting on them in his work now both with an academy in Jacksonville back in America but also with underprivileged youngsters from the local community.
He has a burning ambition to extend this vocation, to set up his own coaching school, and help those youngsters receive the right advice and guidance that perhaps he needed more of himself during his formative years.
Because for Johnson, growing up wasn’t straightforward.
Born in New Jersey, sadly he was barely a few weeks old when his father passed away.
When his Mum remarried, the family moved across to England, to Macclesfield, and growing up the young Johnson was more interested in combative disciplines such as boxing and karate than in kicking a ball around.
It was his step-dad who first ‘put boots on my feet’, and, at the age of nine, Johnson started playing Sunday league football, immediately attracting attention from a string of clubs, including the two big-hitters from Manchester.
He chose United.
“They were the club at that time weren’t they?” he recalls.
“The youth team I was in coming through was exceptional with so many either going on to play for United or make the grade elsewhere.
“The likes of Darren Fletcher, Phil Bardsley, Kieron Richardson, David Jones – who went on to play for Wolves – there were some great players.
“To be honest though, I was a ‘wrong-un’ when I was younger.
“I was always in and out of trouble, hanging about with the wrong people, and I ended up leaving United because of disciplinary reasons at that time.
“But I don’t have any problem now in talking about it or explaining it to people.
“It was a part of my life, and I now use it as a tool to speak to young people about things, what to avoid and the best path to take.”
Having left United, Johnson was handed another opportunity further north in Lancashire with Blackburn, emerging through the Academy at Ewood Park to make ten first team appearances, including coming off the bench in the Premier League against Tottenham, Aston Villa and – ironically – Manchester United.
His only goal for Rovers came in an FA Cup win against Colchester and, having spent time on loan at Preston and Darlington, with Blackburn receiving a fresh influx of investment allowing them to bring in fresh blood, Johnson became surplus to requirements.
At the time McCarthy had not long set up camp in the Wolves hotseat with the task of building a team and a squad almost from scratch.
It wasn’t quite a need to beg, borrow and steal, but McCarthy had little time and little room to manoeuvre, and the availability of the skilful and pacey Johnson, who impressed in a trial game, was too good to ignore.
“It was a no-brainer for me to join Wolves,” Johnson explains.
“The training facility was fantastic, they really looked after me, and were a Championship side with a great history that wanted to be banging on the door of the Premier League.
“I was just desperate to be involved.
“To then score the winner in my first two league games was incredible, what dreams are made of.”
Johnson, known as ‘JJ’ within the dressing room, was part of that hastily-assembled group who ultimately enjoyed such a surprisingly positive campaign by reaching the play-offs.
He got on well with fellow young hopefuls such as Daniel Jones, Lewis Gobern and Leon Clarke, admired the talents and ‘smartness’ of Jay Bothroyd, and was at the heart of the banter with Karl Henry as the two exchanged lines from Chris Tucker films on a day-to-day basis.
“Red light, green light, red light, green light,” Johnson recites with a hearty laugh. That film was Money Talks, for anyone wondering.
Johnson also enjoyed chatting to Rohan Ricketts, perhaps an enigma in terms of his spell at Molineux, but certainly never dull.
“Rohan was a good person for me to bounce off and learn from,” he declares.
“He had already picked up some great experiences in the game from his time with Arsenal’s academy and I remember some inspiring stories among those players he had grown up with.
“I really think we had a good mix in that Wolves squad and it was no surprise that the team did well that season.”
By the end of that season however, Johnson had moved on, initially on loan to Leeds in the February and then permanently, to MK Dons, just a year on from his Molineux arrival.
The reason it didn’t work out? Again, he is refreshingly honest.
“As you get older, you start to realise there are certain things that you could have done to put yourself in a better position,” he admits.
“I feel as though that was me at that time.
“Training habits was an area that Mick McCarthy really looked at closely – if you weren’t able to produce on a regular basis in training you weren’t going to get the opportunity in matches.
“At a club which had dreams and aspirations of getting to the Premier League, it was all about increasing productivity on the pitch, and if I wasn’t working enough to get the goals that I needed as a Wolves player, then they were always going to look at more favourable options.
“The team we had then compared to the team Wolves has now is just no comparison with regards to quality.
“But I know I could have worked harder and my productivity could have been higher, especially after starting like a house on fire.
“Mick is a manager who doesn’t mess around, he will tell you straight and he will tell you if he likes you and if he doesn’t, how to get that fixed!
“I really respected him in that sense, and even though I didn’t stay at Wolves for too long, he gave me an opportunity, which I will always be very grateful for.
“You live and learn by how you behave, and hindsight is what it is when I look back now at those days and realise what I needed to do.”
Johnson lived and learned quickly, because it was at his next outpost, with MK Dons, that he flourished to produce probably the most sustained run of good form in his career.
Under the guidance of former Wolves, United and England captain Paul Ince, Johnson helped the MK Dons to the League Two title and played in the Football League Trophy Final win over Grimsby at Wembley having scored in the semi-final against Swansea.
“Incey took me under his wing and I am forever grateful to him for giving me a chance to go to MK Dons,” says Johnson.
“I learned so much from him, especially about how your attitude towards the game has got to be spot on if you want to make progress.
“My position changed at MK, from being a number nine to playing out on the left and coming in at an angle to get a shooting opportunity or set someone up.
“We had Lloyd Dyer on the other side, Jason Puncheon up front, a really good group, and we were a nightmare for other teams particularly in that League Two season.”
Johnson had further loans with Stockport and Port Vale, and would later go to Southend, either side of a very different sort of experience with Lokomotiv Sofia in Bulgaria.
He was only there for six months but helped the club qualify for the Europa League, albeit working for a club president who was selling tanks and military weapons to different countries.
“That was quite an experience,” says Johnson.
“When it came to the time I was negotiating my severance I was just on my own and it was a case of that was what they were going to pay me and that was that.
“There wasn’t really a discussion, it is crazy to be sat in the same room as AK47’s, and I wasn’t really going to argue!”
Experience-wise, perhaps some of the best for Johnson was still to come, towards the end of his career, when after brief spells in non-league with Dover and Tamworth, he took the decision to return Stateside.
Across six years he represented Fort Lauderdale Strikers, New York Cosmos, Jacksonville Armada – including that record-breaking goal after just 12 seconds – and Fresno.
His time at Cosmos included travelling to Spain to play Villareal for Marcos Senna’s testimonial, flying business class to play at other venues across the world, and, meeting Pele.
Yes, that Pele, whom along with Franz Beckenbaeur, had turned out for Cosmos during his career.
But forget Pele for a moment. Going back ‘home’ also meant that Johnson’s mum, who had returned Across the Pond when he and his sister had reached adulthood, could watch him in action.
“That was pretty special as my Mum hadn’t really see me play before,” he explains.
“I think the real reason I came back was also because I had got to the stage where I was pretty much on my own over in England and it was good to have my family around me.
“The football was great as well.
“In the first year I didn’t play too many minutes but Cosmos won the NASL (North American Soccer League) Championship and just to be able to lift that trophy was amazing.
“And then getting the chance to meet Pele as well? Amazing, and I am really thankful to the NASL for helping me getting into that position.
“I had a great time back playing over here, I feel it was a good decision, and that was also what has led on to me being able to coach.”
Having fallen in love with living in Florida, Johnson is now coaching part-time within the Academy set-up at Jacksonville Football Club, although with everything involved, as well as scouting for players, the hours can get pretty long!
Ultimately though, there also remains that burning ambition of setting up himself at some point, so he won’t just work with a team of young players but also offer individuals the sort of opportunities they could otherwise only dream of.
“I really enjoy coaching the team at the academy and I also have a goal of getting my own facility over here,” Johnson explains.
“North Florida is a great place to live but also a place where there are a lot of underprivileged children and I don’t think I have been in a catchment area like this where so many kids want to play football.
“The crime rate here is high and maybe I can be a bit of a mentor to the young people from the urban areas.
“To be able to provide coaching for individuals as well as what I am doing with the Jacksonville team is something I would love to do.
“Trying to keep the young players on the straight and narrow and give them another option to what they think they may want to do is a big motivation.
“And the players are jumping straight into it – there aren’t that many black coaches involved in the game so they are keen to engage and I feel that responsibility.
“I have to see myself as someone they can look up to, someone who has experienced the good and bad through football and through life, and hopefully I can guide them.
“There is also the chance with football for these kids to go out and get scholarships for better education that wouldn’t normally be an opportunity for these families.
“It has already happened with a few of the young players, who have been able to use their football to get an all-inclusive scholarship which really sets them up in school.
“This is something I really want to do as it feels like something I have come out of myself as growing up in New Jersey, even only for a few years, was sometimes difficult.
“I feel I can help these young people and maybe be a person who can guide them in the right direction.”
If things had gone in another direction after such a promising start at Molineux who knows just how differently the Johnson story itself might have unfolded?
With his speed and directness, fearless and sometimes feisty approach, he could have become a firm terrace favourite.
It just wasn’t to be, but there are no regrets or recriminations and Johnson remains very happy with his playing career, not to mention fortunate to have remained in the game since hanging up his boots.
He is also equally fired up and driven by this new vision, one where he can take those with dreams of following in his footsteps on their own journeys, inspired by his achievements and learning from his mistakes.
“I can keep living through the progress and achievements of these kids,” he insists.
It doesn’t necessarily take scoring a winner on your debut or a screamer from 30 yards on a feverish Friday night at Molineux to write your name into footballing folklore or to make a difference.
There can be many different types of hero.