From Hearts outcast to one of the most highly-regarded strikers in the Netherlands, Bjorn Johnsen has been on some journey over the past year or so.
When he left McDiarmid Park following a midweek defeat by St Johnstone in May 2017 with his Tynecastle career in tatters after a half-time dressing-room bust-up with former head coach Ian Cathro, imminent career ignition seemed unlikely. The American-Norwegian striker duly slipped out of Hearts a couple of months later following one season at the club which was beginning to catch fire for him under Robbie Neilson before fizzling out under his successor. Few players of recent years have kicked on significantly after being ditched by Hearts, but Johnsen is emphatically bucking this trend.
Since leaving Tynecastle, the burgeoning 26-year-old plundered 19 goals for ADO Den Haag to become the second-highest scorer in Holland’s top flight last season, established himself as a regular starter for Norway and earned himself a £2million move to Eredivisie big guns AZ Alkmaar.
“I always believed in myself but I didn’t expect it to take off so quickly in Holland,” Johnsen said in an interview with the Evening News. “I felt like I was ready but I wanted to get some matches under my belt and find out about the league, play against the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven and find my feet. I came to Den Haag with confidence and I hoped to get into double digits but I think I exceeded my own expectations last year. It was a great season for me. It showed I could score goals consistently. I had done it before in Portugal (with Louletano and Atletico CP) but I had to show it again. Getting that consistency is what I had to work on.”
Johnsen outlines several reasons for his swift and impressive impact in the Eredivisie, with a willingness to learn from his experiences – positive and negative – chief among them.
“I think being given the confidence from the club and the trainer to play every week was a big thing for me,” he explained. “And also tactically, I was used as the main striker through the middle last season whereas at Hearts I was used more as a runner in the spaces behind. I’m capable of doing that as well but I think playing centrally in a 4-3-3 helped me. I got confidence from playing regularly and scoring goals against teams like Ajax. Getting picked regularly for the national team (Norway) also helped my confidence. That pushes you as well because if you’re seen as one of your country’s best players, you’ve got to work to keep yourself on top form and prove you deserve to be there.
“I feel like I’ve been making the right steps in the right direction to become a better player and get towards the highest level. I learned a lot at Hearts and have also learned a lot since leaving Hearts which has helped me become wiser and a better player. I am in an environment that allows to be a good player. You learn every day, you learn from every team you play against. I learned from playing against Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen and even teams like Dundee. But since coming to Holland, I feel like I’ve learned how to hold the ball up, for example. I wasn’t very good at it all when I was in Scotland, but playing against defenders like (Dedryck) Boyata and (Jozo) Simunovic and training with guys like Aaron Hughes helps.”
Johnsen has already scored one goal in four appearances for AZ, who sit second in Eredivisie after taking seven points from their opening three league games. He views his new club, who recently sold Alireza Jahanbakhsh to Brighton for £17m, as the perfect place to continue his impressive progress. “It’s a fantastic club with top training facilities, all the best technology you can think of,” said Johnsen. “The whole club is geared towards making players better and let them go on to have better careers which is why I picked this club to take my next step with.
“I’m very excited for the season ahead. They are a bigger club than Den Haag. There has been a big step up in terms of expectations, quality, the way they play, the stadium. Every aspect of the club is tip-top. They have sold players to Brighton and Tottenham recently for big money, and that was something I was aware of before I came here.
“My ambition is to get to the Premier League or one of the top five leagues in Europe, and right now, for my current ability and where I am on my learning curve, I feel this league and this club is a good fit. I’ve got a four-year contract here and I’m happy with that but I also have ambitions to go even higher, so we’ll see what happens. I’m not satisfied yet.”
Despite the way it ended, Johnsen is still able to view his time at Hearts in a positive light. “Being at Hearts helped me get to where I am now,” he said. “We were flying in the first half of the season so my memories of Hearts are not too bad. I really enjoyed that first half of the season. I was just starting to get on a decent run at Hearts but then a lot of things changed at the club. I think the managerial change was the turning point for me at Hearts. I was brought to the club because Robbie Neilson had scouted me and he took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff in just a few weeks that made me a better player. He made me feel comfortable and at home at Hearts and him leaving messed me up a bit. All the players were very fond of Robbie and the way he coached. I’d just won the player of the month award before he left which shows I was going in the right direction.
“I’d like to think if he had stayed, I would have kept progressing at Hearts, but you’ll never know – it’s easy to say that now. You can’t always be negative about things. You can see from my results now that I’ve not dwelled on whatever happened in that moment. I wasn’t forced to leave but it was a toxic situation for me so me and my fiancée decided that the best thing to do for my career was to leave.”
Johnsen declined to discuss his fallout with Cathro but his carefully-chosen words imply that he viewed the much-maligned head coach as the main reason for a collective nosedive in form among the Hearts players in the second half of the 2016/17 season. “Most of the time the results are the best way to look at a situation,” he said, tellingly.
Johnsen is happy to see Hearts flourishing once more under Craig Levein, a man he enjoyed talking to when he was in his previous guise as director of football. “I miss talking to Craig and learning from him,” he said. “He has a very good football mind and was very helpful when I was there. We had a good group of players at Hearts and we had fun times. I still keep in contact with a lot of players I played with. I still talk to Arnaud Djoum and keep up to date with guys like Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson. I still get nice messages from Hearts supporters and I had fun times living in Edinburgh. It was a big part of our lives.”