Ex-West Bromwich Albion forward Kevin Phillips believes Josh Griffiths’ potential early return from his Lincoln City loan spell doesn’t automatically mean Sam Johnstone will be leaving The Hawthorns in January, speaking in an interview with West Brom News.
Speculation surrounding the 28-year-old England international has been rife since the beginning of summer, with Arsenal, Manchester United and West Ham reported to be the main competitors for his signature during the summer window, with the latter launching a £6m offer for his services before deciding to pursue Alphonse Areola instead.
Other Premier League sides in Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton have joined the race since, with Johnstone’s current contract expiring in the summer and the Baggies currently unable to tie him down to a new deal at this stage.
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With this, the second-tier side are thought to be resigned to losing him for free next summer, making a January move possible if the West Midlands outfit’s hierarchy wish to generate some revenue for his services whilst they can.
One potential move that could be indicative of whether the 28-year-old remains at the club or departs during the winter window could be the potential return of 20-year-old Lincoln loanee Griffiths, a highly-rated young shot-stopper who was vital in Cheltenham Town’s promotion-winning campaign last term and has been an ever-present figure in goal under Michael Appleton this season.
Although the likes of David Button and Alex Palmer are available options manager Valerien Ismael could utilise if one of his most valuable assets in Johnstone was to leave, ex-Baggie Phillips believes they would be leaving themselves short without recalling Griffiths.
But he also thinks the 20-year-old’s return doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Johnstone at West Brom, saying: “(It) Possibly (could mean the end of Johnstone) but he (Griffiths) could also be getting called back just so he can go somewhere else. You just don’t know.
“Generally, when you get called back, it could be for cover.
“Sam Johnstone might not have any intention to leave the club and I’m sure the club will not be intending to get rid of him. But you’d leave yourself short if it did happen.
“Sam’s been linked with a lot of clubs so it could possibly happen.
“It’ll be a cautious decision to bring Griffiths back, just in case Johnstone does leave.”
Griffiths looks like an extremely promising young goalkeeper, so it would be a real waste if both Johnstone and Button were to remain at the club and he comes back in as third-choice keeper, because he’s already shown at Cheltenham and Lincoln that he can make the step up to senior football.
Many people would even view the 20-year-old as the heir to the current Baggies’ first-choice keeper, bypassing Button in the pecking order as a long-term option to Ismael and his potential successors.
So it would make no sense to bring him back unless he receives a sufficient amount of starting opportunities, something he’s unlikely to get at this stage. Even if he comes back in as an understudy, taking part in the second-tier side’s training sessions and working with higher-quality goalkeepers, it wouldn’t be as valuable as starting every week at the LNER Stadium.
This is why a short-term option should come in to compete with former Brighton and Brentford shot-stopper Button if Johnstone leaves before the end of January, with free agent Willy Caballero one potential option they could look at if they can negotiate a sensible wage package.
A potential recall to send him out to another team could also be a possibility, although it would only be worth doing that if he was to go to a better league. At this stage, he seems to be picking up valuable experience in Lincolnshire.