It is Saturday, 17 July 2021 and Anthony Johnson is enjoying a beer after Chester’s pre-season win over Bury AFC.
The new National League North season is four weeks away and joint managers Johnson and Bernard Morley are finalising plans before the start of another demanding campaign for Chester in the sixth tier of English football.
Nine days later Johnson, 38, is lying in a hospital bed attached to several machines after testing positive for coronavirus. He is wearing an oxygen mask and has been told by medics his kidneys are failing.
“One minute I’m having a beer, the next day I’ve got Covid and a week later I’m in hospital hooked up to every type of machine,” says Johnson, who had put off getting vaccinated.
“It’s a lesson in how quickly life can turn.”
After testing positive for Covid for a second time in eight months, the father of three’s health rapidly deteriorated to the point where he feared for his life.
“I didn’t know if I was going to survive to tell the story,” he adds.
As he prepares Chester for their FA Cup second qualifying-round tie at Darlington on Saturday, Johnson tells BBC Sport how he feared not seeing his wife and children again, how “stupid” he was to delay getting vaccinated, and how the “frightening” experience has changed his perspective on life.
“I’m just a 38-year-old bloke that didn’t find time to get the vaccine and nearly died,” he says.
The former soldier left frightened and alone
Johnson – who appeared in the 2015 BBC One documentary Class of ’92: Out of Their League alongside Morley when they were joint managers of Salford City – had recovered quickly after testing positive for Covid-19 in November 2020.
Two months ago it was a very different story for the 16-stone former soldier, who admits: “I thought I couldn’t get it again. Looking back, I guess that was a different variant to the current Delta one.”
When he tested positive on 19 July, his health quickly declined before he was taken from the family home by ambulance to nearby Fairfield General Hospital in Bury, Greater Manchester, on 26 July.
Johnson spent four hours inside the ambulance waiting to be admitted because the hospital was so busy.
“My temperature was 42C and I was sweating and shivering. It was like an oven inside the ambulance. I felt like I was being tortured.
“When I was eventually admitted, they injected me with something to help my oxygen levels. I don’t cry easily but I just burst into tears, it was that painful.”
Having spent four years in the army, Johnson suddenly found himself frightened and alone. Kayla, his wife of 15 years – and children Lewis,16, Bella, nine, and Zac, seven – were not allowed to visit him in the acute respiratory unit.
“I’m not a smoker or a big drinker yet the doctors said my kidneys were failing and my blood oxygen levels were the lowest of all the patients – who were in their 60s, 70s and 80s – on the ward.
“It dawned on me how close I was to probably dying. Once I had turned a corner a few days later, I attempted to go to the bathroom, which was 20 yards away from my hospital bed, on my own.
“I collapsed and had to be pulled up off the toilet floor by two nurses. They got an oxygen tank and wheeled me back to my bed. I remember thinking ‘this is the lowest moment of my life’.
“Before I tested positive I was bench pressing 110kg weights. Now I couldn’t even walk a few yards without collapsing. It was frightening.”
‘I texted my parents – I didn’t know if I’d see them again’
Two elderly patients on the same ward as Johnson passed away while he was in hospital.
“I was watching people die,” he adds. “In the morning one of them was having breakfast and talking to the nurses. By the afternoon he had passed away.”
Unsure whether he would survive, Johnson sent text messages to his family, including his parents, Michelle and Michael.
“I struggle to show affection and tell someone I love them or how much they mean to me,” he says. “I’ve been a nightmare like that all my life. I felt I needed to do it.”
Johnson spent seven nights on the ward before doctors were satisfied he was healthy enough to be discharged.
Even then the former semi-professional footballer spent a further five days in bed at home after losing two stone in weight in as many weeks and being sapped of all energy.
“I’m fortunate. I’m here to tell the tale,” he adds. “There are so many others who are not.”
‘How stupid am I?’
Johnson has been out of hospital for six weeks and is back in the Chester dugout having received his first vaccination at Ramsbottom Civic Hall. He is a different person.
Having been forced to spend time away from his wife and children after being struck down by Covid-19, Johnson says his priorities in life have changed.
One of the things that kept him going as he lay seriously ill in hospital was his daughter Bella, who would video call at night to read him Mrs Pepperpot bedtime stories.
“When you are a manager – even at this level – rightly or wrongly football comes first,” he says. “I’ve lost count of the number of family birthdays and family events I have missed.”
This week his wife, who was already vaccinated having taken it when first offered, celebrates her 40th birthday. “Chester have an FA Youth Cup game on the same night which I would normally have gone to. I will be with Kayla instead.
“When I got home from hospital we didn’t hug for an hour or anything like that. It was more a conversation, with Kayla saying something along the lines of ‘you’ve been selfish. You should have found time to have the jab’.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I was busy with pre-season at Chester and it wasn’t high on my list of priorities.
“I regret putting my family through something that might have been avoided.
“Ultimately, if I had not recovered my wife would have had to bring up three children on her own. All because I hadn’t found the time to get the jab. How stupid am I?”