Though he was probably joking when he claimed the sight of Damien Johnson's mask scared him, as it is difficult to imagine anything frightening Alex McLeish, the Birmingham City manager was being utterly sincere when he expressed his admiration for his 'Captain Courageous'.

Johnson returned to the Blues line-up at Arsenal on Saturday just two weeks after undergoing surgery following an incident in the last match of 2007, against Fulham, when he was elbowed in the head.

That clash left the 29-year-old with a fractured skull and meant he had to have the bone reset. The initial prognosis suggested the Northern Ireland international would be out for between four and six weeks, but he was back to his combative best at Emirates Stadium.

He wore a transparent protective casing throughout but snarled around Arsène Wenger's all stars with typical disregard for their reputations or his own safety.

With the heart of their team beating so strongly, Birmingham held on for the most unexpected of points as, individually and collectively, they gave the perfect response to the previous weekend's debacle.

One can only wonder that Huddersfield Town would have been summarily dismissed had Johnson been driving his men forward at the Galpharm Stadium.

What is clear, however, is that McLeish sees Johnson as integral to his line-up. Fabrice Muamba may be quicker, Mehdi Nafti might be more technically assured and Sebastian Lars-son is undoubtedly a better passer, but none of them have Johnson's attitude.

"Damien was a great leader among a lot of great characters on the pitch. He is my type of player, that's for sure," McLeish eulogised.

"Not many players show that kind of bravery and I know many I've played with over the years would never even have contemplated playing with that."

What impressed the manager most was not so much the amount of work the midfielder got through, though to last the full 90 minutes after just five starts all season was admirable, but the way in which he forgot about his vulnerability.

Another blow in the same area did not bear thinking about yet there he was, putting his head where it shouldn't have been and his feet where they weren't wanted.

Even McLeish was surprised: "The medical team told me when he had his mishap that it might be a few weeks.

"He went through his operation which was successful and our physio said he should be back for the Arsenal game, but he will probably have to wear a mask. I was astonished to hear that, but the medical team have done a wonderful job."

Even so, with memories of the broken jaw that kept him out for two months in the nottoo-distant past, Johnson could have been forgiven for erring on the side of caution.

Certainly, McLeish would have understood. "A lot of players wouldn't have done it, but Damien has the heart and that kind of character that he was putting his body on the line.

"He actually headed a shot away and there was another one where we had pressure on Arsenal's box and there was a wholehearted header, I thought any other guy would have shrunk their neck.

"I played hundreds of times with an injury when I shouldn't have done. Most of the time, you get away with it but, once or twice, you regret it usually when you get a bad result." That wasn't the case, thanks in a large part to Johnson's display in London.

Speaking afterwards, he typically made light of the matter: "It wasn't a problem for me, as long as I didn't get any direct blows to it." Johnson said.

"It's not like I am some sort of hero, it's not about that."