Thursday 29 September 2016

Adam Johnson now a pariah, within and beyond football

Living the high life, he thought he was invulnerable, but is now facing a jail sentence, writes Sarah Caden

Sarah Caden

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Footballer Adam Johnson arrives at Bradford Crown Court with his former girlfriend Stacey Flounders Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Footballer Adam Johnson arrives at Bradford Crown Court with his former girlfriend Stacey Flounders Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Two weeks in to the three-week trial that ultimately found him guilty of sexual activity with a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Adam Johnson was overheard complaining to a friend outside the courtroom. "I hope this is finished by Friday," the former Sunderland footballer is reported to have said. "It's a bit boring now."

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That comment says it all about the immature arrogance of this boy-man, whose maturity was stunted by success and the very unique modern football culture.

How easily now could Adam Johnson become the victim in this story of soccer hubris? He had it all and he lost it all. No one taught the poor boy right from wrong, all he ever knew was scoring goals and so on. But Adam Johnson is not the victim.

The victim is a girl who is barely over 16 now, over a year after Adam Johnson began grooming her. She is the victim.

Early one morning in March 2015, police arrived at the Co Durham house Johnson shared with his girlfriend, Stacey Flounders, and their then seven-week-old daughter. The £60,000-a-week winger was told that he was being arrested for sexual activity with a child and when Flounders asked her name,

Johnson said: "She said she was 16."

During his first police interview, that was revealed to be a lie.

She was so young. She still is. She was described in court as a classic football fan, who hung around outside the grounds dressed in her Sunderland jersey, desperate for a hello or a selfie. A photo of her with Johnson, before the grooming began, was used by her parents to decorate the top of her 15th birthday cake.

At the end of 2014, the girl sent Johnson a friend request on Facebook. He accepted her request and sent her his phone number, an oddly impulsive thing for an adult, attached, expectant father to do, even if he was unaware of her age. It took a coded message on his official Twitter for her to believe that it was really Johnson and then the texting and messaging began in earnest.

Their texts and WhatsApp messages became part of the trial evidence. She never lied about her age. Johnson asked, at one point early on, if she was nearly 16. She told him that she was just turned 15.

He wasn't put off.

The first time they met, in his car, he gave her a signed jersey. The second time they met, they kissed, and there was some sexual activity, of which he was convicted last week. He was found not guilty of having her perform oral sex on him. All this was happening during the time Johnson was becoming a father. Evidence in court showed that only seconds after he received a message of a photo of his little daughter, he was texting this 15-year-old girl that he couldn't wait to get her jeans off and how quickly he would come when they had sex.

Ultimately, rumours began about the contact between Johnson and the girl. She told her friends. Word leaked out. She began to be teased for it and worse. Chants that both praised and abused him began on the football terraces. He continued to be allowed to play, even after his arrest, having apparently, convinced Sunderland bosses of his innocence. They were reportedly stunned when he pleaded guilty to some of the charges.

It's possible Johnson had long lost the ability to know right from wrong, though.

He had grown up - or not grown up - in the world of football, having left home at 12 to join the Middlesborough FC football academy. He played for their first team in the Uefa Cup at the age of 17. In 2010, at the age of 22, he was bought by Manchester City for £8m and that May he played for England in a World Cup warm-up match. His life was a dream come true. And he had £60,000 a week to prove that he was superman.

Around that time, he was renting Christiano Ronaldo's massive mansion, he had a taste for clubs and models: he was a modern-football cliche.

Things went sour with Manchester City, though, and he returned to his native Sunderland. He bought a big house and when he met Stacey Flounders, now 26, in 2012, he moved her into it pretty quickly. It was footballer success by numbers. But all the while, he was still hooking up with other women, always restless, apparently always seeking the next thing.

That habit emerged in the evidence at Johnson's trial. He admitted that when he was away for matches, lonely and idle in hotel rooms, he passed the time texting various women. He admitted to being repeatedly unfaithful to Flounders. During the trial, she revealed that their relationship was now over. Along with everything else.

Last week, Johnson was photographed alone in the back of a car as he waited to be driven home to await sentencing. At first glance, he seemed downcast, as he leaned forward and gazed towards the floor. Then you see that he is texting. As he did during every pause in courtroom activity, as he did relentlessly, during his grooming of that schoolgirl.

During his trial, Adam Johnson was described as "immature, arrogant, promiscuous - the only time he had to fend for himself was on the field, cheered on by thousands of adoring fans".

This description was offered by his own defence team in an effort to portray Johnson as the victim of his own spoilt circumstances. It didn't work. He is not the victim here.

There will be more goalscorers to take Adam Johnson's place as he serves his predicted jail sentence and emerges to face life as a football pariah. But will anything else have changed, or will the soccer business ever teach their young stars that even if they feel like untouchable gods on the pitch, they still have to behave like normal, decent human beings in the real world?

Sunday Independent

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