How Adam Johnson went from Premier League boy wonder to footballing pariah
Adam Johnson was the boy wonder at Middlesbrough, who never developed into the player he should have been at Manchester City, who will now always be remembered as the child sex offender sacked by Sunderland.
Johnson’s career is surely over. At the age of 28, he should be in his physical prime, preparing for the European Championships this summer. Although, in truth, his performances for Sunderland have generally been a disappointment since he signed for the club for £10m in the summer of 2012.
There have been the odd flashes of crowd bewitching magic. There have been precious goals in the North East derby and sporadic moments of match altering brilliance, which helped keep Sunderland in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s career had fallen short of what his initial potential suggested it might be long before he became sexually attracted to a 15-year-old Sunderland season ticket holder and did not end that interest when she told him how young she was.
As the trial opened at Bradford Crown court, he pleaded guilty to two of the four charges. On the more serious charges, he was found guilty on one, and cleared on another. The judge said he will almost certainly face a custodial sentence.
What was once a story of wasted talent has turned into something far more sinister and disturbing because of Johnson’s pursuit of a schoolgirl who had his name printed on the back of her replica shirt.
Johnson’s name is now a stain on the game, his conduct has severely embarrassed Sunderland as a football club and caused their supporters to cringe at the memory of chanting his name. Rather than the superstar he should have become, Johnson has become a sickening symbol of football’s arrogance, sexual excess and dishonesty.
Few wingers have caused as much excitement breaking into the first team of a Premier League team as Johnson did at Middlesbrough in 2005.
He made his debut as a 17-year-old and was the sort of thrilling, attacking winger English supporters love to watch. Ron Bone, the man who urged Middlesbrough to sign him, for their Academy recalls: “The first time I saw him, I loved him. He was exciting. He was 10 and an old-school, natural winger. “
Slight of frame – indeed there were fears he was too skinny to make it in professional football - but blessed with the balance of tightrope walker and the acceleration of a sprinter, he reminded many of those who saw him in those early days of former Manchester United star Ryan Giggs at his free-flowing best.
Everyone expected him to go on to play for England and he did, but Johnson has not played for his country for four years. He has just 12 caps.
At times, even before he was arrested in March last year, Johnson could not always get into Sunderland’s starting line, even though the Black Cats have been battling relegation ever since he arrived, to huge fanfare, on Wearside.
Johnson had claimed shortly after signing for the Black Cats, that he had always supported the club, commenting “he was a role model for kids” at his first press conference. But he leaves less than four years later having done more damage to its public image than anyone in its history.
His career appeared to be heading in the right direction when, after 119 appearances for Middlesbrough, City paid £8m for him January 2010, but some believe he made a poor choice in moving to Manchester.
Financially the move made sense. City offered him more money than anyone else and he turned down a move to Sunderland as a result. The club’s then manager, Steve Bruce, had been chasing his signature for months.
Initially, things went well in Manchester. Johnson was popular with City supporters and appeared to be fulfilling his vast potential. However, there were also accusations he did not live the life of a professional athlete off the pitch, with lurid rumours of late night drinking and womanising.
City won the FA Cup in 2011 with Johnson picking up a winner’s medal, but Roberto Mancini lost trust him and he began to spend more time on the bench during their title winning campaign the following year. The competition for places at a club like City, that wanted to buy success as quickly as possible, was always going to put him at risk.
Unable to hold down a regular place at club level, Johnson’s international career stalled under Fabio Capello. Even when he was at his very best for Sunderland, Roy Hodgson ignored him. There were questions about his temperament and dedication to the game.
His move to Sunderland was largely motivated by a desire to resurrect his England career. Martin O’Neill, the manager who signed him, personally intervened to make the deal happen. Johnson was initially reluctant, he thought he was better than Sunderland, but moved because he had an affinity for them as a child and was told he would get another big move if he impressed.
It never worked as either intended. O’Neill was sacked in Johnson’s first season at the Stadium of Light and he has struggled to have a consistent impact on games. He has technical ability, but the acceleration from a standing start has deteriorated and Johnson cannot ghost past full-backs so easily anymore.
There were also doubts about Johnson’s ability to stick to team instructions, his awareness of the defensive side of the game, as well as his ability to last a full 90 minutes, but he remained Sunderland’s best player.
Johnson has shown glimpses of the player he threatened to be at Middlesbrough. Some of the goals he has scored have been crucial, none more so than two in successive away games against bitter rivals Newcastle United, and he was, under five different managers, the only player who could change a game on his own.
It could be argued that Johnson was as important in Sunderland three successful relegation battles as anyone at the club. He was still popular as a result, but also a source of frustration because he never delivered consistently.
On his day, there were not many better wide players in the Premier League, but those days became fewer and far between. His career was already one of unfulfilled potential. Now it appears to be over.