Sunday 8 December 2019

Richard Sadlier: Acknowledging problem is only the start for Johnson

Michael Johnson has lost his football career but his story is more complex than that

Richard Sadlier

'I have been attending the Priory Clinic for a number of years now with regard to my mental health and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.' Of all the ways Michael Johnson would have imagined his life to unfold, none would have involved his current scenario. He was one of the brightest prospects in English football a few years ago, but at the age of 24, he is now out of the game with no real prospect of a return.

Johnson will forever be known for what he used to be and what he never became. It no longer matters that former Manchester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson once said he would not swap him for Steven Gerrard. The £10m reported bid from Liverpool is irrelevant also. Johnson's story is one of unfulfilled talent and personal torment. In fact, it's not about his talent any longer, and the less he thinks what might have been the better. His focus is needed elsewhere. His 'fondness for a night out' was mentioned in almost every article written about him last week. Could this really have been an issue of mere ill-discipline? A photo was posted online of Johnson looking unfit and overweight, almost unrecognisable from his days in City's first team. Immediately, there was a need to make sense of the story.

The toxic mix of youth, money and fame was blamed in many circles. Trevor Brooking believes the 'too much too young' culture of English football has a negative impact on players and Joey Barton tweeted something similar last week. Players do earn a lot at a young age, but that is not what this story is about.

It was widely reported that City "conceded defeat" to his alcohol and gambling addictions. If Johnson has issues with addiction, it is not because he was well paid at a young age. It is not because he was a talented footballer and highly regarded. And it's not because he had a lot of time on his hands either.

Addiction is the result of a far more complex set of circumstances which are beyond the understanding of most people. Making sense of it is not what Johnson requires. Blaming his wealth is of no use to him either. As Eriksson said on Friday, "don't blame money on drinking alcohol. I don't think that's the problem."

In addition to all of that, Johnson will now require support in adjusting to life after football. Because of his age, his talent and his circumstances, he is unlikely to have done much preparing for another career. Most people on his wages wouldn't have seen the need. Most players with his talent expect a long career. Getting ready to re-enter the real world wouldn't begin for many years. All of this adds greatly to the loss.

It didn't help me to hear from other ex-players or the methods they used to deal with their retirement. The path out of professional football is a unique experience for every player and the level of distress it can cause varies too. I was certain I had no relevant or transferable skills and all my energy was focused on what I used to be but could no longer do. I felt terrified, heartbroken and alone.

Where Johnson was once heralded as a star with a bright England future, he will now see himself in very different terms. And so

too will everyone he meets. He will hear plenty of snide remarks

about wasted talent and spurned opportunities because the landscape has changed dramatically for him now. He will be treated very differently to when he was a highly-rated footballer, and how he deals with that may define where he goes from here.

Johnson's request to be left alone to live the rest of his life could well be granted. The football media will have no more interest in him, bar the occasional reference as a cautionary tale. Without the support of a club, a contract, the encouragement of team-mates or the daily routine of a training programme, Johnson's situation could deteriorate further. Dealing with the end of a lifelong dream that was once within your grasp is no walk in the park, but Johnson's challenge is far greater.

People in far worse positions have fully recovered, but acknowledging the full extent of their problems was the first step. If he is not at that point yet, it's a certainty he has further still to fall.

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